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The Surprisingly Central Role of Slave Women in "12 Years a Slave"

The ordeal of Solomon Northup, a free man of color from New York who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold as a slave in Louisiana, is the focus of the new film 12 Years a Slave, directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen and based on Northup’s 1853 published autobiographical account. The film has received much early critical acclaim, and rightfully so. It is, without a doubt, one of the best depictions of antebellum slave life put to film and, along with, Haile Gerima’s 1993 masterwork Sankofa, Stan Lathan’s 1987 Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the indomitable classic Roots of 1977, and Gabriel Ranger’s 2010 I Am Slave, the story of the contemporary enslavement of Mende Nazer, 12 Years a Slave presents some of the most compelling, and soon to be iconic, images of slave women on celluloid. .

Indeed, one of the aspects of Northup’s autobiography that convinced director McQueen to adapt it to film was the Northrup's depiction of slave women in his lengthy account. Published descriptions of the plight of enslaved women, of course, made for an important abolitionist device intended to gain sympathy for their cause. True stories of the inability of enslaved women to maintain the gendered conventions of the day -- domesticity, sexual purity, and maternal sacrifice -- because of their status as physical and sexual laborers who could not be legally married or have parental control over their children, abound in published accounts from the late antebellum era. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (which Northup dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose own character “Eliza” was the most famous iconic slave woman of the era) certainly made it possible for a Northern audience to accept the details of rampant sexual abuse and forced concubinage detailed, for example, in Louisa Picquet’s Octoroon: A Tale of Southern Slave Life and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, both published in 1861.

On morning in March 1841, in Saratoga Springs, New York, when Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton approached Solomon Northup as part of an elaborate scheme to kidnap and sell him as a slave, their target was about thirty-three, a literate, urban, Christian husband and father of three, a skilled craftsman, inventor, and musician. He brought these lenses of free manhood, Christianity, middle class status and intelligence to the terrifying scenario of slavery he endured. His views of the women he encountered in the South perhaps were shaped more by the thirty-three years he had lived free in the North, than the twelve he labored as a slave in Louisiana. Nonetheless, Northup’s autobiography offers the historian of slavery and Southern women a rich palette of Southern slave and female life -- some of it captured remarkably well in McQueen’s film version.

From the first day that Solomon is enslaved in a Washington, D.C. slave pen, he takes note of the women around him, providing his reader with detailed accounts of their personal histories -- their marital status and their children, their physical attributes, particular skills, and personalities. He first meet Eliza, a concubine with two children, who epitomizes the loss so many enslaved women and their young endured as a result of sale and separation. Eliza had believed that her sexual relationship with her owner, which resulted in the birth of her youngest child, would protect her family from sale, since he had promised to free all of them.

Eliza mourns her losses bitterly throughout the early part of Northup’s saga and, as well, in McQueen’s film. Solomon befriends and tries to comfort Eliza, but there is no comfort for her. In the narrative, Solomon describes Eliza’s fall from domestic to field slave -- because her new mistress, Mrs. Ford, cannot tolerate her overwhelming sadness. She eventually dies of a broken heart and body worn out from toil. In the movie, however, Eliza becomes the one example of enslavement that Solomon absolutely rejects -- a defeated shell, unable to move on and survive long enough for the hopeful day of freedom.

Eliza is neither Northup’s nor McQueen’s only concubine. Unlike Solomon’s narrative, which is filled with women of varied status and occupation, all of the enslaved women who have substantial roles in McQueen’s film adaptation are concubines. Along with Eliza there are also Patsey, the brutalized sex slave of Edwin Epps, and Harriet Shaw, the slave “mistress” of a neighboring plantation who serves as “lady” of her master’s house. It is on Patsey on whom McQueen’s film version and, to some extent, Solomon Northup’s published account, hang the representation of slave women and their troubled relationships with their mistresses.

