I had a slight advantage over the other kids in my junior high Louisiana history class: Two of my great-aunts, Sue Eakin and Manie Culbertson, wrote our textbook, Louisiana: The Land and Its PeopleI was the only person in my class (and probably the only kid in the entire state) whose textbook was inscribed by its authors. Of course, this wasn’t something you brag about in junior high, and I knew it probably wasn’t wise to tell my teacher that my aunts first gave me their book when I was in the fourth grade, lest he think I had somehow already memorized the whole thing.

Sue, Manie, and my grandmother Joanne, members of the sprawling Lyles family, were all history teachers. Along with their nine brothers and sisters (including three who were lost in childhood), they were born in Cheneyville, Louisiana and raised in nearby Loyd Bridge on the banks of Bayou Boeuf, in a place named, ironically enough, Compromise Plantation. Their father- my great-grandfather and a man I’ve only known through family folklore as “Daddy Sam”- farmed cotton, 800 acres of land that he leased and subleased to African-American sharecroppers. Truth be told, Daddy Sam was also, in the strictest sense of the term, a “sharecropper;” he never owned his land or his home. The “compromise” was complicated. I mention all of this for a reason.

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When I was in the fourth grade, along with my autographed textbook, Aunt Sue also gave me the first of many copies of the book 12 Years a Slave, and perhaps knowing that it was heavy reading for an elementary school student, she spoiled it and told me the story in her own words. Sue, a history professor, spent most of her career researching and editing 12 Years a Slave. Her name appears in bold block letters at the top of the book’s cover; the author’s name, Solomon Northup, appears in bolder letters below.

Sue loved telling Solomon Northup’s story. She knew it was riveting and important, and after first encountering the book when she was only twelve years old, she spent the next seventy-eight years of her life chasing it down. Sue’s children affectionately refer to Solomon as their “brother,” which seems appropriate. After all, they grew up with him.


Today, because of Steve McQueen’s film adaptation, the world is finally rediscovering Solomon Northup’s story. I’d been hesitant to write about the movie 12 Years a Slave until I actually saw it, but it hasn’t been easy. The reviews have seemed, at times, too good to be true. And although I didn’t grow up with Solomon at the dinner table every night like my cousins in the Eakin family, I’ve nonetheless felt protective over it by proxy. I know what it meant to Aunt Sue: the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of hours that she dedicated, her exceptional compassion for and care-taking of a story that she hoped to rescue from the footnotes of American history.

A few days ago, I saw the movie. At the risk of sounding even more hyperbolic than I already have, the reviews are right: 12 Years a Slave isn’t just the greatest film ever made about American slavery; it is, in many respects, the only film ever made about American slavery. It’s an actual bona fide masterpiece. It’s staggering, blood-curdling, and perfectly, jarringly honest in its depiction of the greatest institutionalized atrocity and criminal conspiracy in our nation’s history.


There’s a reason Aunt Sue was drawn toward Solomon Northup’s story. He spent most of his twelve years in captivity along the shores of the same bayou, Bayou Boeuf, that she and her family considered their home. He picked from the same cotton fields as her father. She knew the children and the grandchildren of the white families who enslaved him and the children and grandchildren of the slaves who toiled alongside him. I try to imagine how she must have felt when, while visiting a neighbor’s home at the age of twelve, she discovered a well-torn copy of Northup’s book and read, for the first time (albeit only briefly), about the terrible things that occurred in her own backyard. It must’ve seemed like a great mystery to her, an unsolved crime, maybe even a betrayal, this old book that told a story everyone around her seemed all too eager to forget. Sue wouldn’t find the book again until she was in college at LSU. Quoting from The Daily Beast:

However, six years later, when she was attending Louisiana State University, Eakin chanced upon a copy in a local bookstore. She asked the owner how much it cost. “What do you want that for?” he asked. “There ain’t nothing to that old book. Pure fiction. You can have it for 25 cents.”

As Eakin later observed, “I spent the next seventy years proving him wrong.”

A few years ago, Aunt Sue told another amazing story about what she experienced after inviting the Southern University choir to perform in Bunkie. Here she is, full-throttled, sharing another incredible story, in her own voice:

The movie 12 Years a Slave, because of its unflinching and unapologetic depiction of the brutalities and cruelties of a not-so-distant past, has understandably provoked a discussion about the lasting legacy of slavery.


