Seward House guest to tell the story behind '12 Years a Slave'

2014-04-17T06:00:00Z Seward House guest to tell the story behind '12 Years a Slave'David Wilcox | Auburn Citizen
April 17, 2014 6:00 am  • 

Seeing the film "12 Years a Slave" left many wanting to learn more about its subject, Solomon Northup.

Poised to supply that knowledge is the Seward House. The museum in the former home of New York Gov. William H. Seward sees, first, a historical link between Northup and Seward — who signed the legislation that allowed agents to reclaim the kidnapped Northup from slavery on a Louisiana plantation. There's also a geographic link: It was in Auburn where the Northup memoir that became the movie was published.

"There's a rich, local history tied to this event," said Seward House Director of Education John Kingsley.

Richard Newman, professor of African-American history at the Rochester Institute of Technology, comes to the museum Wednesday to provide context to Northup's story in a presentation titled "12 Years a Slave: Beyond the Narrative." Among his main points, he said, is that Northup's story was but a part of a much larger literary movement of slave narratives that "took the covers off bondage" in the years before the Civil War.

"(They) tried to put slavery before the American public because they saw it as part of a growing, vibrant and horrible institution," Newman said. "So when he escaped slavery, Solomon Northup was able to plug himself into a great movement created by free blacks and abolitionists."

What does distinguish Northup's story, Newman said, is how graphic it is in describing slavery, and how deeply it probes the psychology of both slave and master. More than 150 years later, those same scenes would make black and white moviegoers cry, and pain some so much they left the theater, Newman said.

"He ran into masters who are psychotic, and would never let go of their slaves even if someone offered them money. They were hellbent on psychological and physical punishment toward slaves who'd resist them," he said. "These are things you see over and over again in slave narratives, but in certain ways, Northup's autobiography is the most gripping."

Northup's story and its significance to the abolition movement are major parts of Newman's presentation. But some topics, such as Northup's later years, can't be covered because they remain a mystery. Newman hopes the explosion of interest in Northup's story spurs more discoveries — including how, exactly, "12 Years a Slave" came to be published in Auburn.

"Auburn was a real hot spot for abolitionists," Newman said. "Anyone in Western New York has to be excited about that publication history."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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