Read an extract from the book of the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave…
What my meditations were— the innumerable thoughts that thronged through my distracted brain— I will not attempt to give expression to. Suffice it to say, during the whole long day I came not to the conclusion, even once, that the southern slave, fed, clothed, whipped and protected by his master, is happier than the free coloured citizen of the North. To that conclusion I have never since arrived. There are many, however, even in the Northern States, benevolent and well-disposed men, who will pronounce my opinion erroneous, and gravely proceed to substantiate the assertion with an argument. Alas! they have never drunk, as I have, from the bitter cup of slavery. Just at sunset my heart leaped with unbounded joy, as Ford came riding into the yard, his horse covered with foam. Chapin met him at the door, and after conversing a short time, he walked directly to me.
“Poor Platt, you are in a bad state,” was the only expression that escaped his lips.
“Thank God!” said I, “thank God, Master Ford, that you have come at last.”
Drawing a knife from his pocket, he indignantly cut the cord from my wrists, arms, and ankles, and slipped the noose from my neck. I attempted to walk, but staggered like a drunken man, and fell partially to the ground.
Ford returned immediately to the house, leaving me alone again. As he reached the piazza, Tibeats and his two friends rode up. A long dialogue followed. I could hear the sound of their voices, the mild tones of Ford mingling with the angry accents of Tibeats, but was unable to distinguish what was said. Finally the three departed again, apparently not well pleased.
I endeavoured to raise the hammer, thinking to show Ford how willing I was to work, by proceeding with my labors on the weaving-house, but it fell from my nerveless hand. At dark I crawled into the cabin, and laid down. I was in great misery—all sore and swollen— the slightest movement producing excruciating suffering. Soon the hands came in from the field. Rachel, when she went after Lawson, had told them what had happened. Eliza and Mary broiled me a piece of bacon, but my appetite was gone. Then they scorched some corn meal and made coffee. It was all that I could take. Eliza consoled me and was very kind. It was not long before the cabin was full of slaves. They gathered round me, asking many questions about the difficulty with Tibeats in the morning— and the particulars of all the occurrences of the day. Then Rachel came in, and in her simple language, repeated it over again— dwelling emphatically on the kick that sent Tibeats rolling over on the ground— whereupon there was a general titter throughout the crowd. Then she described how Chapin walked out with his pistols and rescued me, and how Master Ford cut the ropes with his knife, just as if he was mad.
By this time Lawson had returned. He had to regale them with an account of his trip to the Pine Woods— how the brown mule bore him faster than a “streak o’ lightnin”— how he astonished everybody as he flew along— how Master Ford started right away— how he said Platt was a good nigger, and they shouldn’t kill him, concluding with pretty strong intimations that there was not another human being in the wide world, who could have created such a universal sensation on the road, or
performed such a marvellous John Gilpin feat, as he had done that day on the brown mule.
The kind creatures loaded me with the expression of their sympathy— saying, Tibeats was a hard, cruel man, and hoping “Massa Ford” would get me back again. In this manner they passed the time, discussing, chatting, talking over and over again the exciting affair, until suddenly Chapin presented himself at the cabin door and called me.
“Platt,” said he, “you will sleep on the floor in the great house to- night; bring your blanket with you.”
I arose as quickly as I was able, took my blanket in my hand, and followed him. On the way he informed me that he should not wonder if Tibeats was back again before morning— that he intended to kill me— and that he did not mean he should do it without witnesses. Had he stabbed me to the heart in the presence of a hundred slaves, not one of them, by the laws of Louisiana, could have given evidence against him. I laid down on the floor in the great house— the first and the last time such a sumptuous resting place was granted me during my twelve years of bondage— and tried to sleep. Near midnight the dog began to bark. Chapin arose, looked from the window, but could discover nothing. At length the dog was quiet. As he returned to his room, he said,
“I believe, Platt, that scoundrel is skulking about the premises somewhere. If the dog barks again, and I am sleeping, wake me.”
I promised to do so. After the lapse of an hour or more, the dog re-commenced his clamour, running towards the gate, then back again, all the while barking furiously.
Chapin was out of bed without waiting to be called. On this occasion, he stepped forth upon the piazza, and remained standing there a considerable length of time. Nothing, however, was to be seen, and the dog returned to his kennel. We were not disturbed again during the night. The excessive pain that I suffered, and the dread of some impending danger, prevented any rest whatever. Whether or not Tibeats did actually return to the plantation that night, seeking an opportunity to wreak his vengeance upon me, is a secret known only to himself, perhaps. I thought then, however, and have the strong impression still, that he was there. At all events, he had the disposition of an assassin— cowering before a brave man’s words, but ready to strike his helpless or unsuspecting victim in the back, as I had reason afterwards to know.
At daylight in the morning, I arose, sore and weary, having rested little. Nevertheless, after partaking breakfast, which Mary and Eliza had prepared for me in the cabin, I proceeded to the weaving-house and commenced the labors of another day. It was Chapin’s practice, as it is the practice of overseers generally, immediately on arising, to bestride his horse, always saddled and bridled and ready for him— the particular business of some slave— and ride into the field. This morning, on the contrary, he came to the weaving- house, asking if I had seen anything of Tibeats yet. Replying in the negative, he remarked there was something not right about the fellow— there was bad blood in him— that I must keep a sharp watch of him, or he would do me wrong some day when I least expected it.
While he was yet speaking, Tibeats rode in, hitched his horse, and entered the house. I had little fear of him while Ford and Chapin were at hand, but they could not be near me always.
Oh! how heavily the weight of slavery pressed upon me then. 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. Why had I not died in my young years— before God had given me children to love and live for? What unhappiness and suffering and sorrow it would have prevented. I sighed for liberty; but the bondman’s chain was round me, and could not be shaken off. I could only gaze wistfully towards the North, and think of the thousands of miles that stretched between me and the soil of freedom, over which a black freeman may not pass.
Taken from 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
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