Without question, Louisiana and most of the American South have refused to adequately and honestly confront and acknowledge the legacy of slavery. We spend millions of dollars marketing our plantation homes as sleepy, nostalgic, and beautiful destinations for weddings and tour groups, and we spend millions more incentivizing renovations of these homes under the pretense of historic preservation. And maybe that would be okay and understandable, but at the same time, we’re scrubbing all vestiges of slavery from these plantations. With few exceptions, it is almost impossible to find a plantation in Louisiana that preserves its slave quarters with the same diligence and care as it does its main house. And again, with few exceptions, you’ll likely never hear anyone in the Louisiana tourism industry admit that plantations, to quote my cousin Paul White III, are actually “concentration camps.” That thousands of African-American families also lived, worked, and died in these places, that hundreds of African-Americans were brutally murdered in these places, that the majestic oak trees in the brochures were once used for lynchings, that right beyond the immaculately manicured gardens there are long-forgotten cemeteries.

No, instead, these are beautiful historic homes on the river or the bayou, the ideal location for a wedding of rich white people whose idea of a good time is to dress up in seersucker suits and summer dresses and imagine themselves to be Southern nobility. I’ve been to a few of these weddings, and it’s been surreal every time.

When I was a kid, another one of my great aunts and another member of the Lyles family, Aunt Betty, owned a plantation on Bayou Boeuf, and I’ll readily admit: I thought it was a magical and mysterious place. But after spending a few weekends there and really exploring the whole property, it also terrified me. Outside of the main house and the cottage Betty built for herself, death was everywhere. Old slave shacks that were collapsing in on themselves, tiny one-room structures that had once housed twenty people. Near the bayou, unmarked headstones older than anything in my hometown that were mildewed and sinking into the ground.

There is no dignity in this. And as much as we may try to gloss it all over, to convince ourselves that we’re justified in presenting and marketing and incentivizing a simulacrum of plantation life, there is also no escaping it: These are concentration camps. We either preserve all of the story or we demolish all of it.


But our misplaced nostalgia for plantations is not the only and certainly not the most important thing that Steve McQueen’s adaptation of 12 Years a Slave should force Louisiana (and, indeed, the entire country) to confront.

Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. Quoting from The Times-Picayune:

The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.

And although nearly 65% of Louisiana is white, the vast and overwhelming majority of prisoners in Louisiana are African-American. In New Orleans, one in seven African-American men are either in prison or on parole or probation.

160 years after Solomon Northup published his book, a black man in Louisiana is more likely to spend his life in prison (and often for the flimsiest reasons) than he would be in any other place in the entire world. A black man in Louisiana is disproportionately more likely to be executed or to end up on death row for the same crime committed by a white man than he would be in any other place in the entire world. Quoting from Vincent Warren, the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights:

In Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, home to all men on death row in the state, those sentenced to death spend their final years locked in their cells alone for 23 hours each day. During summer, death row inmates are kept in their cells even though the heat index regularly exceeds 110 degrees. The prison does not provide them with clean ice or cool showers, but it does provide the public with tours of death row and the lethal injection table.

At night, in an effort to keep cool, the men at Angola sleep on the floor where they are exposed to fire ants. When they “misbehave,” they are moved to cells in the hottest tiers. Men have lived up to 28 years on Louisiana’s death row, and most spend at least a decade in these dehumanizing conditions waiting for court appeals to go through. That is their due process.

The problem is systemic, but rather than address the fundamental inequities, the conservative ruling class in Louisiana, led by Governor Bobby Jindal, continues to exacerbate these problems: We create incentives to incarcerate poor, primarily minority people by privatizing prisons. In Louisiana, prison is not about rehabilitation; it’s about profits. We deny $16.1 billion in Medicaid expansion funds and turn the keys of our robust public hospital system over to private corporations- not because it’s good policy, but because it’s good politics. We tie school funding to test scores and politicized teacher evaluations- without ever considering the real and direct connection between performance and poverty, the fact that Louisiana’s lowest-performing schools are those who have more than 80% of their students on the free lunch program. And instead of lifting those schools up, instead of investing in them and in the neighborhoods they serve, we divert that money to churches and unaccountable private schools, not because they actually do better but because they vote Republican.

