LEARNING GUIDE TO:
12 Years a Slave
SUBJECTS —U.S./1812 - 1865; Literature/U.S. (Slave Narrative);Age: 15+; MPAA Rating -- R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality; Drama; 2013, 2 hrs. 14 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Note to Teachers: While TWM has created a useful Learning Guide for this film, it is very long for classroom use. As an alternative, teachers can assign the film for viewing at home and require students to fill out TWM's Movie Worksheet for 12 Years a Slave. Reviewing responses to the worksheet can be a classroom activity. Watching the film at home can be supplemented with a shorter documentary, Unchained Memories (one hour, 15 minutes) in which actors read from interviews with the last generation of former slaves.
Description: This movie is a cinematic representation of the best selling slave narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. The film shows the life of a slave in the American South primarily on two plantations: one governed by a relatively benevolent master and the other subject to a brutal tyrant. They also expose the particularly hard lot of slave women and the operation of the slave trade. The movie is an excellent resource for 12th grade and college classes in U.S. History and for ELA units on the slave narrative genre.
Rationale: It is important for students to understand the brutality and thoroughness of slavery as practiced in the American South and which was eradicated only a brutal and bloody civil war. It is also helpful for students to understand the world-wide dimensions of slavery, the current status of slavery, and to read at least parts of a slave narrative, the first genre of African-American literature.
Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will have a vivid understanding of the lives endured by slaves in the American South. Students will be introduced to slavery as a world-wide phenomenon that has existed for millennia and which continues to exist. Students will be introduced to the slave narrative, the first genre of African-American literature.
LESSON PLAN MENU
Citations in this Learning Guide are to the Enhanced Edition published by Eakin Films & Publishing. Citations to the slave narrative itself are referred to as "Northup". Citations to Professor Eakin's notes and supplemental materials, beginning at page 198 are referred to as "Eakin".
Consider distributing and having students review, TWM's Movie Worksheet for 12 Years a Slave. Modify the worksheet as appropriate.
Relate the following information to students to give them a better understanding of the movie.
The terms "paddy" and "pattyrollers" or "paddy rollers" were names given by slaves to patrols of whites who were paid to be on the lookout for fugitive slaves and to hunt down runaways. Paddy's were armed and often brutal.
The culture of the people living in what is now the U.S. has been a slave culture or has tolerated slavery from 1619 when the first slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia until 1865. That is a period of 245 years, almost a century longer than the period since slavery has been abolished. Slavery was so intertwined with the culture of the American South that it took the bloodiest war in U.S. history to make it illegal. Even then substantial portions of the slave society survived for another hundred years in Jim Crow laws and customs. The country is still not completely free of the racism that aided and abetted slavery.
Solomon Northup's book Twelve Years a Slave is one of the most important examples of a genre of American literature called the slave narrative. In fact, African-American literature in the U.S. begins with the slave narrative, most of which were told to white abolitionist ghost writers after slave had escaped from the South. Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave became a best-seller in 1853 and then a major motion picture 160 years later.
Tell students the following: (1) It's time to test your historical instincts. (2) The movie is reasonably historically accurate except for a few scenes. (3) As you watch the film, look for these scenes. After watching the movie, there will be a class discussion in which you may be asked to identify an inaccurate scene or set of scenes.
Note to Teachers: The heart of this exercise is the discussion after the film. Teachers can prepare for this discussion in about five minutes by reviewing the highlighted sections of TWM's Essay on Historical Accuracy.
Question for discussion: Identify a scene that you thought was not historically accurate and tell us why. [Allow students to debate the choices. Ask the question of various students until all the different opinions have been expressed.]
Writing prompt: List three scenes in the film that you thought were not historically accurate and describe the reasons for your opinion.
Suggested Responses: There are three substantial inaccuracies in the film: (a) the set of scenes before the kidnapping showing Northup as a prosperous individual fully accepted by white society; (b) the scene in which a lone sailor comes into the hold of the Orleans to take Eliza up to the deck and then knifes a slave who tries to protect her; and (c) Mistress Shaw giving Patsey tea.
There are no specifically correct answers to the questions about why the filmmakers chose to include these obviously incorrect scenes. A good discussion will raise the following issues.
