February is set aside to recognize Black History Month for a good reason. America’s Black community, both past and present, is an integral part of the fabric of America. Notable Black Americans have made this country stronger through their service in the military, through the power of music, in our hospitals and schools, on athletic fields, and everywhere in between.
Also beautiful about the story of Black America is the foundation of the American ideal itself—the story of overcoming great injustice.
Last month, I watched the 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave for the first time. I was shaken because the story was wonderfully told in a way that creates a powerful empathy for the characters. I knew the film was based on an autobiographical novel, which I ordered immediately.
The book, Twelve Years a Slave, is a memoir written by former slave Solomon Northup in 1853 and, as is often the case, it is even more powerful than the movie.
Solomon Northup was a free Black man in New York. He was approached by two men who convinced him to use his skills as a fiddler to join a traveling circus where he could make some good money for his family. The trip went well until he was kidnapped in the nation’s capital, drugged, secluded, beaten, and given a fake identity as a runaway slave. He was sold into slavery and shipped to New Orleans.
From there, the plot follows an insider’s account of the horrors of slavery. A harrowing account of Hell itself wouldn’t overwhelm a reader with more despair than the description of the terrible conditions Solomon and his fellow slaves were forced to endure.
Eventually, Solomon had an opportunity to interact with laborer Samuel Bass, whom Solomon overheard criticizing the institution of slavery. Taking a great risk, Solomon shared his own story with Bass, setting in motion a series of events that lead to Solomon regaining his freedom and being reunited with his family 12 years after he was first kidnapped.
Stories like these have led some people to kneel in protest during the national anthem and support publications like The New York Times’ “1619 Project” to put slavery at the center of the American story as opposed to just part of it.
At the other political extreme, some Americans actually downplay or obfuscate the profound evil of slavery and its clear contradiction of the principles enshrined in America’s founding documents.
I always go back to the preamble of the Constitution, which states in part, “In order to form a more perfect union…” Not so subtly, that line—particularly more perfect—means we’ll never have a perfect union. Men of conscience at the time of the founding, men who foresaw the journey ahead for their new country, inserted a proper disclaimer that America had significant demons to overcome.
The language of the founding also demonstrates an understanding of the Calvinistic reality that we live in a broken world and that government is instituted among men because men are not angels and never will be.
Instead, we are on a long journey toward being more perfect. A fundamental fact about the world that undergirds American conservative thinking is that perfection—utopia—is not possible on this Earth. Our long journey has no destination.
It is also lined by milestones of progress, painfully slow as it seems to have come. Black Americans today have more opportunities and rights than in 1960, and in 1960 they had more rights than in 1860. Twelve Years a Slave puts that in clear perspective.
Despite this undeniable progress, there is inarguably much more work to do and our duty as Americans is to never lose sight of the progress we have yet to make. Progress is also not without its setbacks large and small.
While the novel is a gripping depiction of slavery, I feel it is important to note that the Hollywood version goes out of its way to wedge in a gratuitous scene in which a female slave wakes up Solomon for some quick sex, and Solomon awkwardly obliges. There is no such scene in the book.
On the contrary, part of the beauty of the true story is that Solomon’s wife waited for him for 12 years and there is no reason to think he did not do the same. Their discipline is a testament to their character, but Hollywood’s taking the liberty to slander Solomon says a lot about that industry’s regressive view of what it takes to be a man and it’s an example of Hollywood’s shameful, tawdry need to add sexual content to almost everything.
Another important note is that education is critical to progress and that literacy is critical to education. That is just as true in the era of Twelve Years a Slave as it is today.
It was the law that slaves would remain illiterate. Whites found it important to feel superior and they justified slavery because they claimed their literacy made them superior. This formed a vicious cycle of oppression. Samuel Bass, the white man who assisted Solomon in securing his freedom, put it eloquently in a conversation recounted by the author:
“If they don’t know as much as their masters, then whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers, and go where you please and gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You would whip one of them if caught reading a book.”
The great Frederick Douglass, also the author of a book about his time as a slave, is a great example of the power of education and literacy. He realized that he needed to not only escape slavery but he also needed to learn to read in order to truly break the cycle of oppression. This was understood by Solomon, who used his ability to read to covertly fight his injustice.
We have made a lot of progress since the time of Solomon Northup’s captivity, but social justice advocates will be the first to say injustice still exists. Although the horrors depicted in Twelve Years a Slave are long gone, many children—predominantly children of color—still lack access to a quality education and the opportunities it unlocks. As of the day of this writing, Milwaukee Public Schools and other large urban districts around the country remain closed as a result of COVID-19. Meanwhile, schools outside the cities are open or are offering hybrid educational options, and they’re doing so safely.
There is no replacing the physical presence of a teacher—my guess is that Solomon and Douglass would both find that to be obvious. To put it bluntly, white kids in America are much more likely to have access to in-person instruction than Black students.
Racial inequity will only grow and racial progress will be set back because of this modern day injustice. Earlier, I mentioned that it is the duty of all Americans to be vigilant about setbacks to progress. So, in 21st century America, this unacceptable new status quo should horrify us.
Americans recoil at injustice. It’s part of what makes up our national character. That’s why books like Twelve Years a Slave have made such an impact. It’s why we fought a Civil War and during the war summoned the national will to press on to end slavery despite the bloody toll. The America that won was the America hell-bent on forging a more perfect union by delivering slaves to a new promised land, a new Canaan. The one that lost was the one dedicated to preserving a regressive and oppressive way of life.
The process of extending the rights embedded in the Constitution picked up momentum in the century and a half since, and while injustice still exists in various forms, all Americans should be grateful for Solomon Northup’s part in this journey.
Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents the 5th Senate District.RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. The next RightBooks column will appear April 4.