I don’t know what, exactly, my Aunt Sue would have thought about the film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave provoking a discussion on racial and economic injustices or historical revisionism in contemporary Louisiana. She passed away a few years ago.

But I imagine that she would have relished in the conversation and celebrated the idea that, although Solomon’s story may be 160 years old, it’s still more relevant than ever.

Solomon Northup's living descendants
Solomon Northup’s living descendants

60 thoughts

  1. My sister and I both teach at ASH. She teaches AP U.S. History and I have AP English Language–both junior level courses. We are finishing this book with our students (for various curricula purposes), but we both agree it’s been one of the best teaching decisions we’ve ever made. Many of the issues you present here were brought up in Socratic Seminars in my class, and I’m changing my lesson plan today to include your article. Come speak to us sometime!


    1. Sarah, thanks so much. I’m really interested to hear what your students thought about this.

      It’s fantastic to hear that public school students in Alexandria are reading and talking about the book. I wish it had been required reading when we were at ASH.

      And I’d be honored to talk with your class. I’ll be back in Louisiana over the winter break. Stay in touch.

      1. hey! im in the ap us history class at ASH and we loved the movie! it taught me so much about my own culture that i had not even realized! i loved the movie!

    2. Thank you for this. I don’t know you but I really enjoyed reading this. I am a history teacher as well in Shreveport. LA and I will definitely be sharing this with our African American Studies teacher. Please continue your great work!!

  2. This is a wonderful and heartfelt tribute to Sue Eakin. I often feel regret nowadays that Sue is not around to enjoy the recognition that she deserves, or that it has taken a major film to spark this reaction. After all the book stands on its own, as all of us who have studied it understand. While I was her student in the’60s, I did a photo and reporting trip by boat down Bayou Boeuf escorted by Charles Neal and Barney Brady. She used some of that class project in at least one of her publications, which I appreciate. Over the years she worked at adding to the Northup narrative and enlisting a growing number of local people to participate in related projects. She even got me to escort on the Northup Trail a visiting professor, Clifford Brown of Union College, who has done his own work on Northup in his New York end of the story. My daughter, also now a history teacher, is another one using Sue’s work on Northup as part of her slavery courses at universities here in Rhode Island. I think Sue would be pleased, at long last, that her work has had an impact.

    1. Ron, thank you so much for your comment. What a cool story! And I agree: It’s a little bittersweet that Sue’s not around to experience this, but her son Frank has done an incredible job carrying the torch.

      I’ll also add: A year before she passed away, when I was working in the Alexandria Mayor’s Office, I corresponded with a filmmaker who was interested in adapting “12 Years a Slave” into an HBO mini-series, like the “John Adams” series. Obviously, that project never got off the ground, but at the time, I thought it was serious enough to ask my grandmother Joanne to give Aunt Sue a heads-up. So, even though Sue never knew about Steve McQueen’s and Brad Pitt’s project, she was well-aware of the renewed, national interest in her scholarship. I imagine this would have exceeded her expectations. As Frank recently told The Town Talk, it’s a realization of her life’s work. I’m thankful that, before she passed away, she knew that Hollywood was calling.

    2. Ron and Lamar, thanks so much for this insight — by the way Victoria has passed [in the wheel chair] and Laura is now the matriarch. It has been a 15year labor of love to continue to bring his story to light in Saratoga Springs region each third Saturday in July. You must come up and join us for 2014, I am sure descendants will enjoy your participation. Best, Renee Moore, http://www.solomonnorthupday.com

  3. Lamar , you out did yourself with this one ! I hate to admit i had not made the tie in with our current lamentable penal system. I would be terribly pessimistic except for the fact this crisis in out prison system seems to be getting traction with more and more people. Maybe simply because as health and education continue to be cut , more and more citizens are looking at our budget allocation for prisons. The current LPB series on slavery highlights the economic reasons for its perpetuation and how money was the “driver” for. the Civil War.

    True Reconstruction as Europe experienced after WW II may have averted most of the the revanchism of Jim Crow , but “money ” had other agenda.

  4. Hi, Liz Brazelton posted your blog on her FB page, and I’m so happy she did!. I teach Northup as part of my African-American Lit course at LSUA–I knew of your aunt, but never met her. In fact, I just finished editing information about Dr. Eakin for the opening of the Epps house/museum on November 14. I deeply appreciate your synthesis–it is not only insightful, but also fierce and determined. I think your grandmother and your aunts, especially Dr. Eakin, would be very, very proud of their legacy.

