12 Years a Slave: A Memoir, Film, and Glimpse into the Lives of the Enslaved
12 Years a Slave is a film adaptation of a slave memoir of the same name written in 1853 by a man named Solomon Northup. Solomon Northup was a free African American musician from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He then spent the next 12 years of his life as a cotton field laborer in the south. In order to avoid harsh beatings and even death, Northup had to resist speaking up as a free man and assume the status forced upon him, that he was a fugitive slave from Georgia. Throughout the film, Northup labors at different plantations and experiences a life so different from that which he knew in Saratoga, New York with his wife and children (Northup). Northup is forced to experience the mistreatment of enslaved African Americans first-hand and recounts the brutality and complexity of the mistreatment of enslaved women.
This film does a magnificent job of delving into the power dynamics of sex, something extremely predominant to African American history, as witnessed by Solomon Northup. Enslaved women were subject to not only the physical violence commonly portrayed in film and media but sexual and emotional abuse. In the film, slave master Epps relentlessly demonstrates his power over a female slave, Patsey, “…the brutalized sex slave of her sadistic master (Stevenson).”, by aggressively forcing himself upon her without any shame or remorse. In taking control of her body in such an intimate manner, Epps is not only demonstrating that he has complete power over her, but that she has no right or ownership of herself. This lack of bodily autonomy is psychologically debilitating in many ways. Enslaved women who were raped and sexually abused not only lived in constant fear of physical abuse but in fear of the psychological and emotional harm that comes with having one’s own body dominated in such an animalistic and inhuman manner. When attacked, it is the innate nature of human beings to respond in such a manner and fight back in whatever way necessary; however, such a response could lead to much worse circumstances, thus creating a human who is submissive above all else and is existing where they have no right to their body, their sexuality, or physical sexual pleasure.
In other cases, enslaved women felt that their bodies could be used as bargaining chips in their favor and that their endurance of sexual abuse could be of benefit to themselves and/or their families. In Northup’s memoir, he recounts that one enslaved woman, “had believed that her sexual relationship with her owner could protect her and her family since he had promised to free all of them. Instead, she and her children were sold separately, and she never saw them, again (Stevenson).” This adds a layer of depth to the atrocity of the sexual and emotional abuse faced by enslaved women and solidifies the absolute power that slave-holding men had over enslaved women. There was no punishment for such lies and trickery, nor was there anything that this mother could have done. She suffered through sexual assault with the understanding that this would guarantee the freedom of her and her children, only to be ripped away from them and sold yet again. Not only was she physically exploited, but the emotional torment she faced is something pivotal to understanding African American women’s history and the true strength of our nation’s earliest women.
On the contrary, an unnamed enslaved woman is seen at the beginning of the film pleasuring herself with the hand of Northup. Although not in the original memoir of Solomon Northup, this scene is an intense portrayal of the desire and need felt by enslaved women to have power over their sexuality and their bodies (12). In engaging in this act, she is claiming her body, her sexuality, and pleasure as her own. As the woman climaxes her peace turns to tears and she is brought back to the reality of her life, leaving this state of control where she is in charge of how she feels and what is done to her body, back to the reality that she is owned by another human who has the ability to do whatever he chooses to her. Briefly, that control parallels liberation. It is shocking to see this image, that something seemingly minute could be the only sense of freedom and enjoyable physical sensation that a black woman feels. Because the enslaved had such minimal control over their lives and their bodies, whatever they could claim as their own was immensely important, giving them a sense of self and a sense of ownership (White).
Because enslaved women were so frequently raped, impregnated, and sexually exploited in other ways by the slaveholding male heads of households, there were often violent relationships formed between these women and the wives of slave-owners. In her journal article titled 12 Years a Slave: Narrative, History and Film, author Brenda E. Stevenson credits this film as being an “accurate portrayal of frustration, violence, and cruelty of slave mistresses, particularly those jealous of their husbands’ slave concubine.” In the film this toxic relationship is one between Epps’ wife and Patsey. After suffering the sexual abuse from Epps, Patsey is subject to extreme humiliation at the hand of his wife, the motivator being jealousy due to Epps’ extreme interest in the enslaved woman. The interest was not reciprocated; however, due to the lack of power in her relationship with her husband, Epps’ wife turns to retaliation against the enslaved woman, whom she has dominance over, as opposed to her husband (12). There are many layers to the emotional trauma endured by enslaved women due to their use as sexual pawns and this film does a great job of exploring how power dynamics of relationships worked against the enslaved and in particular enslaved women. Enslaved women were punished for denying their masters, but also often punished by their masters’ wives for doing the opposite, leaving them in a lose-lose situation with their bodies and minds taking the punishment.
One thing portrayed by this film that stuck with me is the true cruelty of the emotional abuse faced by the enslaved. Slavemaster Edwin Epps and his wife inflict not only extreme physical pain on the laborers on their plantation but psychologically torment them. These people are, for the most part, maliciously violent, and leave their laborers to live in a constant state of fear and anxiety wondering not if, but when they and their friends and families will be abused (12). In addition to this, men, women, and children alike all feared for not only their own safety but for the health and well-being of those whom they loved and cared for. Not only did parents fear for their own children, but often the enslaved cared for the children of their owners as deeply (White). A largely overlooked contributor to the emotional trauma faced by enslaved mothers and caretakers is the abuse from the white children whom they helped raise. Because they were raised in a society condoning slavery, many of these children grew up to abuse the enslaved in the same way that their parents did and had the belief that the enslaved were less-than and were not to be treated as equal human beings. Despite their maternal roles and attachments, enslaved women were not respected as maternal figures.
The film adaptation of a direct account of the atrocity that is slavery, 12 Years a Salve, portrays a plethora of injustices faced by the African American population in the south in the 1840s. Despite the film and memoir being from the experience of a man, 12 Years a Slave offers great insight into specific issues faced by enslaved women and the implications and effects of these.
Stevenson, Brenda E. “12 YEARS A SLAVE: NARRATIVE, HISTORY, AND FILM.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 99, no. 1-2, 2014, pp. 106–118. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5323/jafriamerhist.99.1-2.0106. Accessed 11 May 2020.
Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana. New York: Race Point Publishing, 2018. Print.
12 Years a Slave. Regency Productions, 2013. Film.
White, Deborah G., Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2017. Print.