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America has this persona of being the land for the free, but if we go back in history to the time

period known as the Antebellum Era, not all of America was free. African Americans, also known as blacks, were slaves and were treated like the dirt on the bottom of someones shoe. At this time, what we know as the United States today was not yet established. During that era, America was split. There was the north, who were considered to be the free states and in contrast there was the south who were considered to be the slave states. The film, 12 Years A Slave depicts this time period in an accurate manner, emphasizing the harsh journey the African Americans underwent in order to gain their freedom. Most slaves during this time were considered runaway slaves. In order to have a healthier and more suitable life for themselves and their families, runaway slaves would seek refuge by going to the north. However, their efforts were not always rewarded and guaranteed due to the persistence of slave catchers. During this time period, slaveholders considered slaves as their own property; they bought them with fair money and werent going to just let their property runaway. Slaveholders, especially the wealthier ones, with more slaves would protect every inch of their plantation, making it difficult for slaves to escape. Despite the difficulty, slaves, mostly the braver ones, would still attempt to runaway. Whenever slaves did attempt to runaway, slaveholders would send slave catchers to capture and return their property. The slaves that were unfortunate to escape the pursuit of the slave catcher might have favored death in any other manner rather than returning due to the severe punishment for running away which was getting beaten or whipped to death. The film incorporates the reality of slaves in the pre-civil war era by having the main character in a typical situation that many blacks from the north had to endure. Slave catchers, were mainly white males that often were hired by slaveholders to chase down and locate their

slaves that crossed the state lines. Usually they would place ads in the local newspaper offering money in return of the slave. Laura Hamilton Waxman, states that ads would be written in generalized form like look for a man who was 5 feet 8 inches (1.7 meters) tall, twenty years old, and wore a gray suit of clothes.1 This a perfect example of how the ads would describe the slave the slave catcher was looking for. Many people who responded to the ad would just pick out a random black person that somewhat matched the description to just earn the reward. Slave catchers as well would just take a random black person and give them the name of who they were really looking for so that they could just get paid. The main character, Solomon, was a victim of this disgraceful action. He, a free northern citizen with a family and a stable career, was kidnapped and falsely accused of being a runaway slave from Georgia. As a result, he ended up being forced into slavery just like thousands of other who have been tricked into during this time. Once Solomon realized that he has been tricked and falsely convicted of being someone who he is not, he tried to explain to the slave catcher who he really is, and was willing to show his freedom papers as long as the slave catcher was willing to go back to his house. Freedom papers during this time were documents declaring the free status of a Blacks and proved the free status of person and served as legal affidavit.2 However, this would not be possible because during this time period, whites did not believe a word a black person would say. Majority of the white southerners believed that the blacks were incapable of learning and illiterate. The south even went to extreme measures by making it illegal for slaves to learn how to read or write3, because they feared that freed blacks in the north would influence the other blacks in the south to

Laura Hamilton Waxman, How did slaves find a route to freedom? (Minneapolis: Lerner Publication Company, 2011), 11. 2 About The Freedom Papers and Certificates of Freedom last modified in 2009, http://www.library.pitt.edu/freeatlast/papers_listing.html 3 Waxman, How did slaves find a route to freedom? 8.

stand up against them. Solomon had to pretend to be illiterate because if any white person, especially his master, knew he was just a little bit more intelligent, he would get whipped. One scene that illustrates the disrespect and injustice of an intelligent black person occurred on the plantation of Solomons first master. Solomon figured out a new way to transport logs to and from a location by thinking outside the box and using the river on the plantation as an easier form of transportation. However the master had someone, on his watch, in charge of doing this. Even though Solomons plan worked out and proved to be better fit for the plantation, it upset the masters worker. How could a black slave be smart and figure out a system for the plantation and the master white worker could not. This clearly upset the white worker, not only because the master of the planation liked the way Solomon worked but also because it made him look stupid. If a black person could have figured it out and pulled it off, how come he, who is white and more intelligent, couldnt. This irritated the worker so much that he decided to choke and whip Solomon to his death but was unsuccessful. This is just a mere example of the injustice slaves endured and the consequence of those who speak out against anyone that was white. The aspect of intelligence was a major social issue between whites and black. The film also placed a big emphasis on paternalism. Paternalism is the belief that slavery was a positive thing. According to this belief of paternalism, slaves should feel blessed and be grateful that their slaveholders were providing them with shelter, clothes and food. Randy Miller states that this belief, took this to the point of arguing that Negroes were a separate, and not fully human, species, a position apparently inconsistent with the concern and closeness implied by

paternalism.4 The film has many scenes where the belief of paternalism was portrayed. Take for example the scene when Solomon first attends his second masters sermon in which the master claimed that the word of God states that he could beat and whip his slaves if they didnt listen or part take in whatever he said to do. He manipulated the word of God and used it to his advantage to have more control. Control, power, and authority are just three main characteristics that slave master would uphold during this time period. The thought of someone or something objecting those characteristics served as a threat against them. Towards the end of the film, we see that Solomons story of being captured has made it all the way back to his hometown in the north and that someone is finally coming to save him for the horrible conditions his master has put him under. However, once the master sees that Solomon is indeed a freed man from the north and that there are freedom papers to prove this truth, the slave master is humiliated and angered by the fact that his slave is now leaving as a freed man. All these emotions set the slave master to realize that his control, power, and authority is diminishing and is becoming worthless. Even though it may sadden the slave masters that their power and authority are declining, the slaves experience this on a regular basis. Their control, their power, and their authority of their own life has diminished and been taken away. They have no say in the way they live life and in addition have to work for someone who has no respect for what they do for them. Blacks suffered not only physically and emotionally but also mentally. As the film reaches its final scene where Solomon is reunited with his family, he is shocked to see that his family has moved on with their lives and doesnt know how to react to the changes except to apologize for his absent. The emotions he presented once he realized he was free man yet again triggered him to
4

Randall M. Miller and John David Smith, Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery (Connecticut, Praeger Publisher, 1977), 559.

be in a state of confusion. Many slaves had similar feelings to those of Solomon and questioned themselves; what is there to do now that Im free? Their journey during this time period led them to hope for freedom within the nation and their hope soon became a reality in 1865 after the north won the American Civil War freeing all slaves within the United States and its territories.