Solomon Northup was just that. He spent part of his childhood on his dad’s farm in Minerva, in the Adirondacks.
He later owned his own farm in Washington County and helped build the Champlain canal that linked Lake Champlain with the Hudson River.
What made Northup famous, of course, was that he was a free black man who was kidnapped in the 1840s and transported into slavery for twelve long years.
“Twelve Years A Slave,” his account of that bitter sojourn, was one of the most important texts of the abolitionist movement, published just eight years before the outbreak of the Civil War.
The film version — not unlike “Roots” in 1977 — is nothing short of an essential account of the American experience.
When I say essential, I mean that every moral person who aims to take part in the civil life of our democracy should watch it.
The movie is, bluntly, a horror to endure. I saw it last night in Plattsburgh, not far from the shore of Lake Champlain. The film lays bare several essential truths about the original sin that has burdened our nation from the inception.
The Industry of Human Livestock
The first is the sheer genocidal brutality of American industrial slavery.
Germans are rightly burdened by their culpability in the Nazi atrocities of the 1940s. In like fashion, we own the moral legacy of a complex economic system that brutalized people of color for nearly three centuries.
By the time Solomon Northup was abducted, in the 1840s, the world was essentially modern place.
Slavery as an institution had been made a criminal enterprise in most of the civilized world for at least thirty years.
It was a felony act in Britain. Even Mexico had banned the barbaric practice.
Yet the United States continued to keep humans as livestock not as part of a quaint, rural backward custom, but as part of a vast and recognizably modern economic enterprise that involved banks, trading laws, shipping companies, mills, and stock exchanges.
The practice enriched white America at the blood price of generations of of wrecked lives.
The Ugly Dream of Antebellum America
The second revelation of this film is that since the Civil War we have systematically concealed from ourselves the depths of horror that our nation embraced.
With rare exceptions, we have trivialized, romanticized or simply ignored this fundamental stain.
“Twelve Years A Slave” goes a long way toward remedying this self-deception. We are forced to endure the spectacle of seeing a slave-pen operating in the shadow of America’s national capital.
We see families shattered, women raped, men treated like mules and dogs. We see the appalling use of important institutions — Christian faith, the rule of law, social custom — that helped perpetuate these outrages generation after generation.
Yes, slavery is different
The final essential truth that “12 Years A Slave” drives home is that slavery is different. It holds a unique and revolting place in our national experience.
It is not akin to the national debt, or welfare, or abortion. It is not a metaphor for some other political concern.
And it doesn’t stand proxy for other forms of victimization or persecution or insult (real or imagined) that Americans — particularly white Americans — may feel.
Just as the Jewish community has insisted and even demanded that the Holocaust be held apart in the human experience, the same must be done for the black experience of slavery in our national history.
Anything else serves to dilute the meaning of the crime and the burden that it places on us as Americans ever after.
Every American, naturally, gets to decide what the legacy of slavery means. We will naturally differ on what burden our history places upon us.
We will disagree over how practices today — from deep systemic poverty in the inner cities to our system of mass incarceration to racial profiling carried out by police to efforts at voter suppression in black precincts – are or are not connected to this blood-stained legacy.
We will debate what responsibility we have, now that slavery is abolished and Jim Crow is dismantled, to restore black Americans to something resembling full opportunity at equal dignity.
But I would argue without reservation that one step we should all share before continuing that discussion is to see this film, to endure its painful truths.
Through the eyes of this one North Country man, Solomon Northup, we can experience a little more of the history we all bear, as we continue to wrangle over the future we hope to create.