    1. Thanks so much, Professor Jones. Next time I’m in Alexandria, I’ll have to stop by the Epps House. I appreciate all of the hard work you and your colleagues at LSUA have done on this project. It is important that we, as a community, confront and understand the entire story.

      1. Better yet, write and let me know when you’ll be in town. History prof. Dr. Jerry Sanson, and the LSUA archivist Michelle Riggs, a few others and I are planning a Twelve Years symposium for sometime next semester. You might enjoy taking part!

    1. Thanks Gay. I was aware of the film adaption from the early 80s, though I haven’t seen it. My understanding is that it was made for public television and that it was a disappointment.

  5. Amazing, I teach African-American History(12th grade) at a New Orleans charter school and we are currently reading the book and are going to see the film this Thursday. I will be printing your article in the morning!!! I loved how you connected the issue of Louisiana prisons. Can’t wait for my students to engage in this discussion!!!

  6. I teach at a Lafayette high school and I would love to teach this or use it as a source for when we teach Realistic Literature. I know that will meet with some challenge as academic freedom and liberty are now being challenged more than ever (i.e. common core) in our classrooms. I am open to any suggestions on how this can be used in my classroom as recommended reading and hopefully one day as required reading.

  7. It’s time that America acknowledge slavery, for what it really was. Torture, the genocide against African people!! I’m so glad someone finally said something about the prison system here in Louisiana.

  8. I’m absolutely thrilled to hear from so many Louisiana educators. Sue’s son – my cousin- Frank Eakin has a great website about the audiobook (which was recorded by Academy Award and Emmy Award winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr.) that includes a wealth of information on the book– maps, images, biographical information, audio clips, and an outstanding blog written by some of the descendants of many of the characters in the book, including Solomon’s great-great-grandson. Frank has created an amazing, incomparable resource and a great teaching tool.

    I highly encourage all of you to check it out.

    The address is: http://twelveyearsaslave.org/

    If you are interested in ordering the book for your classroom or for your personal reading, there’s only one version you should even consider: Aunt Sue’s definitive, exhaustive final edition, which is available for purchase on Amazon.com. It is the real deal. And you can buy it here: http://www.amazon.com/Twelve-Years-Slave-Enhanced-Lifetime-ebook/dp/B00EFDZ288

    If I can provide any of you with additional information, please let me know. Both Frank and I are more than happy to help educators assemble the materials they need for their lesson plans.

    All the best,


  9. I saw the movie last week and apologize for the length of my response, but my thoughts have been ruminating since I saw it and these things are heavy on my heart. So, here goes.

    The imagery and sound track create a cacophonous effect which intensifies the portrayal of the abuse and horror of slavery. The making of this movie highlights an “evil” from our past as a nation, much the same as those which focused on the concentration camps of Nazi Germany have done.

    It is important to remember the atrocities of our past, as a means of never forgetting just how “evil” human beings can be to one another. But I, personally, do not like the extent of graphic portrayal of violence in the movie both in terms of certain events (the whipping scene near the end of the movie) and the number scenes that depicted such graphic violence. In my opinion, movies that so graphically depict the violence desensitizes our “spirits” such that only something even more graphic is needed to prick the conscience of people.

    In contrast, the movie Shindler’s List, showed some scenes of graphic violence. But it seemed to not do so for the “shock” effect contained in the movie 12 Years a Slave. The producers of Shindler’s List also balanced it with the compassion of others who fought against the atrocities in a great way. This aspect was not only tangential in 12 Years a Slave, but also almost non-existent. And something I felt could have been accentuated a great deal more to make the movie better, especially since so many whites assisted with the underground railroad of which the main character was associated. But alas it did not. It was, from my point of view, a lot of violence with hopes of having some cathartic effect (mostly the writers, director, and producers).

    I still remember quite vividly the story my Great-Grandfather (born around 1880 in Stone Mountain, GA – birthplace of the Klan) told me. He told me how he, as a young child, was running home late down a well-traveled path one night and was knocked down as he ran. He got up, went home, and the next day went back to see what it was that knocked him down. There he found a black man who had been lynched. When he told me that story as a young child, I can still hear the compassion he had for the person who had been lynched.

