12 Years a Slave grapples with the racism that fuels slavery and Solomon Northup’s suffering. The narrative illustrates how racism is an instrument for human wickedness—a justification for a slave owner to be unrelenting, cruel, and inhumane. 12 Years a Slave clearly points out that racism is a learned behavior, not an inherent understanding that people are born with. The overarching purpose of 12 Years a Slave is to reveal the heartbreaking realities of slavery for the sake of strengthening anti-slavery attitudes and furthering the Abolitionist Movement, so Northup’s assertion that racism is manmade and a means for human brutality ties neatly into this purpose. Drawing upon his own Christian faith, he also highlights that racism, rooted in wickedness and human sin, is punishable by God. Since the Abolitionist Movement was strengthened by the Second Great Awakening—a Protestant revivalist movement that renewed Christians’ commitment to turning away from sin and living godly lives—Northup’s condemnation of racism as being a sin punishable by God appeals to the moral compass of his Northern readers.
12 Years a Slave illustrates how racism is a vehicle for human wickedness. Solomon highlights that sometimes, racism doesn’t even seem to be about skin color as much as its about slave owners feeling justified in their cruelty. Solomon and Bass make several references to slaves who look entirely white, or slave owners whose skin is as dark as their slaves. For example, when Solomon is initially being sold into slavery by slave dealer James Burch, he notices that one of the most famous slave dealers, Goodin, has “a complexion almost as dark as some of his own negros.” Later, while serving the vicious Edwin Epps, Solomon meets a runaway slave named Celeste, who is “far whiter than her owner, or any of his offspring.” Bass, the Canadian carpenter who eventually helps save Solomon, voices a similar sentiment, saying to Epps, “Talk about black skin, and black blood; why, how many slaves are there on this bayou as white as either of us? And what difference is there in the color of the soul? Pshaw! The whole system is absurd as it is cruel.”
Though the racist system is absurd, it is the dominant worldview of Southern society at the time, and the evil it leads to is shown most clearly in the character of Epps. Epps uses his slaves as a means to satisfy his own craving for violence and sadistic entertainment. When Epps comes home drunk, he first breaks whatever he can find in his own house. “When satisfied with his amusement in the house,” he turns his violence upon the slaves, forcing them to run around in the yard in the middle of the night to avoid the painful sting of his whip for the sake of his “brutal humor.” Other times, the drunken Epps forces the slaves to get up in the middle of the night and dance to the quick tunes played on Solomon’s fiddle. If the slaves dance too slowly (despite their crippling exhaustion), he whips them. Solomon spells out the dark irony in the situation, writing, “Bent with excessive toil…feeling rather as if we could cast ourselves upon the earth and weep, many a night in the house of Edwin Epps have his unhappy slaves been made to dance and laugh.”
Besides being used to justify human barbarity, the books makes clear that racism is a learned behavior. Epps’ ten-year-old son, Young Master Epps, mirrors how he sees his father treat the slaves. As a game, Epps’ son pretends he’s the overseer and rides out into the fields to brutally whip the slaves, “greatly to his father’s delight.” Because of his father’s influence, Epps’ son sees “the black man simply as an animal, differing in no respect from any other animal, save in the gift of speech and the possession of somewhat higher instincts, and therefore, the more valuable.” Later, Epps himself echoes this understanding of slaves as animals. When Bass rhetorically asks Epps what the difference is between a white man and a black man (believing that there is none), Epps replies, “All the difference in the world…You might as well ask what the difference is between a white man and a baboon.” Considering the impact Epps’ beliefs and behavior have on his son, it’s likely that Epps also learned his beliefs and behavior from his own father or other influential people in his life. Solomon also points out how his first master, the kindly William Ford, was victim to his environment as well: “The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery…Looking though the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light.” Solomon notes that if he had been raised in a different environment, Ford would likely have an entirely different stance on slavery.
Asserting his own Christian faith, Solomon Northup highlights that because racism is a means for justifying sinfulness and is a learned behavior, racism is punishable by God. Adding a religious layer to his argument, Northup appeals to the Christian and moral underpinnings of the Abolitionist Movement and Second Great Awakening unfolding around his Northern readership. Watching a sweet slave girl named Patsey be brutally beaten by Epps, Solomon thinks to himself, “Thou devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin!” Solomon aligns Epps with the devil, underscoring the extreme sinfulness in his racism and the eternal punishment that awaits him. Likewise, Bass, who is openly against slavery, tells Epps, “…you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet…it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.” Although Epps writes off Bass’s statement as Bass enjoying hearing himself talk and being argumentative, Bass is genuine in his assertion that racism is sinful and punishable by God.
