He had a wife, Anne, and three children, Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. Together they operated a small farm in the town of Hebron in Washington County.
In 1841, Northup was kidnapped by slavers operating out of Washington DC.
He was drugged and transported to Louisiana, where he was sold in the way that livestock is sold to a series of plantation owners.
He lost twelve years of his life to America’s “peculiar” institution.
A movie is set to be released soon, telling Northup’s story — the story of a North Country man caught up in an evil system that was enshrined at the heart of the American experiment.
(Check out the trailer for the film at the bottom of this post.)
This very local tale comes at a time when more of us are being forced to confront our nation’s long, shameful embrace of racism. President Barack Obama spoke about this tension in the context of the shooting of Trayvon Martin this week.
“I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” Obama said.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.
There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
This is a conversation a lot of Americans just don’t want to have. Which is understandable. We are a proud people, convinced of the honor and wisdom of our Founding Fathers, devoted to the ideals that have been passed down to us.
But for many decades, we have resisted confronting honestly — and working to cure — the canker that remains at the heart of our republican experiment.
So let’s speak bluntly for a moment about what we did as a people and who we are today, the links that bind Solomon Northup to Trayvon Martin.
Through the first four centuries that Europeans were establishing a foothold in North America, we exterminated many of the human beings who lived here before us.
In many instances, we did so deliberately and with calculation, eliminating whole civilizations because we believed that the native Americans who occupied this continent were, at best, inconvenient and, at worst, a kind of dangerous vermin.
During this long, dark chapter, our forefathers — including the men who founded our nation — enriched themselves through the industrial ownership of other human beings.
Ours was a society that used the most evil imaginable tools in order to create a significant part of our wealth — a system of mass-kidnapping, rape, torture, eugenics, and bureacratized murder.
It’s important to confront the fact that this system wasn’t merely limited to slave-traders and plantation owners, no more than the German system in the 1930s and 1940s was limited to Nazi party officials and SS troopers.
The policies that produced slavery and genocide in America were the product of a much larger matrix of interests, from bankers to politicians to merchant traders to small farm owners.
We began the process of extracting ourselves from this dark tradition with the Civil War, but the deep system of racial hatred and violence was perpetuated through much of our modern history.
Jim Crow laws, public lynchings, KKK terror, deliberate (and successful) efforts to disenfranchise black voters, and widespread denial of access of blacks to the nation’s shared public wealth — these all continued into the mid-1960s.
Even today, many of us instinctively and reflexively view blacks as inferior, as problematic, as criminal, as lazy, as dangerous.
This prejudice colors who we are willing to hire. It colors who the police stop on the street at night. It colors who we put in prison. It colors who George Zimmerman feared and stalked and killed.
We have, of course, made great strides. The Civil Rights era produced remarkable gains. There is, at long last, a black middle class in America. Blacks take part in our political culture in robust ways. We have a black President, a black Attorney General.
What we have never had is a proper national discussion of this stain on our history and our honor. We have never reached any kind of national consensus on how to atone and how to heal.
There was never the equivalent of Germany’s Nuremberg trials, or South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process.
In much of conservative white America, there is deep ambivalence about revisiting this history.
The same community that talks with passion about preserving the traditions, values, and history of the “real” America, regards any discussion of race, any acknowledgment of shared guilt, as liberal hand-wringing.
Conservatives point to the terrible struggles within the black community — with crime, poverty, broken families and drug addiction — but want no part of connecting those horrors to our own centuries-long exploitation.
Many white liberals, meanwhile, believe that future discussions should involve class and the struggles of poor people generally — not merely focusing on black America. A rising tide lifts all boats.
I think this misses the mark. It’s not merely about money or economic progress. When an honorable people does wrong — and we, as a people, committed a long, dark atrocity — they must be honest, they must be humble, and they must atone.
It’s time for us to talk not just about Trayvon Martin, but also about Solomon Northup, and the long chain of black men and women that connect them.
It’s time to talk honestly about the privileges and wealth that white Americans — even white Americans of modest means — enjoy because of our forefathers’ complicity. It’s time to talk bluntly about our own fears, our own prejudices.
It’s time to acknowledge that much of our dislike of black America stems not from traditional racism, and a feeling of superiority.
Instead, it grows from that quiet nagging voice — the voice of our better angels — that tells us we have done a deep wrong and failed to put it right.
It’s time to to ask what would we expect of our government and from the wider community, if our people had been enslaved and cheated and humiliated in such a grievous fashion.
It is, of course, too late for us to welcome Solomon Northup home. Too late to make sure that some justice is restored to him and his wife Anne and their children. Too late to gather on his farm in Washington County and pay our humble respects.
It’s too late to save Trayvon Martin and restore to him the life and opportunity that any seventeen-year-old American boy should have.
But it’s not too late to think through ways that we might break this terrible chain that still burdens us as a people, black and white.