    My Great-Grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister who told that story because it appalled him. He married a full-blooded Cherokee woman and took a lot of heat for that back then. Remember, the Trail of Tears began in GA. More specifically, on the current site of the University of GA and there is a marker (behind a dumpster – yes, behind a dumpster) signifying the importance of the spot. The Trail of Tears issued by President Jackson – against the Supreme Court – extinguished so many of my past relations. And yet my Great-Grandfather was still the kindest, gentlest, and one of the most God-fearing, anti-bigoted and anti-racist men I have ever known.

    My fear is that many who see the movie 12 Years a Slave will continue to paint all people of the South as still being like those in the movie. Especially by those of us Yankees who were born and bred in the North. And yes, there are still people who are racist who live in the South. But there are also plenty of Yankees who while being “tolerant” are just as racist and bigoted as those portrayed in the movie. I hear it in discussions about the Jewish people who live in Newton Center, MA.

    This juxtaposition of the good that opposes “evil” is severely lacking in the movie 12 Years a Slave.

    If the purpose of the movie was to get me to think, it did that. But, I am not a very big proponent of the kind of violence portrayed in the movie and do not think I could wholeheartedly endorse it without these accompanying statements.

    As such I leave the end of this letter with a quote from Cry, the Beloved Country: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.” ― Alan Paton


    1. Doug, I really appreciate your comment, but I respectfully disagree with much of your criticism.

      There are only five scenes of violence in the entire movie, and all told, those scenes take up less than ten minutes of a 134 minute-long film. No doubt, those scenes are each jarring, and McQueen’s direction was unflinching. But they are all powerful, important, and necessary in understanding Solomon’s experience.

      As a white man born and raised in Central Louisiana, the setting for most of the film, I have heard, for much of my life, a variation of the argument you seem to be making: That when we tell the history of American slavery, we must somehow “balance” the brutality of the institution with the stories of noble white folks who also fought against it, that an uncompromising depiction of the brutality of slavery may somehow foster hatred against white Southerners of today, that a film like this only throws salt into the wounds that we’ve been trying to heal for more than 150 years.

      To that, I guess my response is: So be it. Obviously, not every white person in the American South supported slavery. My hometown, Alexandria, was actually founded by Northerners and, prior to the Civil War, was home to a large number of abolitionists, including William Tecumseh Sherman. Yes, the truth is complicated and nuanced, but that, in and of itself, doesn’t provide us with any rationale in denying or censoring or “balancing” our presentation of past atrocities with feel-good or redemptive anecdotes or soaring, uplifting music.

      If, as you suggest, people in the North watch this film and take away from it that white folks in rural Louisiana are all and have always been evil racists, then they are guilty of misappropriating a brilliant movie in order to justify their own ignorance and misplaced sense of cultural superiority.

      But honestly, I don’t think that is likely at all. What I hope, instead, is that people will see this and contemplate how the legacy of slavery continues to affect our entire country, the ways in which multi-generational, institutionalized discrimination relates to education, social class, privilege, access to health care, and incarceration rates.

      In his opinion striking down part of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “History did not end in 1965,” implying that America no longer tolerates institutionalized discrimination. A few weeks later, more than a dozen states, mainly in the South, began introducing legislation aimed at burdening older, primarily minority Americans from voting.

      No, history didn’t end in 1865 or in 1965, but those, like Chief Justice Roberts, who glibly and naively deny the reality of institutionalized discrimination are not living in the present; they’re living in a privileged bubble.

      So, I applaud “12 Years a Slave” for forcing a conversation. It may make some folks uncomfortable, but it’s long overdue.

      1. I can not speak on the film directly as I haven’t seen it yet, but I have done a fair amount of listening about the film. From the perspective of theoreticals, like should film like this in general have a balance of showing supportive whites etc, I do have opinions… We as a country have been trying to forget this part of our history, we want stories that coddle whites so we can say, “I would have been like so-and-so”… We need to be reminded, unflinchingly of what we have done and are still doing. If we want to compare this with the Holocaust, and how the Germans deal with their dark history, we fail miserably, in Germany they have reminders all around them, they try to be the staunchest watchdogs of human rights as atonement. We, in the US, want to “move on already”. We say “Never Forget” about 9/11 and all sorts of National tragedies, but gosh it seems all we want to do is tell African Americans and others of color to get over it already.

