- Black Masculinity and Black Women’s BodiesRepresentations of Black Bodies in Twelve Years a Slave
It begins. Within a few minutes we move rapidly from a cane field, to a man desperately trying to write with ink made of berries, to the man having sex with a light-skinned woman—she turns to him on the floor crowded with tired, exhausted, exploited, raggedly dressed black bodies and takes his worn hand, places it on her bare breast, kisses him, then we hear heavy breathing, and see her rocking. Cut to a flash of the same man lying neatly dressed in bed with a different woman (we later learn she is his wife), making eye contact as they lie on their sides enjoying each other’s company. With raw intensity, the film version of Twelve Years a Slave illuminates the trauma of enslavement inspired by the perspective of Solomon Northup and the unimaginable challenges of moving from a life of choices to a life of severe restrictions. His vulnerability and fears are shown through the repetitive images of abused Black Bodies. Scarred Black Bodies. Chained Black Bodies pressed together in ships, on wagons, on floors—longing to fulfill the desire for freedom and to shield themselves from certain pain. Excoriated Black Bodies abused, treated as valueless by the abusers, but reclaimed in the narrative voice.
Though it had been published in 1853, approximately 160 years before the Academy Award-winning film version of Solomon Northup’s narrative appeared, the harrowing account had been nearly forgotten by scholars. In the book, titled Twelve Years a Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton [End Page 1] Plantation Near the River Red in Louisiana, Northup affirms his citizenship—or rather his right to freedom and the fact that his rights were violated when he was lured to the nation’s capital under the pretense of a job offer, but instead was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. At a quick glance, readers of the title can only guess that he speaks of more than the mere kidnapping and rescue. It is the story that lies in between the kidnapping and rescue that remains a compelling read and the stuff of an Oscar-winning film. According to the editor, David Wilson, Northup spoke the narrative, as opposed to writing it exclusively. Northup “enlisted” a graduate of Union College to “help him write his book.”1 In the preface, Wilson claims that he is “[u]nbiased, as he conceives, by any prepossessions or prejudices, the only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup’s life, as he received it from his lips.”2 Considering the unlikelihood that writing, especially of violent subjects, can be unbiased, what their collaboration as storytellers reveals is a complex narrative voice. In Twelve Years there exist two warring selves who survived the ordeal. He is at once Platt and Northup, two selves, at times distinctly masculine selves, who converge to use writing as a means to reclaim the power of agency that was denied him for twelve years.
If the title does not properly convey Northup’s intent in the narrative, the black female bodies do. I offer an examination of Northup’s interpretation of the roles of women and the visual reading of these women by screenwriter John Ridley in collaboration with director Steve McQueen. To be sure, the women play a significant role in Northup’s attempt to reconcile the assaults against his black masculine identity and his effort, at times, to construct it, and at other times to reconstruct it. In Scarring the Black Body Race and Representation in African American Literature (2002), Carol E. Henderson argues that the black body serves as an “active metaphor for the reinvention of African American subjectivity with certain cultural moments.”3 Taking my cue from Henderson’s interest in black bodies as metaphors, I argue that in Twelve Years a Slave, black women’s bodies act as metaphors for the loss of black masculinity and myths associated with white masculinity. Northup, I...