When “12 Years A Slave” won an Oscar for best picture last night, it made history. It is the first film directed by a black person to ever win the best picture Oscar in the Academy Award’s 86 year history.
When I told my 14 year-old this, she didn’t believe me.
“That’s ratchet,” she said, which means messed up. That it took so long is messed up on the one hand, but hopeful on the other. That Solomon Northup’s story would reach such prominence after almost being forgotten is hopeful, even if it took over 150 years. That his story of enslavement has resonated with so many people and is recognized as American history, (not only black American) is also hopeful. That the actress, Lupita Nyong’o spoke so eloquently of the joy she is awarded based on the pain of the people she and the cast portrayed is also hopeful. That she was born on the same day as my 14 year-old who also wants to be an actress is just a bonus.
While no one has (yet ) made a film about my family’s history, there is a book that touches on some of it. “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom” by Herbert Gutman is a detailed portrait of the life of people once enslaved by the Stirling family (and other plantation owners) in Louisiana. My third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton was enslaved by the Stirlings. While I haven’t found evidence of her referenced in its pages, Gutman’s book gives me a glimpse into how those in similar circumstances to Eliza lived before and after slavery. Speaking of books, let me get back to writing mine – I need something to pitch to Hollywood!
Before I go, listen to what Solomon Northup’s third great-grandson had to say about the Academy Award-winning film based on his grandfather’s life and what he would say if he won an Oscar.
In preparation to see the film, Twelve Years a Slave, I decided to read the slave narrative on which it was based. I first learned about slave narratives in college and read several of these first person accounts of slavery in a course on African American history. So essential to our American history, I tried to read as many as I could like Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Jacobs’s. But never did I come across Solomon Northup’s amazing story that he tells in his autobiography.
I was awed by his full life as a free man in upstate New York , the deception that led to his enslavement and his years of bondage in Louisiana, the same place my ancestors were enslaved. I’d never read a slave narrative that described so deftly the full of breadth of slavery or the particulars of it in that deepest part of the south. Northup’s descriptions of what it takes to grow sugar and cotton, from planting to picking, felt almost as punishing as the beatings he endured. I felt I got a glimpse of what life may have been like for my own enslaved ancestors.
My third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton and some of her children spent part of their lives enslaved in Attakapas now encompassing St. Mary and St. Martin parish in Louisiana. In his book, Solomon Northup mentions his owner hiring him out for a job in St. Mary’s. He speaks of joining other slaves for this job, two of whom are owned by Stewart. According to an 1850 Federal Census slave schedule, my great, great-grandfather Col. W.R. Stuart (often mispelled Stewart) owned 59 slaves in West Baton Rouge, not terribly far away from St. Mary. Incidentally, Stuart makes an appearance in the Mississippi slave narrative of a Nat Plummer who had been enslaved in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Interesting as well was that Solomon Northup’s first owner was a Baptist preacher name William Ford. My great-grandfather, James Ford was also a preacher, but with the Colored Methodist Episcopal church. Born around 1860 in Mississippi, it’s possible that James Ford was born into slavery. But I don’t know about my Ford roots before emancipation. I have a lot more digging to do to find where they lead. Researching black ancestry can be challenging and often times over the years, I’ve thrown in the towel temporarily. Moments like the rediscovery of Northup’s quintessentially American narrative, the prominence it is being given through Steve McQueen’s film, and the parallels between it and my own family’s history reinvigorate me.
Since I finished Solomon’s story, I’ve cracked open the “Ford” binder in my office and am rereading what I’ve gathered so far about my great-grandfather, James. I’ve also done more digging into the people who owned Eliza and some of her children. According to a newspaper ad that my great, great- grandmother Tempy Burton wrote to try and find her family, Dr. Robert C. Hilliard owned her sisters Polly and Liberia. (Liberia was freed as a child). Just this weekend as 12 Years a Slave was premiering in select cities, I received a copy of Hilliard’s papers from the University of Texas at Austin. Included was a list of slaves. On it was the name Polly.
I can’t tell for sure if this is my second great grand auntie, Polly, but I certainly will keep trying to reclaim her.
Dr. Sue Eakin, the woman who was largely responsible for getting Northup’s story back into the literary cannon, dedicated about 70 years of scholarship to Northup and republishing his story. Let’s hope it doesn’t take me that long to find more about Tempy’s family.
Check out Dr. Eakin’s website and blog with posts written by descendants of the people in 12 Years A Slave including Solomon Northup’s third great-grandson!
list of slaves from the Robert C. Hilliard papers archived at the University of Texas, Austin. On the last page, it says the slaves belonged to a Dr. W. E. Walker of Evergreen Plantation, St. Martin Parish. Perhaps this is Stirling’s in-law – his wife’s maiden name was Walker.