Saturday, 4th January 2014
In an article in yesterday's Guardian, the British director, Steve McQueen, of Oscar-tipped drama 12 Years a Slave, criticised Hollywood for a historical paucity of movies on slavery. The film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup. McQueen argues the industry has largely ignored the subject of slavery. The article quotes an interview given by McQueen to Sky News: "The second world war lasted five years and there are hundreds and hundreds of films about the second world war and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and there are less than 20 films. We have to redress that balance and look at that time in history."
The same is true of websites in the USA. Do a search at Google for "Solomon Northup" and see what you get. At the top you will get his Wikipedia entry. In its early days Google attempted to give you the best page at the top of its searches. With its reliance of "domain authority"the situation has changed. If Wikipedia has produced a page on a subject, it will appear at the top of any search. Google has a domain authority of 100. Whereas the Guardian has a score of only 96 (American newspapers are rated higher as this is Google's plan to allow its country to dominate mass communications). Even our top universities like Cambridge and Oxford only have domain authority ratings of 94.
The Wikipedia entry is fairly detailed account of his life (this has been increased dramatically since the release of 12 Years a Slave). My problem with the entry for Solomon Northup is that it makes no attempt to capture what it was like to a slave in the United States. There is no excuse for this as Northup produced a magnificent memoir of his experiences. Here for example is Northup describing a slave auction:
"In the first place we were required to wash thoroughly, and those with beards, to shave. We were then furnished with a new suit each, cheap, but clean. The men had hat, coat, shirt, pants and shoes; the women frocks of calico, and handkerchiefs to bind about their heads. We were now conducted into a large room in the front part of the building to which the yard was attached, in order to be properly trained, before the admission of customers. The men were arranged on one side of the room, the women on the other. The tallest was placed at the head of the row, then the next tallest, and so on in the order of their respective heights. Emily was at the foot of the line of women. Freeman charged us to remember our places; exhorted us to appear smart and lively... After being fed, in the afternoon, we were again paraded and made to dance."
Northup then goes on to describe how his friend, Eliza suffered the misery of having her children, Emily and Randall, sold at the auction: "By this time she had become haggard and hollow-eyed with sickness and with sorrow. It would be a relief if I could consistently pass over in silence the scene that now ensued. It recalls memories more mournful and affecting than any language can portray. I have seen mothers kissing for the last time the faces of their dead offspring; I have seen them looking down into the grave, as the earth fell with a dull sound upon their coffins, hiding them from their eyes forever; but never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child. She broke from her place in the line of women, and rushing down where Emily was standing, caught her in her arms. The child, sensible of some impending danger, instinctively fastened her hands around her mother's neck, and nestled her little head upon her bosom. Freeman sternly ordered her to be quiet, but she did not heed him. He caught her by the arm and pulled her rudely, but she only clung the closer to the child.... She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought her self and Emily. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her.... unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes. Yes, he would take the nonsense out of her pretty quick - if he didn't, might he be dead. Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted mother. She kept on begging and beseeching them, most piteously not to separate the three. Over and over again she told them how she loved her boy. A great many times she repeated her former promises - how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it."
Wikipedia is not the only American website that is reluctant to look too closely at the life of Solomon Northup. After several articles by news organizations (in order of domain authority) you get his entry from Biography.com (domain authority 87). It does contain a 47 word quote from Twelve Years a Slave, but it is a fairly brief look at his life. It is only when you get to my page on Solomon Northup (domain authority 80) do you get a detailed look at his life in his own words. The same is true of the other slaves I have written about (for a full list see my Slavery index page).
The whole premise behind Wikipedia has been that it is possible to write objective history. This is of course nonsense and is in itself an ideological approach to subject. So also is its style of compiling biographies. Its attempt to concentrate on facts, while playing down the emotional aspects of being a human, does a disservice to the process of history writing.
The Allied Plot to Kill Lenin (7th March, 2014)
Was Rasputin murdered by MI6? (24th February 2014)
Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons (11th February, 2014)
Pete Seeger and the Media (1st February 2014)
Should history teachers use Blackadder in the classroom? (15th January 2014)
Why did the intelligence services murder Dr. Stephen Ward? (8th January 2014)
Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave (4th January 2014)
The Angel of Auschwitz (6th December 2013)
The Death of John F. Kennedy (23rd November 2013)
Adolf Hitler and Women (22nd November 2013)
New Evidence in the Geli Raubal Case (10th November 2013)
Murder Cases in the Classroom (6th November 2013)
Major Truman Smith and the Funding of Adolf Hitler (4th November 2013)
Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler (30th October 2013)
Claud Cockburn and his fight against Appeasement (26th October 2013)
The Strange Case of William Wiseman (21st October 2013)
Robert Vansittart's Spy Network (17th October 2013)
British Newspaper Reporting of Appeasement and Nazi Germany (14th October 2013)
Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail and Fascism (12th October 2013)
Wallis Simpson and Nazi Germany (11th October 2013)
The Activities of MI5 (9th October 2013)
The Right Club and the Second World War (6th October 2013)
What did Paul Dacre's father do in the war? (4th October 2013)
Ralph Miliband and Lord Rothermere (2nd October 2013)