The pain and abuse experienced by Solomon Northrup in his 12 years of slavery, like the millions of other slaves who were kidnapped in Africa and sold across the U. S. , is a tragic example of the pain one society can inflict upon another group of people. The movie 12 Years A Slave graphically portrays the horrors of slavery in America, and demonstrates the shame of the system, using the incredible irony in the story of Solomon Northrup. Since he had a dpcument that said he was a free black man, he was treated by others as a fellow man, but after he was kidnapped he was considered property, like an animal.
There was no change in Solomon himself as a person; only a corrupt system declared that he could now be owned as nothing said otherwise. Only a paper could take away your humanity. Additionally, the slave masters and traders, including Solomon Northrup’s, felt that they did not just have the right to treat their slaves however they liked, they also claimed they had the right to, even more simply, own their fellow man. And by decree of the American government, they were fully at liberty to do so.
Both examples point to a major theme of the movie, and applies to the slavery system that was in existence all over the Western world: dehumanization. The black slaves who were abused and exploited by the American policy of slavery had their humanity stripped away from them, and were considered the same as any other property of the owner. In contrast, the slave owners who considered fellow humans their own property and whom they could abuse at their leisure had their ideas of justice led so astray by the permitting of slavery that they seemed to lack basic human qualities themselves, including compassion and a sense of reason.
The plight of the slaves is summed up perfectly when a fellow slave tells Solomon Northrup, after throwing the body of another slave into the ocean, that “he was better off dead”. It is quite astounding that such young men and women felt that their best option was to die, instead of being faced with the horrors they did daily. Although, it can appear quite reasonable, as slaves were most often born on a plantation, and had no hope of dying free. They could not establish any goals for themselves, as their entire life was forced to be devoted to fulfilling the needs of their masters.
This is quite like the lives of many animals, and not humans. Animals are born and try to maintain their existence, but establishing goals to accomplish anything greater is strictly a human attribute. With this basic human characteristic taken from slaves, they were only left with a few human attributes- their own physical bodies, and their spirits; although the former was often abused by the frequent lashes “awarded” by the masters, which left very prominent scars on the back. For slaves however, maintaining their spirit and dignity, was probably far more complex. Every single event in the life of a slave dehumanized them.
Firstly, the auctions, where slaves were forced to strip down and dance like monkeys so prospective buyers could evaluate their abilities. Then, a price was put on their head, and white men could simply buy another human being, and then take him home and enslave him. Also, no differentiation was made between men and youth (as displayed in one scene where all slaves walk beside each other) to carry an identical workload, no matter if one was 12 or 25. Masters had the power to do as they pleased with their slaves after purchase, but only them as a slave was their own personal property.
In a confrontation, a plantation supervisor instructed some others after trying to lynch Solomon that “Ford (plantation owner) holds the mortgage, and you have no hold to his life”. It is incredibly ironic that since they did not own Solomon, they could not lynch, but whoever does can do as he pleases. All this dehumanizing torture would definitely break the spirit of almost any human. But, Solomon tried to maintain his, and ensure others did as well, at all costs. He was willing to take vicious punishment for standing up to a supervisor.
Also, after noticing another female slave crying endlessly, he told her that “You let yourself be overcome by sorrow, you will drown in it”. Clearly Northrup tried his best to maintain his dignity, but prior to the exciting conclusion of his story, there is a very telling scene. Solomon was playing violin at a dance for his master and their friends. The violin represented for him a human experience, as he was able to accomplish more than just picking cotton, and the sound of an instrument is one of the most powerful human experiences.
Although, at this ball, as he plays, the sorrowful background music of the movie plays over his song, and clouds out the sound of his violin. After the ball Solomon smashed his violin into thousands of pieces. He recognized that even in a very human activity, he was still serving his master, and the music he played and everything he felt as a result of the music, all belonged to his owner. Despite the dramatization, it still vividly shows the despicable dehumanization suffered by slaves, and even those who tried to maintain their human dignity, eventually had everything stripped away.
The slaves who had their humanity taken away were abused so greatly by their masters that for a viewer, it was hard to imagine these masters as human, just as they thought of their slaves. Especially further down the Mississippi, like at Northrup’s plantation in Louisiana, the masters treated their slaves so poorly it was impossible to see them as human beings. Most notably, when whipping their slaves, masters stood over their workers and lashed them, with the lack of remorse of a jockey standing over his horse. When talking about whipping his slaves, Solomon’s Louisiana master said: “Sin. There is no sin.
A man does as he pleases with his property. ” The master makes no recognition of the pain he inflicts upon his “property”, and it forces the viewer to see him as almost a sociopath. The same master also singled out an individual slave, Patsy, and tormented her in a way no true human would do. He was involved sexually with her, most likely against her will. He also whipped her brutally, and even once got Solomon to whip her, in order to see both of them suffer. Other white men demonstrated similar non-human characteristics. At a slave auction, one buyer rhetorically asked a slave: “Are you a slave or nigger? ”.
He showed so little respect for another human that it was simply impossible to see him as one either. The extreme cruelty was probably not something the owners were born with, though. It was something engrained in them by slavery being officially permitted and promoted. With official support for slavery, and no real regulations, owners were practically encouraged to abuse their slaves. They learned nothing about the history of slavery or their individual slaves, so it was impossible for them to have any connection or compassion for their slaves. It could be considered the original ill-informed, American-centric principle.
Truly, the masters such incredibly poor conduct and abuse of their slaves, no matter the justification dehumanized them as well, as no proper person could act in such a terrible way. It is quite impossible to understand the moral justification for slavery in the U. S. No doubt the economic prospective was immense, but the responsibility of a government established “for the people” is responsible for just that, and encouraging slavery does just the opposite.
It is indicative of a society, which at times even today, is more concerned with mythical end goals, than for the people who build and achieve them. The dream of the American South was to develop a perfect agrarian society, where man’s religion and property were his own, and were respected by the government and others. However, only the plantation owners were considered in this fantasy. Yes, the quantity of labour from the slaves was essential in the development of the country as a whole, and a failure to fully employ their ample natural resources would have greatly stunted the development of the new country’s economy, but the method taken contradicted the true goals of the country when it was established.
Even Thomas Jefferson decried slavery in the Missing Clause of the constitution, and said “”. However, slavery existed for nearly 100 more years in the U. S. after Jefferson, as the South still considered it the best option for developing the country. Maybe it was justified then because the 14 million slaves who built American industry weren’t even considered human, they were only considered slaves.
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