    2. Hi Doug,

      I pray God allows you to read this. Most of the people on this page has confused to either being History teachers or in not so many words loving history and to repeat a term I have been hearing the Republican Party use a lot lately, not lovers of “revisionist history.” This movie is accurate to the book which you seemly have not read based upon your comment. I myself having a History degree from Georgia State but having written many papers focused on New Orleans namely the Gens de Coleur Libre a class of people from which I am descended and with shame have discovered did own quite a bit of land and slaves upon the commencement of the Civil War. Land which they own to this day, shakes included has always been a mystery to us in the most recent generation as they never wanted to discuss it. We only knew we were never to enter the shacks “those were not places for our kind” or touch the fields “they hired people to do that.” From a cild I knew that I would not marry a “nappy headed” or uneducated girl who had no family. I we’ll understood the term nappy-headed girl but to this day I do not understand “no family” everyone has one good or bad we don’t pop up out of thin air and to this day I do not understand the pretentiousness as we were not rich in my opinion. However upon studying I realized what they wanted was to remind throughout the generations what is recognized as Creoles of Color, free before the war therefore somehow still better than Black though recognized and identified as such especially during Jim Crow. This stated my family has been free since before the turn of the 18th century both men and women earning college educations since they have been allowed to and no member of my family save two have been to jail outside of protesters during the Civil Rights Movement. Of the two that have been to jail only 1 for the crimes most typically associated with Blacks. I believe this is in part due to our inheritance of freedom and education that were gained long before most. I have had the privilege of assisting a friend in translating one of her ancestor’s diaries that was lost in the storm and I may say slavery even when the owner was what is now considered Black was a horrible institution. I honestly must say like Soloman Northup I can only speak of my experiences but the legacy lives in us passed like a disease at birth from one generation to the next. I must also agree that the poor, those that may never be able to afford a slave, were then and not the most violent and strictest proponents of the institute of slavery, discrimination, prejudice and racism.

      Also, the late Mr. Northup as was reflected in the movie did note that there were White Southerners even those that owned slaves who were very kind even lovingly so, however they did own slaves. It is the great paradox of humanity, the longer we live in the monkey house the less we notice the smell we learn to live with it. So just imagine being born in it, there will be times when it smells like roses. I in part believe that is why there were overseers and drivers most men then could not sooner beat a slave then a man now cut off a chicken’s head to eat. It takes a special kind of man to take on those jobs. I believe they painted the picture as it was be it out of fear or ignorance those that may have shown kindness didn’t. I would with at least 50 White people all of whom either marched with King or had parents or grandparents that did. That is amazing to me.

      I hope this helps you are someone understand.

      Excuse spelling in grammar as it is late and I am typing on an iPad.

  10. Sue Eakin was one of my professors while I was at LSUA. As I have frequently said and written, she was much more. She encouraged my writing, creative and fact-based.

    She taught me – really through her example and reminders – the importance of documentation and accuracy.

    Professor Eakin blessed me and others with an interest and love of our area’s history and an appreciation for its diversity.

    I too grew up on a plantation, on the banks of Bayou Bouef, two miles north of Cheneyville, Louisiana.

    So when Sue Eakin spoke so candidly and vividly of Northup and slavery – and also of of the rich and blended culture that inspired writers and artists from Bayou Bouef to Cane River I listened intently.

    So much of what is in the well written column above and the comments following are reminders that we cannot, nor should we wish to – clench affectionately to one facet of our history, only to ignore or worse – deny – the harsher realities of that same history.

    Perhaps there would be this movie “12 Years a Slave” without Sue Eakin’s ever being so dedicated and involved – but I for one seriously doubt it. Thanks, Mrs. Eakin. You did it!!!

    Bob Munson

    1. Thank you so much for your heartfelt, thoughtful, and gracious comment, Bob. Incidentally, I just spent a few days abroad with your nephew and niece (assuming that there isn’t more than one Bob Munson who was born and raised in a plantation on Bayou Boeuf). They’re both great, generous people (who I’ve known for most of my life, actually), and believe it or not, both of them encouraged me to reach out to you, perhaps sensing that we may be kindred spirits. I think they’re right. Cheers!

  11. “I spent the next seventy years proving him wrong.”

    What a wonderful and worthy epitaph! Would that I could claim one half as good.

