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Africa and the African Diaspora

12 Years a Slave. What About 15 Years in a Cave?


We’ll know soon if Steve McQueen’s film gets an Oscar. But one thing is sure: the heretofore largely unfamiliar Solomon Northup has become a household name. For the past few years, he has also been one of my informants. And what I valued most about what he had to say, turned out to be of no interest to McQueen. Of course, what I was concerned with was not central to Northup’s personal experience and thus could not have been a major part of the film. But it was part of an important context that is missing in the Oscar contender.

As Cornell’s Carole Boyce Davies so rightly stressed in The Guardian, the film completely eschews resistance in general and resistance by flight in particular. Yet Northup witnessed several cases of retreat to the woods and swamps—he even planned his own escape and fed the young maroon Celeste—and his testimony, among myriad others, informed my book Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons.

Northup did not run away; but countless others did and chose to define their own freedom, outside of white control, be it Southern, Northern, Spanish or French. They left behind the terrorist system that oppressed them and created a new life, settling in and measuring themselves against a wild and difficult environment. Former maroon Tom Wilson explained in the 1930s why they preferred this alternative: “I felt safer,” he said, “among the alligators than among the white men.”

Marronage was much more extensive in the United States than previously thought, and for many maroons it took the unique form of cave dwelling. Men, women, and children were willing to live for years in houses they dug underground. The sister of famous memoirist Moses Grandy gave birth to three babies in hers. Nat Turner dug himself two (rudimentary) caves and hid there after the revolt. However, the most emblematic of the cave dwellers, were undoubtedly Pattin of Virginia and his wife who were so determined to be and stay free that they lived in a cave for 15 years and raised 15 children there emerging only after the “Surrender.”

But the success of resistance in the woods cannot be credited only to the people who settled there; it also directly rested on the community’s willingness to help. A community totally absent in McQueen’s film, in which—contrary to Northup’s autobiography and to reality—enslaved men and women are portrayed as silent ghosts and Northup is almost constantly on his own as is seemingly fitting for any "hero"in Western cinema.

For the people still on the farms and plantations, resistance was providing the maroons with food, clothes, guns, ammunition, and support. It was spying on owners, overseers, and patrollers to inform on upcoming raids and helping kill the bloodhounds. Without the active or tacit solidarity of the community—although it was not infallible, Northup himself betrayed a group of fugitives—maroons, runaways, and conspirators could not have accomplished much.

12 Years a Slave, the movie, does not live up to the book, but one can build on it. It can be a path to further learning, especially about what it omits. Scholarship on the numerous ways in which individuals and communities resisted or fought back is quite strong. Here are only a few of the books focusing on or largely exploring resistance in the United States, published in the past 10 years.

Various forms of resistance and the importance of the community and its networks can be found throughout Anthony E. Kaye’s seminal Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South. W. J. Megginson's African American Life in South Carolina’s Upper Piedmont 1780-1900 and Rebels and Runaways: Slave Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Florida by Larry E. Rivers explore several types of resistance.

Based on the diary of Landon Carter, Rhys Isaac traces the resistance taking place on the slaveholder’s large plantation—he owned hundreds of slaves—in the wider context of the American revolution: Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation. Several contributions to African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee, edited by Philip Morgan, present various forms of resistance. In Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Stephanie M. H. Camp studies gendered resistance. One chapter of Celia E. Naylor’s book African Cherokees in Indian Territory: From Chattel to Citizens, investigates resistance among black Cherokees.

The River Flows on: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America by Walter C. Rucker re-examines five revolts. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt, edited by Mark M. Smith, explores one of the most important uprisings in this country’s history.

For an exploration of the figure of the runaway and maroon in literature, see William Tynes Cowan, The Slave in the Swamp: Disrupting the Plantation Narrative. Timothy J. Lockley’s Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record is not a study, but, as its title indicates, a -very useful- compilation of official records and newspapers articles with introductory notes. The two-volume Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion edited by Junius P. Rodriguez, covers not only the U.S.A. but also the rest of the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

Between The Lines @ the Schomburg Center

Thursday March 13 (rescheduled from February 13)


I will be in conversation about Slavery's Exiles with Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize winner and DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. A book signing will follow the event.

FREE - Registration required


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15 Years in a Cave

Thank you for this post, Sylvaine. Your work continues to be informative, conscious raising, and passionate. I was especially appreciative of your stern insight and frustration over McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." All art and entertainment is instantly subject to criticism for various reasons, and of course everything is flawed -- but while I tried to admire McQueen's seemingly noble attempt to rediscover and re-present our tortured history under slavery -- I cannot in good conscience accept this Hollywood production of "12 Years a Slave" as it ultimately panders and makes whites feel better about themselves by with-holding the pertinent factual information that exists on slave revolts and marronage. Not all of us were waiting for Brad Pitt to come up with a plan to save us. Thanks for this post, I am requesting several of the books you suggest and have requested a download of your own book as well. Best, Dennis Leroy Kangalee writer/director "As an Act of Protest"

Twelve years enough!

Doth protest too much.The purpose of the movie "Twelve Years a Slave" was to tell the story of a free African-American man who found himself in the gripes of slavery. It was not about fifteen years in a cave. It is impossible to make any movie exactly like a book but to visualize the story for the audience. You don't ask the question "Why did Northup not flee? A couple of good beating can keep you quite for a long time.

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