Slavery as a global institution tends to have an unreal aura surrounding it. Modern perspectives cannot be empathetic because it is not an institution even partially realized in the last century of American life. This is why even through reading Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll and examining most of the aspects of slave life, slavery still remains a mystery in the personal sense. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, in addition to being one of Genovese’s own resources, fills this void with its brutally honest personal story of a slave’s life. Northup’s account enlightens and strengthens Genovese’s arguments, specifically those concerning labor, the master-slave relationship, and rebellion, by putting global descriptions in a personal perspective.
One of the main advantages of 12 Years a Slave is that Northup is a slave himself, and in that respect does not have to be an apologist for slavery and slaveholders. It is not that Genovese himself is an apologist, but as a modern Caucasian, he must approach the subject of casting any light that might be perceived as positive on slaveholders with trepidation. Although Genovese does his best to present a fair and accurate depiction of slavery, he cannot know the slaves’ perceptions of their masters. It is really in this respect that Northup’s account is so useful. By portraying slaveholders as people with human faults and sensibilities, he shows how the institution affects everyone involved. Slaveholders can still be good people, and that goodness shines through the peculiar institution. This is a vital piece of the story of slavery that Genovese cannot put in his comprehensive history. Northup’s words must be left to stand alone, and draw specifics against a general background.
The details of working cotton and sugar cane differ little from Genovese to Northup. Genovese puts the slave gang working grueling hours with specific daily goals, and Northup backs this up with his description. “The hands are required to be in the cotton fields as soon as it is light and they often times labor till the middle of the night.”(1) This is a prime example of how Northup is able to lend his personal experience to Genovese’s general description of slavery. Northup tells us that even after such long hours, the slaves are still extremely afraid, because the master demands a certain amount of cotton from each slave. Merely meeting that goal is not be enough; if a slave exceeds it, then the expectations for that slave’s ability would be raised. However, if the goal is not met, then the slave is whipped(2). These specific elucidations of Genovese’s general work theme strengthen his thesis and make slavery a much more personal experience.
The description of Northup’s experience of working cotton and cane again ties together many things Genovese outlines in Roll, Jordan, Roll. Even though Northup is not really working in a gang, the work style is much the same and the demands are even more personalized to the worker. “Each one is taskedaccording to his picking abilities, none, however, to come short of two hundred weight.” Northup goes on to explain about Patsey who picked around five hundred pounds a day, and if she didn’t pick at least four hundred pounds she “would surely have been beaten.”(3) Genovese suggests that the general trend of slaveholders is to use this kind of inducement to keep their slaves on their toes, but he doesn’t have descriptions as graphic as this. When Genovese discusses labor, he seems to focus mainly on the southern idea that slaves are lazy. Northup’s tale hones in more on what the individual experience is in slavery; and it is not one concerned with trying to avoid work. Northup is a slave, and any work he does for his master he does under duress, and so the benefit of his tale is to refocus the discourse on labor out of rhetoric and into a tangible sense of what is demanded of slaves.
The power of the whip is not really detailed by Genovese in any descriptions by slaves of how the whip increased productivity specifically. The closest he gets is quoting of a grandfather’s advice that working hard would avoid the whip(4), but Northup actually describes how the whip would