    It is a shame that the powers that be in Louisiana not only fail to learn from history but actively seek to repeat it.

  12. It is important to study history but it is wrong to use history as a tool to divide people. My first years as the abandoned child of an uncaring mother, growing up with poor grandparents in a tar paper shack in Mississippi, were no different than my black play-mates who lived ¼ mile from us. It was poverty which hung over Mississippi like a fog and poverty doesn’t know race or history. Poverty has no past but it has a future, and that future robs us all of the unrealized potential of the individual.

    1. Mike, you have a good heart, but open your eyes to the truth. Yes, poverty exists and does impede progress, but the issue here is institutional racism. What poor whites get a slap on the hand for , black people get thrown in jail for. Seeking to change the system is not seeking to divide people. When we accept that wrong was done and continues to be done, then perhaps those of good will, of all colors, can come together and help to redress these wrongs. We can still make the world a better place for others without any loss to ourselves.

  13. Loved the article! It was wonderful to see the video of Aunt Sue! I have not heard her voice in so many years! She is greatly missed. I have not seen the movie yet myself but do plan to. Hope you and your family are doing well! – Sarah Lyles, daughter of James Lyles, granddaughter of Bill Lyles (Manie, Sue, and Joanne’s brother)

  14. Hi, I was a student at BRCC and during my second year, I decided to enroll in an African American studies course. First day of school the instructor (middle aged black woman) had a stroke, she was replaced by a middle aged white man from Northern Mississippi. Now we all kind of thought to ourselves, “hmm, what does he know about AA studies” but we all gave him a chance. Needless to say he was the BEST AA studies teacher anyone has had since. He introduced 12 years to us and told us that the book would be the biggest percentage of our grade. The best class I’ve had.. The book really shook me up. Bless your aunt for her actions and her respect for Mr. Northup

  15. Very interesting discussion….the movie was for the most part, true to the book….the horror is the story was based on TRUTH….it was not fiction…..heartbreaking….& institutional racism is still alive in the US…HOW SAD….

  16. I saw 12 years a slve on Ruko about 5 month’s ago. I told my husband and kids about it. How i thoght it was a great movie. And it should be inputted in our La. hostory classes.I took Black History at East Ascension High School with Mrs. O. Johnson and she talked about all the injustice of our time. There times in our class they would click on the intercom to hear what we wrere saying.My kids also took the class. I think it should be apart of theLa. history class period.If some of these people making laws could go back and study some of our history La. a whole would be a lot better.You go up north people don’t study hate like they do here.We must embrace our young men and women with prayers and love.Teach them at a early age what Soloman and others endured for our freedom.ust tell the truth.

  17. Thank You for writing this piece and giving us more background information about this book and movie.I took my 19 year old to see this movie. She didn’t want to go but afterward she was glad she did. My mom is from Chennyville, LA. She still has family there though most of her siblings moved to California.

  18. I must admit that I have not seen 12 Years, by design. I have always felt that I did not need to revisit that period, while at the same time contributing to someone else’s income in the process. Having read the above piece, I now have to change my view. If the movie is as accurately depicting as so many have stated, and I do believe them, I would be doing myself a disservice NOT to see it.

    Thanks for connecting the dots between institutionalized racism and incarceration. No matter how many times I state it, it doesn’t carry the same weight as when someone White says the same thing. While I have no family members (aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins) that are or have been incarcerated, it doesn’t mean I cannot appreciate the disparities in how justice is meted out.

    Thank you and your aunt for not allowing the negative truth of the period to die.

  19. I really enjoyed this article and need to see the movie and/or read the book. I appreciate you tying it to the criminal “justice” system. When someone told me they wanted to see the movie because it’s a true story about a black man who gets enslaved even though he’s free, my response was, “we do that now, it’s called incarceration.” I worked for a while at Angola in two of the camps and on Death Row and there is a disproportional amount of black to white inmates. Every so often I hear of someone getting out because they were innocent. 140 in the US have been exonorated from Death Row alone. This does not account for the ones who’ve been exonerated who weren’t on Death Row. To think that many could have been wrongfully executed is a shame. Even one is innocent person executed is wrong. I have friends who are policeman who’ve been told to “go find someone” when they didn’t have a lead on a suspect.

