Here's The 161-Year-Old New York Times Story About 12 Years A Slave

03.03.14 4 years ago 10 Comments

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Everyone knows it takes a long time to bring a film to the big screen, but 12 Years A Slave, which took home Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars last night, may hold some kind of record. Solomon Northup wrote his memoir in 1853, but the film industry was too busy making Birth of a Nation and didn’t get around to shooting the film version until 2013 (though there was a PBS TV movie in 1984). But in 1853, the New York Times dedicated a full page to Northup and his memoir, even though they spelled it alternatively “Northrop” and “Northrup” in the same article. It goes to show, even in the abolitionist North, spelling a black man’s name correctly didn’t warrant hiring a proofreader worth half a shit.

In any case, the full article is here (courtesy of Gawker), and it’s always interesting just to see how language has evolved, to say nothing of attitudes and social norms. Here’s a snip:

With his wife and children he resided at Saratoga Springs in the Winter of 1841, and while there was employed by two gentlemen to drive a team South, at the rate of a dollar a day. In fulfilment of his employment he proceeded to New-York, and having taken out free papers, to show that he was a citizen, he went on to Washington City, where he arrived the second day of April, the same year, and put up at Gadsby’s Hotel. Soon after he arrived, he felt unwell and went to bed.

While suffering with severe pain some persons came in, and, seeing the condition he was in, proposed to give him some medicine and did so. That is the last thing of which he had any recollection until he found himself chained to the floor of WILLIAMS’ slave pen in this City, and handcuffed. In the course of a few hours, JAMES H BURCH, a slave dealer, came in, and the colored man asked him to take the irons off from him, and wanted to know why they were put on. BURCH told him it was none of his business. The colored man said he was free and told where he was born. BURCH called in a man by the name of EBENEZER RODBURY, and they two stripped the man and laid him across a bench, RODBURY holding him down by his wrists. BURCH whipped him with a paddle until he broke that, and then with a cat-o’-nine tails, giving him a hundred lashes, and he swore he would kill him if he ever stated to any one that he was a free man.From that time forward the man says he did not communicate the fact from fear, either that he was a free man, or what his name was, until the last summer.

There’s lots more, which is a must-read for anyone who enjoys history. And I’ll be sure to keep this story in mind next time I complain about a hangover. “Has your headache gone away yet? By the way, you’re a slave now.”

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