12 Years a Slave centers on the twelve years of agony that author and protagonist Solomon Northup spent as a slave in Louisiana, completely cut off from his family. Although Solomon’s family appears very little throughout the narrative, family plays a key role in Solomon’s experiences. The narrative points out that the concept of family is broader than being related by blood or marriage. Instead, family encompasses those who show one another love, compassion, and loyalty, regardless of whether or not they are related. 12 Years a Slave also shows how even the mere thought of family can be a source of comfort and hope in times of bitter pain and distress. Likewise, family can provide a sense of purpose and a reason to live.
In the book, family is more than marriage and blood relatives—it’s the people who show each other unconditional love and loyalty. For example, the kindly carpenter named Bass has no family but forges a deep family-like connection with Solomon as the two spend many nights talking secretly. It’s Bass’s compassion and loyalty that lead to Solomon’s freedom. Likewise, Henry B. Northup, the lawyer who is also instrumental in securing Solomon’s freedom, proves himself a faithful friend by working on Solomon’s case for many months and traveling all the way from New York to Louisiana to rescue Solomon. Though Henry and Solomon share the same last name, they aren’t blood relatives—Henry is the grandnephew of the man who freed Solomon’s father—but the loyalty and unconditional love Henry shows Solomon makes them practically family. In addition, William Ford, Solomon’s first master, is so gentle, kindhearted, and empathetic, that his slaves speak of him like a father figure. For as long as he has the power to do so, Ford consistently shields Solomon from harm and treats him almost like a son.
The narrative illustrates how family, blood-related or otherwise, is a source of hope and comfort in times of sorrow. In the midst of his suffering as a slave, Solomon comforts himself by thinking of his kind, loving father who also endured life as a slave but was freed upon his master’s death: “How often since that time has the recollection of his paternal counsels occurred to me, while lying in a slave hut in the distant and sickly regions of Louisiana.” Similarly, Solomon reveals to Bass that he is sustained by the thought of one day being reunited with his family: “Dwelling upon the unspeakable happiness it would be to clasp them to my heart once more before I died.”
Family also provides a sense of purpose in one’s life. Lamenting over his miserable life as a slave, Solomon questions, “Why had I not died in my young years—before God had given me children to love and live for?” Solomon’s statement shows how his children added a whole new layer of purpose to his life—but also a new layer of pain, when that purpose is taken away. Likewise, Eliza, one of the slaves Solomon meets in Burch’s slave pen, is permanently separated from her children with no hope of a reunion, and she consequently withers into a shell of a person and later passes away out of grief. In contrast, Bass, having established a close, familial relationship with Solomon, makes Solomon’s release from slavery his life purpose: “without kith or kin to mourn for him, or to remember him…his life was of little value to himself, and henceforth should be devoted to the accomplishment of my liberty, and to an unceasing warfare against the accursed shame of Slavery.”
Family is instrumental in 12 Years a Slave, as it provides strength, comfort, and a reason to live. Solomon Northup’s purpose in recording his experiences in 12 Years a Slave is to reveal the horrors of slavery so that the readership will realize that slavery is unjust and repulsive and work to abolish it. One of the ways Northup achieves this is to gain the reader’s empathy, which is a common technique used in slave narratives. By revealing his deep, tender connection to his family, Northup appeals to the reader’s connection to their own family. Detailing the pain of being separated from one’s family—like Eliza’s grief-driven death after being separated from her children—Northup encourages the Northern reader to empathize deeply with slaves’ misery and to ultimately realize that slaves are human beings with thoughts, feelings, and families.
Family Quotes in 12 Years a Slave
Thus far the history of my life presents nothing whatever unusual—nothing but the common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure colored man, making his humble progress in the world […] Now I had approached within the shadow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear, thenceforward to be hidden from the eyes of all my kindred, and shut out from the sweet light of liberty, for many a weary year.
My cup of sorrow was full to overflowing. Then I lifted up my hands to God, and in the still watches of the night […] begged for mercy on the poor, forsaken captive. To the Almighty Father of us all—the freeman and the slave—I poured forth the supplications of a broken spirit, imploring strength from on high to bear up against the burden of my troubles […].
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 influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different.
It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in mature years.
He spoke of himself in a somewhat mournful tone, as a lonely man, a wanderer about the world—that he was growing old, and must soon reach the end of his earthly journey, and lie down to his final rest without kith or kin to mourn for him, or to remember him—that his life was of little value to himself, and henceforth should be devoted to the accomplishment of my liberty, and to an unceasing warfare against the accursed shame of Slavery.