The crux of 12 Years a Slave is the racism that permeated the American South and fueled the brutal system of slavery. In his narrative, Solomon Northup reveals how such prejudice is manmade and used as a means to be cruel, consequently strengthening anti-slavery attitudes among his readership and adding fuel to the Abolitionist fire growing in the North. Asserting that racism is a sin punishable by God, Northup also approaches racism from a religious angle and appeals to the renewed interest in morality among Northern Protestants.
Racism and Slavery ThemeTracker
Racism and Slavery 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.
The idea struck me as a prudent one, though I think it would scarcely have occurred to me, had they not proposed it […] I must confess, that the papers were scarcely worth the cost of obtaining them—the apprehension of danger to my personal safety never having suggested itself to me in the remotest manner.
Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind, at first dim and confused, that I had been kidnapped. There must have been some misapprehension—some unfortunate mistake. It could not be that a free citizen of New-York, who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with thus inhumanly […] I felt there was no trust or mercy in unfeeling man.
Though suspicions of Brown and Hamilton were not unfrequent, I could not reconcile myself to the idea that they were instrumental to my imprisonment. Surely they would seek me out—they would deliver me from thraldom. Alas! I had not then learned the measure “man’s inhumanity to man,” nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain.
So we passed, hand-cuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington—though the Capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we are told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land indeed!
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 […].
He would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel of our hands and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse which he is about to barter for or purchase.
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.
He was my master, entitled by law to my flesh and blood, and to exercise over me such tyrannical control as his mean nature prompted; but there was no law that could prevent my looking upon him with intense contempt.
I must toil day after day, endure abuse and taunts and scoffs, sleep on the hard ground, live on the coarsest fare, and not only this, but live the slave of a blood-seeking wretch, of whom I must stand henceforth in continued fear and dread. […] I sighed for liberty; but the bondman’s chain was round me, and could not be shaken off.
Bent with excessive toil—actually suffering for a little refreshing rest, and feeling rather as if we could cast ourselves upon the earth and weep, many a night in the house of Edwin Epps have his unhappy slaves been made to dance and laugh.
He could have stood unmoved and seen the tongues of his poor slaves torn out by the roots—he could have seen them burned to ashes over a slow fire, or gnawed to death by dogs, if it only brought him profit. Such a hard, cruel, unjust man is Edwin Epps.
[…] it had fallen to her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress. She shrank before the lustful eye of one, and was in danger even of her life at the hands of the other, and in between the two, she was indeed accursed.
The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the human slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life.
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.
Alas! Had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. It […] relieved me of many days’ labor in the field […] and oftentimes led me away from the presence of a hard master. […] It was my companion—the friend of my bosom—triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad. Often […] it would sing me a song of peace.
No man who has never been placed in such a situation, can comprehend the thousand obstacles thrown in the way of the flying slave. Every white man’s hand is raised against him—the patrollers are watching for him—the hounds are ready to follow on his track—and the nature of the country is such as renders it impossible to pass through it with any safety.
It was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight—the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees—peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere, save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him. The tempestuous emotions that were raging there were little in harmony with the calm and quiet beauty of the day. I could look on Epps only with unutterable loathing and abhorrence, and thought within myself—“Thou devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin!”
If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.
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.
The secret was out—the mystery was unraveled. Through the thick, black cloud, amid whose dark and dismal shadows I had walked twelve years, broke the star that was to light me back to liberty.
I was then offered as a witness, but, objection being made, the court decided my evidence inadmissible. It was rejected solely on the ground that I was a colored man—the fact of my being a free citizen of New-York not being disputed. […] Burch himself was offered as a witness in his own behalf. It was contended by counsel for the people, that such testimony should not be allowed—that it was in contravention of every rule of evidence, and if permitted would defeat the ends of justice. His testimony, however, was received by the court!
I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the “peculiar institution.” What it may be in other States, I do not profess to know; what it is in the region of Red River, is truly and faithfully delineated in these pages. This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.