Saturday, November 2, 2013

As If Researching African-American Ancestors Wasn't Hard Enough...

I'm more than a bit of a geek.  Doctor Who.  Sherlock.  Star Trek.  The list goes on and on really.  My absolute favorite actor is Benedict Cumberbatch.  He's brilliant.  Truly one of the best actors of our time.  The man can pull off anything from Shakespeare (pick a play…any play) to Khan in the newest Star Trek film to one of the best Sherlocks…ever.  So what does this fantastically talented actor have to do with the subject of this post?  Not much directly, but it was my love of his acting that introduced me to 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup.

12 Years a Slave was one in a series of movies that Mr. Cumberbatch has out in 2013.  I saw the preview for the movie several months ago and it looked excellent.  It spurred me to go out and get a copy of the book.  It's a true story I might add and I was stunned by what I read.  Solomon Northup was a free man who lived in New York.  He had a wife and children.  He was an excellent musician.  He was lured to Washington DC in 1841 under the pretense of a few weeks of lucrative work.  He was then drugged and awoke in chains and sold into slavery.

As you can tell by the title of the book, Mr. Northup remained a slave for 12 years.  He regained his freedom in 1853.  He was one of the few free black people that were kidnapped and sold into slavery to regain freedom.  The majority did not.  Of course, there's no way to even begin to guess how many free black men and women suffered this fate.  They were given new names and histories when they were kidnapped.  Solomon Northup became "Platt" and was told that he was a Georgia slave.  He fought this at first, but was brutally beaten until he willingly answered to his new name.

Reading this book made me wonder about genealogical brick walls.  Genealogy is seldom far from a genealogist's thoughts.  I spent last week thinking of how the whereabouts of my 3rd great grandfather may have been lost had it not been for a letter found and shared by distant cousins that told of his demise on a shipwreck.  How much more difficult would it be to trace these free black men and women that were sold into slavery and given new identities?  All but impossible.

The thought of slavery is repugnant to begin with.  The thought of a free person being kidnapped and forced into it (although weren't the ancestors of all slaves originally free and kidnapped!) is unimaginable.  To lose your identity completely.  It defies all attempts at explanation.  It is unforgivable.  These men and women victimized. Brutalized.  And the brutality extends down the generations when their stories are lost.

I'm not saying that I read this book and thought only of genealogy.  I'm not saying that I watched this movie and thought of brick walls.  That would be impossible to do. Doubt me?  Read the book.  See the movie.  What occurred to me after reading the book was how many dead ends could this sort of story account for?  Even more…why is this a story I've never heard of?  Why did I not know that this happened?  A failure of our educational system…and I always believed that I had been well educated.

Sadder still?  This movie was released 2 weeks ago in select cities.  Then last week in a few more.  Finally, this weekend it was set for "wide release" according to IMDB and the movie's Facebook page. A few days before this "wide release" I jumped on Fandango to see which theater I would be patronizing this weekend.  None locally.  I live near Colorado Springs.  A city and surrounding area that boasts of having a population of more than half a million people and the movie was not playing here.  Denver was the nearest city showing this film and you can be damn sure that I drove there!

Why is this movie not playing everywhere?  Why do we continue to hide things that happened? Pretend that they didn't?  The theater was packed.  There was hardly a chair empty when the film began, and it started almost 15 minutes late because people were still getting tickets.  You will hear more about this movie even if it never plays in a city near you.  This will most likely win the Academy Award for best picture.  Maybe then it will get the exposure it deserves.

As genealogists we should be familiar with history that impacts our research.  Do not ignore this film. Do not pass on reading this book.  Yes, the book is different from the movie.  So much had to be left out.  The book gives quite an insight into slavery from the viewpoint, the struggles of an enslaved, educated black man.

Steve McQueen did a phenomenal job with this film and it's star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, will move you to tears.  I had read the book prior to attending this film and I still found myself crying as I walked back to my car after it ended.  Sobs could be heard throughout the theater at its end.  Watch this movie. Hopefully, it will make you want to read the book.  The movie only touches lightly on what the book goes into.  The complex issues that Solomon faced, a better explanation as to his rescue, and everyday struggles and victories.

One of the only problems I had with the movie was when it shows "Platt" telling his first owner William Ford that he was a free man and Ford ignoring him.  Not caring.  This never happened.  Northup never admitted to Ford that he was a free man.  He was afraid to reveal this to anyone even though Ford was, by far, the kindest of his owners.  I suppose I can understand why Steve McQueen would alter the movie this way.  I know when I read the book I found myself willing Northup to tell Ford.  He respected Ford as much as any subjugated individual could.  When he fled another master (something the movie also did not show due to time constraints) he fled to Ford.  In changing the movie I suppose McQueen finally lets Northup say those words and illustrates to the audience that even a "kind" slave owner was still a slave owner.

I don't have any ancestors that were slaves or slave-owners, but this story is significant in our American history and in some genealogies.  It is a story that needs sharing.  A story that I would never have heard of if I hadn't been such a geek.

NOTE - This book wasn't easy to find when I originally went looking on a few months ago.  I'm delighted to say that when I checked this evening there were many publications in various forms available!

1 comment:

  1. Cheryl,

    I want to let you know that your blog is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful weekend!