Monday March 3, 2014
Anyone who loves history had to be thrilled to see "12 Years a Slave" win the best picture Oscar last night. It's an astounding and challenging film about a subject many people would choose to avoid. So it's especially gratifying to see it being appreciated so widely.
The story of Solomon Northup had been overlooked for many decades, but winning the Oscar puts it into the cultural mainstream. And it ensures that his memoir, which startled Americans in 1853, will never be forgotten.
And, of course, Oscars awarded to Lupita Nyong'o for playing Patsey and to screenwriter John Ridley for adapting Solomon Northup's memoir are also worth celebrating. Ms. Nyong'o's portrayal of a tragic character was riveting. And John Ridley's respect for Solomon Northup as a man and a writer has been evident in interviews and acceptance speeches he has made during Oscar season.
It's easy to laugh at the frivolity surrounding Oscar night. But the success of "12 Years a Slave" means that other worthy stories which may have been overlooked might someday gain wide recognition. And that alone is something we should all welcome.
And, of course, the Oscar win means the film will be seen by many more people. It comes out on DVD this week, and it will likely be watched for many years.
If you haven't seen the film yet, I would recommend it. It is disturbing, of course. It would have to be. There are not many acts of violence in it compared to most movies. But the violence is palpable, brutal acts committed to characters we care about. Hard to watch, yes. But perhaps some things should be witnessed.
I recall that last year I was paying attention to the Oscars because "Lincoln" was nominated. And I was especially disappointed that Tommy Lee Jones didn't win an Oscar for his amazing portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens.
Last night the Oscar news was much better. And I must say, I could get used to caring about a Hollywood awards show every year because some awesome history has been thoughtfully portrayed.
Photograph: Director Steve McQueen holding the Oscar for Best Picture/Getty Images
Sunday March 2, 2014
When Solomon Northup
published his memoir Twelve Years a Slave
in 1853 he fully expected to be called a propagandist and a liar. Newspapers in the slave states routinely accused northerners of fabricating accounts of brutal slave owners.
A year earlier, Harriet Beecher Stowe had published Uncle Tom's Cabin. The novel had been astoundingly popular, and it provoked a backlash. Stowe responded quickly by publishing a second book, The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a compendium of true stories which had inspired incidents in the novel.
Northup included pages at the end of his memoir quoting the legal documents which had secured his freedom. And his subsequent fight for justice was mentioned at times in newspaper accounts.
The New York Times published an extensive story on January 20, 1853, about his initial attempt to hold a Washington, D.C., slave broker accountable. Northup was thwarted, as a black man was not allowed to testify in the local courts.
In New York State, the two men who had brought Northup to Washington and arranged his kidnapping were tracked down and arrested in 1854. Efforts to prosecute them met a number of obstacles, however, and the case against them was finally dropped three years later.
According to an 1857 newspaper story, Northup had to abandon his search for justice after the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which said African Americans were not citizens and did not have the right to sue in court.
Northup never received justice in the legal system. But perhaps he gained some measure of satisfaction speaking out and participating in the abolitionist movement in the decade before the Civil War.
This week in Newspaper Sunday we look at mentions of Solomon Northup in news stories from the 1850s.
Note: the links below lead to excerpts from articles at the Chronicling America archive at the Library of Congress. You can click the "persistent link" on the excerpt page to view the entire page of the newspaper.
- Vermont Watchman and State Journal, February 10, 1853: A New England newspaper reprinted the lengthy New York Times article about Northup's case in the Washington courts. (Note: His name was often misspelled in newspaper accounts.)
- Anti-Slavery Bugle, June 18, 1853: A abolitionist newspaper carried a story from a New York paper about a visit to the Washington, D.C., slave pen where Solomon Northup's descent into slavery began.
- Richmond Daily Dispatch, July 12, 1854: One of the men who arranged Northup's kidnapping was tracked down and arrested in New York State.
- Richmond Daily Dispatch, July 14, 1854: A news item about the legal case in New York proceeding against the two men who had kidnapped Solomon Northup.
- Der Lecha Patriot, July 19, 1854: Even a German language newspaper in Pennsylvania covered the Northup case.
