Sunday, May 01, 2016

12 Years a Slave and other Books Written by Former Slaves

One of the things I enjoy about having a Kindle are the number of books you can download for free.  Of course, the quality of some of them isn't that great, but there are a lot of classics for free.  And I've discovered that at certain times of year books will be free for a limited amount of time.  Several times in February I've discovered free books for Black History Month.  Last February I downloaded one called 12 Years a Slave.  It turned out to be a compilation of five biographies of former slaves plus Uncle Tom's Cabin.  I actually didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin since I've read it in the past, but the five biographies were a real gold mine.  I'll consider them five separate books since they are also available individually.

12 Years a Slave is by Solomon Northup.  He was actually a free man living in New York State.  He and his wife owned a farm, and they also worked at a hotel to earn extra income.  Solomon was an expert fiddler and he was led to believe that he could get good money by traveling with a circus as a fiddler.  Long story short, he was turned over to slave traders, was kidnapped, and was taken to Louisiana where he served for 12 years as a slave.  I'll not tell you how he eventually got free, but it's a pretty amazing story.  Of the five books, this one probably most graphically describes the brutality of masters and overseers towards their slaves.




Frederick Douglass was the author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  The thing that really stood out to me in this book is that he was owned by a family with a young woman who had just married into the family and who had never owned slaves before.  She innocently started to teach him to read.  When Frederick heard her being told off by her husband for doing that and realized the fear he had about slaves being able to read, he realized that was his way to be empowered.  He had had just enough lessons with her to be able to, with a lot of hard work, teach himself to read.  Once he gained his freedom, he became a well-known speaker.

In The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, the story is told of a man who could have just walked into Ohio at one point, but didn't because he was on an errand for his master, whose confidence he had worked hard to gain even though he had no respect for his master.  Being a man of principle who followed his convictions instead of his heart, meant that he had to make some very difficult decisions.  He eventually bought his freedom, but was tricked out of that.  He eventually ran away with his wife and children.  Mr. Henson relates his conversion experience and how he became a preacher even though he could not read or write until late in life.  He became a "motivational speaker" among other former slaves in Canada to encourage them in better farming methods and farm management so that they could live more independently.  It is said that Harriet Beacher Stowe loosely based the character of Uncle Tom on Josiah Henson.

The fourth book was called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.  This book is quite different from the others.  For one thing, her grandmother was free and she herself was given quite a bit of freedom to visit her grandmother.  It is also different in that it was written by a woman ... but that's obvious.  Her story is mostly how her master (she was actually owned by a young girl, so the master is her owner's father) who was a dirty old man who wanted her to have an affair with him which she steadfastly refused to do.  In an effort to escape his advances, she had children by another white man, went into hiding in an attic crawl space for seven years, escapes to the North, but even there has to be constantly on guard and on the lookout for her master.

And, last but not least, one that you've probably all heard of:  Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington.  Mr. Washington was a child during the Civil War and remembers the day the Emancipation Proclamation was read.  Though his family were now free, life did not suddenly become easy.  He worked for his step-father in the salt mines, but longed to be able to go to school.  He eventually did get to go to school and went on to establish the Tuskegee Institute, which not only provided a book education for black adults, it also taught each student a trade.  His example of training the entire person, not just the intellect, is a model that we would do well to follow today!

Each story was very different from the other, but one thing that each book, each author, had in common, was a strong faith in God.  Aside from Booker T. Washington who was freed in childhood, the others all stood up to their masters at one point; several even beat up overseers because they just couldn't take any more.  I think that each of them had a strength of character that was outstanding and that kept then pushing on for something better in spite of all the hardships they faced.

If you've never read any of these books, please take the time to find one at a bookstore or to download one on your Kindle.  I think the two I'd recommend the most if you don't want to get all five, would be 12 Years A Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  All Americans should know what slavery was really like to better understand the greater picture of race relations today.

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