When my Great Aunt Sue Eakin, at the age of eighteen, finally rediscovered a well-worn, long-forgotten copy of Solomon Northup’s book “12 Years a Slave” hibernating on the shelves of a popular bookstore near the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, the bookstore owner practically gave it to her.
“There ain’t nothing to that old book,” he said. “Pure fiction. You can have it for 25 cents.”
As I mentioned previously, Sue had first seen the book “12 Years a Slave” when she was only twelve, tagging along with her father, a man we called Daddy Sam, for a visit with one of his neighbors. And while Daddy Sam and the other adults were discussing business, Sue kept herself occupied by perusing through the man’s library, happening, finally, on an old, out-of-print copy of a book she’d never heard of before, a book titled “12 Years a Slave.” And then, as kids often do, she devoured that book as quickly as she could, reading almost all of it before her father returned.
Six years later, when the bookseller in Baton Rouge told her that “12 Years a Slave” was “complete fiction,” she must have been careful to contain herself, because even then, she knew there were certain aspects of the book that seemed undeniably true. The bookseller in Baton Rouge may have not recognized the names of the white families who owned plantations on Bayou Boeuf, but Sue did; many of their children and grandchildren were her neighbors, still living in the same places. And she knew the people just as much as these places. Sue must’ve recognized, very early on, that the real challenge was not merely to “prove” Solomon Northup’s unbelievable story; it was, also, to convince many in her community to help her validate this powerful, exceptional story of human cruelty and human resilience.
It would not be easy.
Slave narratives were considered propaganda, books that were actually written and conceived entirely by white Northerners in order to bolster their own political agenda. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” as successful and influential as it may have been, was still, nonetheless, a work of fiction written by a white woman from Connecticut. “12 Years a Slave” wasn’t, technically, written by Solomon Northup; it was told to and “ghostwritten” by a white man. But unlike “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Twelve Years a Slave” always asserted itself as a true story, a memoir of a living American citizen.
My sixth great-grandfather (through the White family) was a man named Robert Tanner. I’ll warn you in advance: I am about sink into the details here. Robert was born in South Carolina in 1769. He spent some time in Mississippi in his late thirties and then he moved his entire family, most of whom were still small children, to Bayou Boeuf. As legend has it, Robert was somewhat of a surveyor, a man responsible for drawing up and assigning property rights along the bayou; a powerful position, to be sure.
Robert built Witchwood Plantation, which is still standing and still occupied; both he and his wife Providence are buried on its grounds. One of his sons, Paul Jabez, who was likely a nephew adopted from his wife’s family at a very early age, eventually built another nearby plantation, Walnut Grove, which is also still standing (and, coincidentally, was once owned and renovated by one of my great aunts from the Lyles family). Another one of Robert’s sons, Peter, owned a fairly large planation estate near Opelousas, and one of Robert’s daughters, Martha, married a well-known local Baptist minister, William Prince Ford, a plantation owner who also made a career cultivating cotton and trading slaves.
I mention all of this for a reason: William Prince Ford and his wife Martha Tanner Ford were the very first “owners” of Solomon Northup. Solomon spent time working at Peter Tanner’s plantation, and he played the fiddle at the home of another one of my great-grandfathers, William Pearce.
They are all “in the book,” and most of them are also in the film.
Growing up, I never knew about any of these people. Until recently, I didn’t realize that I was related to them, and, frankly, I’m not sure this knowledge would have ever made a difference to me, regardless.
Sure, these were my ancestors, and sure, this all occurred only a few miles down the street from my family home in Alexandria. But it still was a world and several generations apart; it was completely foreign to me; if anything, as a kid, it scared me.
Yesterday, my cousin Paul White III, a man who knows more about Louisiana history than anyone else in my family (which is saying a lot), reminded me of something that kids used to say to one another in elementary school. It wasn’t unusual to hear a white boy ask another white boy on the playground, “How many slaves did your family own?”
“My family owned a bunch of slaves” wasn’t an admission of shame or an acknowledgment of criminality; it was merely a manifestation of a white child’s understanding of privilege and power, a way of expressing the value they attached to their social and political inheritance and capital. These kids were bragging.
Whenever a white kid in Louisiana said to a black kid, “My family used to own your family,” a taunt I heard on more than a few occasions, I remember feeling almost paralyzed by anger, like my entire body became so tense that I became immobilized. Maybe slavery was less abstract to me than it was for many of my classmates: I’d spent a lot of time on my aunt’s enormous plantation outside of Cheneyville, and I convinced myself, fairly quickly, that the place was haunted and deceptively terrifying. I took it all very seriously.
Today, as an adult, I know, of course, that kids accept and repeat the dumb and hateful things that they learn at home; kids learn racism at home; kids learn to ask dehumanizing and bigoted questions about slavery at home. They learn how to deflect their insecurities at home.
Alexandria, if we’re going to get over this, please: Ignore them.
I am enormously lucky to have been born into a family that champions civil rights and equality, a family that taught me, from the moment I can first remember, about empathy and dignity and mutual respect. I also understand that my experience is unusual: I was a disabled kid who spent a great deal of his childhood traveling around Louisiana with my grandmother, a retired history teacher, and on the weekends, when I was a kid, we’d visit the long-forgotten graveyards of our ancestors and the slaves owned by our ancestors; she’d sometimes take me on other tours, Oak Alley and Evangeline Oak, small-town churches and even smaller graveyards that seemed nestled and almost entirely forgotten.