As to the first scenes of the wealth and acceptance of Solomon Northup, one possible explanation is that the people who made the movie wanted to draw a contrast between the life that free blacks lived in the North and the life they lived as slaves in the South. A second possible reason is that the filmmakers didn't want to alienate their audience by showing that blacks were discriminated against in the North before the Civil War and did not have equal rights. Another possibility is that the filmmakers wanted generally affluent filmgoers to be able to identify with the character of Solomon Northup. Whatever the reason, the filmmakers vastly underestimated their audience. Scenes showing Northup having a poor and struggling but intact family in New York would have been more accurate historically and also true to the tale told in Northup's slave narrative. Properly presented, it would still have provided a stark contrast to Northup's life as a slave in which families were routinely broken up and family values were routinely ignored by most slave masters.
Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published in 1852, a year before Northup's Twelve Years a Slave. The novel was one of the most popular books ever published and historians say that it was an important factor in turning the North against any expansion of slavery into the Western Territories. Twelve Years a Slave was published the next year and confirmed the indictment of slavery contained in Stowe's novel. The connection between the two books was not lost on the Northern Press. Eakin, pp. 262 - 265.
Twelve Years a Slave was ghost written for Northup by David Wilson, a lawyer/author. Wilson wrote the book and had it published in a period of three months. a very short period of time. He was spurred on by attorney Henry Northup, the family friend who went to Louisiana to free Solomon. Attorney Northup "figured that information from the forthcoming book would reach readers who could and would identify the kidnappers. Attorney Northup was correct." Eakin p. 263 at note 3. While the kidnapers were found and prosecuted, they were not convicted because the proceedings were delayed by appeals and before the case could come to trial, Solomon Northup had disappeared again, this time for good. No one knows what happened to him or how he died.
People are still kidnapped and sold into slavery all over the world. Most current-day slavery in the U.S. is sexual slavery in which girls and young women are forced to be prostitutes.
Grave Suspicions about the Death of Solomon Northup: After he returned to freedom, Northup gave lectures to spur sales of his book, assisted in the Underground Railroad, and addressed abolitionist rallies.
He also pursued the criminal prosecution of the kidnappers who claimed that they hadn't kidnapped Northup at all, but that it was a scheme that he had participated in to cheat Burch out of the money he paid to the kidnappers. They claimed to have done this before with a free black man from the North. Northup steadfastly denied this charge. Eakin pp. 215 & 216.
The criminal prosecution of the kidnappers ended when, after many years of delays in the Court proceedings, Northup disappeared and the case was dropped. Eakin pp. 210 - 214. Many who knew Solomon Northup believed that he was murdered by his kidnappers or kidnapped again and sold into slavery a second time.
The following is from the ending of Dr. Eakin's study of Solomon Northup's life at pages 217 & 217:
John Henry Northup, born in Sandy Hill [New York] in 1822, a nephew of Henry Northup, was well acquainted with both Solomon and Henry Northup. [He would have been 19 at the time of the kidnapping and 31 when Solomon Northup returned to New York.] He wrote his version of the story in 1909 in a letter to his cousin . . . who recounted it:
Teachers may want to provide students with the following handouts prepared by TWM. (1) The Slave Narrative as Literature and (2) Slavery: A World-Wide View, Then and Now (placing American slavery into a global and historical context). As to the latter TWM has prepared a homework assignment to test comprehension of the materials in the essay.
After students have seen the movie, turn their minds back to the written slave narratives by having them read all or a portion of Northup's Twelve years a Slave (see assignments 1, 3 & 4 below) or by having them read all or a portion or another slave narrative, such as Frederick Douglass' The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Set out below are several excerpts and one abridgment of slave narratives prepared by TWM for shorter student reading assignments.
Excerpts, summaries and abridgments of several written slave narratives are listed in the Assignments Section below.
Click here for interesting quotes from the film at the Internet Movie Database. The entire script can be found at Internet Movie Script Database.
Slavery: the Nation's "Peculiar Institution": While most people think of slavery as the South's "peculiar institution", in this lesson plan we refer to it as the nation's "peculiar institution". The reason for this is that the cotton industry and the Southern slave economy brought benefits to many parts of the nation. Many New England fortunes had been built on the slave trade. The Northern fabric industry was based on cheap, slave-raised cotton. During the Civil War, the mayor of New York, Fernando Wood who is portrayed in the movie Lincoln as a strong defender of slavery, advocated secession from the United States by the City of New York and alignment with the Confederacy in order to preserve New York's economic ties to the Southern slave power.
