Dr. Noelle Morrissette hopes the film will bring more attention to the historical book on which it is based
Morrissette taught Solomon Northup’s narrative earlier this semester in her UNCG English graduate seminar class on African American literature. She will teach it again in a UNCG Emeritus Society course, “Literature and Social Justice,” in the second half of this semester.
The film “Twelve Years a Slave” has brought “a new awareness of what was central in its day,” she explains. The horror of slavery.
In the book and movie, the reader sees a free black man from New York state taken hostage and sold into slavery, where he labors and survives under brutal conditions for 12 years in Louisiana. His freedom is finally restored.
Northup’s book was published in 1853, she notes, one year after the publication of the highly influential “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” His narrative helped prove as fact much of what was in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work of fiction.
At the moment in history when it was published, a few years after the passage of the 1851 Fugitive Slave Law, it not only brought witness to the horrific existence slaves endured. It not only proved to Americans that free blacks were being sold into slavery – something that had appeared in some press accounts. But, Morrissette says, it showed how to legally take action. “It’s a how-to on how to retrieve someone who was once free.” And on how to defy the 1851 federal law mandating the return of fugitive/escaped slaves by invoking New York state’s personal liberty laws, she adds.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” confirmed the potential importance of literature to the Abolitionist cause of the mid-nineteenth century. Some may argue that film today has that importance for social causes, she says.
“I was struck by the faithfulness of the lines in the movie to many in the narrative,” she notes. Many are verbatim.
As you might expect with a movie, there are quite a few differences, she adds. For example, the narrative reveals a more complex and lengthy boat journey to the Deep South. And there’s a “visual rhetoric” in the movie you don’t have on the page. You’re confronted with sensory details.
Morrissette is an associate professor in UNCG’s Department of English and an affiliated faculty member in African American Studies and in Women & Gender Studies. She received her master’s and doctorate at Yale University.
Her research specialties include African American literature and culture, Black popular culture, American visual arts, and history and memory. She is the author of “James Weldon Johnson’s Modern Soundscapes, 1900-1938,” published in 2013. She is co-editor with Richard Juang of “Encyclopedia of Africa and the Americas: History, Culture and Politics.”
She pulls off her shelf two large volumes of slave narratives of North Carolinians, collected from former slaves as a WPA project from 1936 to 1938. She plans to use them in designing a new course that focuses on slave narratives and related literature of North Carolina.
“Twelve Years a Slave” is a rich, profound text for a literature class. In addition to historical and human rights topics to work through in class, there are the complex topics of authorship and the owning of one’s story, she explains. And what happens once your story becomes a commodity.
What does she think of the film? She admires it. But the film is not Northup’s work, she explains.
“It takes away some of Northup as author” – regardless of how great the film is.
“I will always prefer the narrative,” she says.
Northup’s narrative, which is in the public domain, may be read in this UNC Chapel Hill archives site: http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/northup/northup.html.
By Mike Harris
Visual of title page from the UNC Chapel Hill site “Documenting the American South.”