City College of San Francisco Twelve Years a Slave Book by Solomon Northup Essay

Approximately 100 slave narratives were
written by enslaved African-Americans before the Civil War (as well as
many that were written after slaves were freed after the war). These
first-hand accounts of life under slavery provide valuable documentation
about the nature of racial slavery in the antebellum south. Over the
next two weeks, you will read excerpts from one such narrative, Twelve Years a Slave,
written by Solomon Northup, a free African-American in New York, and
illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He was sold to a
series of owners in Louisiana and spent 12 years enslaved on a cotton
plantation. His account provides a vivid and more personal account of
the trends in antebellum slavery discussed in this week’s lesson.

  • NOTE: The book
    features very vivid descriptions of physical and emotional abuse of
    enslaved persons, so it may be hard to read at times. I assign this book
    because it represents an important, and often neglected, voice on the
    subject of slavery, and it is important to fully comprehend the reality
    of the institution that shaped so many Americans lives.

In this video, I provide step-by-step instructions on how to complete your paper, so definitely worth a watch before you begin!



  • Read assigned selections from Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave.
    • I encourage you to read the whole book, but the minimum requirement is Chapters 3, 6-8, 12-14, and 16-18
    • If you choose not to read the whole book, read this
    • Edit

      before you read the assigned chapters to give you the necessary background on the events of the beginning of the book.
  • One of the main themes of Northup’s book is the way in which slavery was institutionalized throughout the entire southern society. Write a 3-4 page (double spaced) essay addressing this theme by analyzing 1-2 of the following prompt topics:
    1. One of Northup’s main goals in writing
      this book is to encourage northerners to join the abolitionist movement
      to abolish slavery in the U.S. Toward this goal, he carefully detailed
      the effect racial slavery had on enslaved people’s bodies, emotions,
      perspective, and lives, to present a vivid and accurate portrayal of the
      horrors of slavery for white Americans who may not have witnessed
      slavery first-hand. How does Northup describe racial slavery’s effect on
      black bodies, minds, goals, and dreams? (Note: Be specific! You must
      provide specific examples, quotes, and details from the book). On the
      other hand, how does Northup argue that slavery did NOT change enslaved
      people’s minds, goals, and dreams? What did you think would have been
      the most compelling aspect(s) of Northup’s account, for northern white
      readers? (Be sure to address ALL 3 questions if you chose this prompt)
    2. What laws, organizations, and social
      customs does Northup mention helped maintain racial slavery in
      Louisiana? Discuss several specific examples, and analyze what those
      examples tell us about antebellum slavery.
    3. It wasn’t only slave-owners who fueled
      racialized slavery. Non-slaveholders and poor whites also had a vested
      interest in continuing slavery, even when it did not directly benefit
      them through free labor. In what ways were all white members of
      Southern society complicit in the system of slavery, whether they owned
      slaves or not? What evidence from the assigned chapters can you cite to
      support your conclusions?
    4. In several places in his book, Northup
      calls attention to the intersection of race, gender, and violence by
      highlighting the exploitation of enslaved women. What can we learn about
      this intersection from the stories of Eliza and Patsey? How did the
      institution of racial slavery effect various women in Northup’s book?
    5. At the end of chapter 14, Northup
      argues: “It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so
      much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives.” What
      argument is Northup making? Really think critically about this quote—he
      is NOT excusing slaveowners’ behavior. What is the context in which he
      makes this statement, and what is he really saying? Note:
      This is the most challenging prompt question, requiring deep analysis
      and understanding this quote in context of all the assigned reading
      selections, not just the couple pages surrounding it. There is a lot to
      explore in this topic, but it is the most challenging to do well, so if
      you’re looking for an easier/quicker paper to write, I suggest picking a
      different prompt.
  • Upload your paper by hitting the red “Submit Assignment” button at the top of this page and following the instructions.
    • You can compose your essay in whatever
      word processing program you choose: Word, Pages, Google docs, text, etc.
      However, only Word Document and PDF files can be uploaded, so if you
      use a program besides Word, please save your document as a PDF before
      uploading it.
    • Reminder: Compose your assignment offline and save a copy for the semester.

Paper Requirements

  • Essays must be a minimum of 3 full pages, double spaced, in 12 point Times New Roman font.
    Papers shorter than the minimum page requirement will not receive full
    credit. There is no penalty for papers longer than the page requirement
    (write as much as you need to in order to make your argument well!)
  • Essays should include an introduction
    and conclusion, contain a clear organizational structure, and provide
    evidence from the reading to back up your argument.
  • Your essay MUST include specific examples from
    the assigned chapters to support the claims or arguments you make. You
    should also incorporate relevant information from the weekly lesson
    and/or textbook to support your argument, and to draw connections
    between the personal experiences Northup recounts and the broader trends
    in antebellum slavery discussed in this class.
  • You may not use any sources in writing your paper outside of the assigned readings, course textbook, and class lesson material. DO
    NOT use the internet as a source for your paper. Your papers will be
    checked with anti-plagarism software when you submit it. Any copying of
    ideas or information from an internet source will be considered copy writing and will result in an F on the paper.
  • You MUST provide citations for all direct quotes you use from the readings. At the end of the quote, use the following citation style:
    • If you read the physical book, cite the page number: (Northup, page #)
    • If you listened to the audiobook, you
      can cite either the time of the quote you use, or simply cite the
      chapter the quote is from: (Northup, 1:39:05) OR (Northup, Chapter 7).
    • If you read the ebook, cite the chapter: (Northup, Chapter 7)
    • Papers not citing sources will docked points.
    • You do not need to provide a Works Cited page.