  20. Wonderful article! Very interesting piece of history! I saw the movie & thought it was art, masterpiece!!

  21. Great article! I’m wondering if you are related to or if your “Daddy Sam” was related to or is Sam Compton of the same area?

  22. Thank you Lamar, for your wonderful article. By the way, that’s my photography taken at the 1999 Solomon Northup Day which I founded in Saratoga Springs in 1999. For July 20, 2013, there are other photos to be seen. Please credit me with the photo — thanks and let’s keep in touch, Happy New Year, best regards, You have to come on up to Saratoga for the 2014 event.
    Renee Moore, Founder, Solomon Northup Day: a celebration of freedom. FB: Solomon Northup Day, http://www.solomonnorthupday.com, themoor78@yahoo.com, 518-596-4329.

  23. Thank you for writing this! I think we are at the dawn of a new age in America where the true story of slavery is finally starting to be exposed. I’m glad your family has contributed to this.

  24. I couldn’t continue reading this article after the author compared plantation homes to concentration camps. It is truly absurd that someone would marginalize the atrocities of the Holocaust, where millions of people were murdered, to plantations that, if the author would have previously researched, were less indicative of institutionalized brutality as they were to providing shelter, food, and protection. I’m not at all attempting to justify the institution of slavery but certain issues in this article seriously need to be put into perspective.

  25. Hi Lamar, I loved to read your writing , this a real eye opener.I had watched the movie and was moved by the life of soloman. I am from India.Its a country of diverse religion and culture, though there religious and racist disturbance but mostly politically created. I am shocked and amazing, how come a first world nation still has not been able to comeout of the racial discrimation.This means the slavery and those brutal events still persists in U.S when African Americam are one who are amongst the prisoners. I would like to hear from you more, don’ t have your governtment working towards making things better. Really want an input from you.

  26. I’m glad 12 Years a Slave is causing a discussion, and I hope more films and other forms of media come out to keep it going. Every day it seems the spirit of Jim Crow–not dead, just in a new form–is keeping people down, uneducated, unable to get healthcare, and unable to vote on it. It’s sickening that it’s still going on, and that more people want it to go on.

  27. I loved your blog! Powerful is an understatement! I am in awe honestly! History is an intricate part of our society and we need to know the truth!

  28. Great story! Louisiana’s history is great, but often under the radar. It has a connection to other areas such as in the Caribbean (Haiti). One of the key I believe to a perfect union going forward is simple to honor all of our contributions rather than a few selected ones. Certainly, I understood your secret could have (1), gained few more friends, and (two) lost many. At that age we always wanted to keep of our friends, and being a Royal among your peers could have caused issues. One of my own sister taught a required class in my high school. When it was time take her class, I went out of my way avoid it and told friends she was my adopted sister and mom just wanted her to keep an eye on me, but it turned out great. Please see my blog that touches some of the issues you talked about.


  29. Freedom comes from thought. Many people are slave of their thoughts that make them slave of that narrow lane which converted many African people to Christians by torture in past and stripped off their own culture. Truly limiting falsehood so called massiah had and has been working to fence free thought process thus producing sterile brain that lost capacity to know itself exactly what they are. All nature is something else than what is seen by external eyes.

  30. You say, “Without question, Louisiana and most of the American South have refused to adequately and honestly confront and acknowledge the legacy of slavery.” I would say that we as a NATION have refused to address this legacy. It is my hope that movies such as McQueen’s and others, and blog posts such as this, are part of a reversing trend.

    Also, this past weekend, I was able to sleep in the Royall House Slave Quarters as part of Joe McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project — in Medford, Mass. Hopefully his and others’ efforts will help to save and memorialize some of the extant slave quarters. His is a wonderful mission of education, and acknowledgement, and honoring of those who were enslaved.

  31. It’s hard to imagine how difficult life can be, (has been) for some. The adaptation was significant; I have seen people absorb the story. I’ve seen change in perspectives.

  32. Mr. White, I am a student at ASH and we are currently reading 12 Years a slave in our Junior US history class. We have a Socratic seminar on it tomorrow, in fact, and I am anxious to see what this brings up. I agree, some people’s feelings will be hurt, but the truth of what has happened in our recent past does not need to be shaken off. I think it would be amazing if you would speak to all the classes who are reading this book to offer up a new perspective on this book. I know for sure that all of the teachers would really appreciate the emphasis on the issues presented in this book.

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