A Great Lincoln Saying
"When I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally." Abraham Lincoln to an Indiana Regiment passing through Washington, March 17, 1865 (29 days before he was assassinated). Introduction to the Mr. Lincoln and Freedom Website.
After watching the film, teachers can engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. Have the class read the following excerpt from pages 48 & 49 of Northup's book. Then ask the class to evaluate the character of William Ford.
Our master's name was William Ford. He resided then in the "Great Pine Woods," in the parish of Avoyelles, situated on the right bank of Red River, in the heart of Louisiana. He is now a Baptist preacher. Throughout the whole parish of Avoyelles, and especially along both shores of Bayou Boeuf, where he is more intimately known, he is accounted by his fellow-citizens as a worthy minister of God. In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.Suggested Response: Make sure that all sides are represented. If there is consensus in the class for one side or the other, the teacher should make the contrary argument.
2. What factors both within Northup and in his situation allowed him to survive the ordeal of being kidnaped and enslaved? Suggested Response: They include: a) Tremendous patience and perseverance. Northup waited years for opportunities to attempt to regain his freedom. During the interim periods he kept silent about his kidnapping and his right to be free. b) While the kidnapping was very bad luck, there were many instances in which Northup had good luck. These included: (1) encountering Mr. Bass — people like Bass were hard to come by in the South because the Slave Power didn't generally allow dissent and abolitionists were expelled or lynched; (2) having a friend in the North like Henry Northup who had the capacity and willingness to secure Solomon Northup's liberation; and (3) the way in which Henry Northup found Bass before Bass left the state. c) The ability to make Epps believe that Armsby was lying about the letter. d) The fact that the U.S. is a nation of laws in which the State of Louisiana would honor an order from the governor of the State of New York which caused a substantial financial loss to a Louisiana citizen.
3. During WW II the Germans established slave labor camps that were strikingly similar to plantations in the Southern U.S. The Germans imprisoned Jews, Poles, Russians, political dissidents and other people, fed them very little, and compelled them to work hard — all without pay. In the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials the U.S. accused some of the managers of those camps with crimes against humanity. This occurred just 80 years after the slaves on the last Southern Plantation were set free. What does this juxtaposition of facts indicate to you? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response. Some good ideas are: (1) Human society has advanced in some important ways or, in other words, the arc of history bends toward justice. (2) Like other nations, unless the U.S. is careful, it can act in ways that are oppressive and wrong. George Washington said, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." — this applies to monitoring your own actions as well as to being vigilant to protect your country from others.
4. Describe some of the effects of slavery, as practiced in the American South, on the slave and on the slave owner that are exemplified by the characters in this movie. Suggested Response: The slaves lost their right to be free, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, sometimes to choose their spouses, to keep their families intact and see their children grow up, to choose their profession, and, for the women, to choose their sexual partners. The slave masters may have profited financially but they suffered personally becoming hypocrites (Mr. Ford), becoming callous to the suffering of others (all of the plantation owners and overseers, including the Fords, the Epps, Chapin and Tibbeats) or by becoming a torturer and abuser of their fellow human beings (Epps and Tibbeats).
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Additional Assignments to Turn Students Toward the Written Slave Narrative
These assignments will require students to read sections of Northup's book and give reports to the class or write short essays on some of the details in the book that are omitted from the movie. They can also be asked to evaluate whether various scenes accurately reflect what is set out in the book. This assignment will also enhance students' understanding of the history of slavery. Suggestions for assignments are:
2. Assignments for Research On Topics Relating to Solomon Northup
3. Students can be asked to create a drawing or write a poem about key scenes from the book. Instruct students to read the indicated pages of the book as they begin the assignment.
4. Write a work of historical fiction, either a screenplay or a short story, describing what happened when Attorney Henry Northup went to Louisiana to free Solomon Northup. You may add or delete scenes but keep your story primarily true to the historical narrative and make it exciting. There is the stuff of drama in this incident!@ Read Northup pp. 168 - 186 to get the information for this project.
5. Research the usual elements of a 19th century American slave narrative and write an essay describing how the story told by the movie conforms to or departs from those elements.
Kidnapping was a very real fear of free blacks in the North.
Very few kidnapped blacks were ever heard from again.
This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and first published on July 29, 2014.
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