- The Anti-Slavery Bugle, July 22, 1854: The abolitionist press followed the initial legal moves in New York State closely.
- Holmes County Republican, August 27, 1857: Four years after gaining his freedom, an Ohio newspaper reported that Northup had been prevented from speaking in Canada by an angry mob.
- Fayetteville, Observer, September 10, 1857: The incident in Canada was also mentioned in a Tennessee newspaper.
- The Anti-Slavery Bugle, September 19, 1857: The end of Northup's search for justice was explained by an abolitionist newspaper: "since the Dred Scott decision he has been obliged to abandon all hope of bringing them to justice, because he cannot sue in the United States courts."
Illustration: Solomon Northup being whipped in a Washington slave jail, as depicted in the 1853 edition of Twelve Years a Slave/courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections
Monday February 24, 2014
Just outside the city of Washington, on the afternoon of February 24, 1838, two members of the House of Representatives fought a duel
. A rising young politician from Maine was killed.
The reasons behind the shocking incident were murky. And it was suspected in the North that the victim, Jonathan Cilley, had been set up by crafty political antagonists from the South and West.
In his short time on Capitol Hill, Cilley had shown a willingness to aggressively challenge southern politicians. And his friends in the North, including his college classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne, would always believe Cilley had been a martyr to the regional conflicts which would deepen and eventually split the nation.
Henry Clay, one of the most powerful men in America, was widely suspected to have played a malicious role in arranging the violence. His connection to the duel would emerge as a political issue when he later ran for president.
The congressional colleague who fatally shot Cilley, William Graves, had chosen to use rifles in the duel. The Kentuckian was proficient with a rifle. Cilley was not.
The men missed each other entirely during the first round of shots. And they missed again in a second round. Graves then contended he had not gotten "satisfaction" for some perceived slight. On a third round of shooting he struck his target.
Cilley was hit in the leg. An artery was ripped open and he bled to death within minutes.
A few days later, on February 27, 1838, a funeral for Cilley was held in the U.S. Capitol. The nation was shocked by the incident, and it was never entirely forgotten. Henry Clay's connection to the duel became an issue in 1844, when he ran for president, and lost.
And people would wonder for decades whether the death of the promising politician from Maine was simply a peculiar misunderstanding that somehow got out of hand or part of a calculated and ruthless political strategy.
Full story: The Fatal Duel Between Congressmen
Illustration: Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Maine/Library of Congress
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Sunday February 9, 2014
A man who was kidnapped into slavery and wrote a startling memoir about his experience shared in the win of a prestigious screenwriting award last night. As the Scripter Award, bestowed by the USC Libraries, honors both the author of the screenplay and the author of the source material, Solomon Northup
, whose book was written after he secured his freedom in 1853, shares the award for "12 Years a Slave" with screenwriter John Ridley.
Accepting the award at a formal event held at USC's Doheny Library in Los Angeles, Ridley gave an emotional acceptance speech.
"Until I read Solomon's memoir, I didn't know what being a writer was all about," Ridley said. "The way that Solomon wrote, the clarity with which he wrote, and more importantly, the strength of his character, what he went through without bitterness, without hate, that really taught me something."
Struggling to hold back tears at times, Ridley also acknowledged descendants of Northup who were in attendance at the dinner.
Ridley's work has been nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, and "12 Years a Slave" has been nominated in nine Oscar categories.
Solomon Northup had been kidnapped into slavery in 1841, and was finally freed in January 1853. His book Twelve Years a Slave was published later that year. (The book title used the word "Twelve" while the film title uses numerals.)
Arriving in the hands of the public a year after Uncle Tom's Cabin, Northup's book was bound to be controversial. Northup obviously knew his story would be questioned and even denounced by the defenders of slavery. To establish that his story was not fiction, the final few dozen pages of his book contained the legal documents related to his case.
Northup died in obscurity. But it's heartening to know that his story lives on. And, in a remarkable occurrence, he was able to share a prestigious award of the film community 161 years and one month after he was freed from horrific servitude on a Louisiana sugar plantation.
Read onward: The Real History of Solomon Northup
Photograph: Screenwriter John Ridley arriving at the Scripter Award ceremony, February 8, 2014/Getty Images
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