Edwin Epps, the master of Solomon and Patsey, was, according to census documents, born in about 1808 in North Carolina. By the time that Solomon came to be enslaved on his cotton plantation in Avoyelles, Louisiana in the mid-1840s, Epps owned approximately eight slaves, including “Platt,” the slave name given to Solomon. Records indicate that Epps’ other slaves were purchased together from Buford’s plantation in Williamsburg, South Carolina and had a long memory of their communal ties and experiences before meeting Solomon. This small community was comprised of a single man, a family of five, and a single female -- Patsey. Edwin Epps was married with a growing number of children by his wife, Mistress Mary. Solomon spends the majority of his twelve years enslaved on the Epps’ plantation, offering in his autobiography specifics of the labor, culture, resistance and social lives of those who worked with and resided close to him.

When documenting the experiences of the enslaved women he knew, Northup is careful to emphasize their property value and, relatedly, their capacity as laborers. While he details some of the work of domestics performed in their owner’s house, kitchen, yard, laundry, and barn, Solomon clearly is amazed by enslaved women’s physical might as field workers. He expressly notes, as examples to his readers, the “stout” lumberwomen who could fell trees in the forest as efficiently as their male peers; Patsey’s ability to pick five hundred pounds of cotton in one day; and the women on Jim Burns’ neighboring sugar and cotton plantation who produced fine harvests without any male assistance. Of the prime females he met, Solomon exclaimed: “they perform their share of all the labor required on the plantation. They plough, drag, drive team, clear wild lands, work on the highway, and so forth.” Not only did these women work like men, Northup testifies, but endured the same punishments as men, typically administered by men. As overseer for Epps for eight years, Solomon himself was compelled to beat men and women regularly without distinction.

The women that Northup describes also resist their enslavement, an aspect of their lives not revealed in the film. Solomon recounts, for example, his encounters with Celeste, who lived near the Epps’ plantation, but hid in the swamp for almost three months in order to avoid the barbaric whippings of her overseer. Rachel, Northup noted, risked a beating herself in order to offer a cup of water to the author, after he was left hanging for several hours by an enraged master. Patsey endured the most brutal punishment Solomon describes. She left the Epps planation without permission to get soap from neighbor, and fellow concubine, Harriet Shaw. She did so because her nemesis, Mrs. Epps, refused to allow Patsy the means to clean herself. Hers is a slight, but profoundly important, act of female resistance, one that speaks volumes about the importance enslaved women placed on their appearance and femininity. It was Mrs. Epps’ determination, however, that Patsey, her husband’s involuntary lover, should not enjoy any such female “rights.”

It is in this important triangulated relationship between Master Epps, Patsey, and Mistress Epps, that Northup’s readers, and McQueen’s viewing audience -- learn much about the status and intimate relationships of enslaved and slaveholding women in plantation homes. Patsey, both Northup and McQueen make clear, is the obsession of both her master and her mistress. The forced concubine of her owner, the most hated slave of her mistress, Patsey is essential to understanding the hundreds of thousands of slave girls and women who, on the one hand, were sexually harassed and abused by their owners and overseers; and on the other, received the relentless abuse of jealous planter women.

Why Patsey? Many, but certainly not all of these girls and women, were domestics and bi- or multiracial. Patsy was neither, thereby linking her to the larger population of enslaved women, the majority of whom endured some kind of sexual abuse or harassment in their youth. Still, Patsey is depicted as exceptional in Northup’s narrative, and in McQueen's choice of a physical type to play her role, because she is culturally, and physically, distinct from her peers. Patsey is the daughter of a “Guinea” woman, the only one of Epps’ slaves with such a close ancestral tie to Africa. It is a position, Northup explains, that imbued her with an unusual pride. Despite the constant brutality she endured, from both master and mistress, Northup describes Patsey as having an “air of loftiness in her movement, that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy,” with a kind of delight for life.

Patsey is the female version of Solomon, not far from freedom, impossible to “break.” Her importance as a female “type,” therefore, also is rooted in the discovery that not only slave men had to be “broken” through the whip and loss of “masculine” control over their families and movement; but that women too had to be subdued. As with Patsey, this submission was sought through rape, as well as physical abuse, and denial of their femininity.

It was, of course, Patsey’s inability to be defeated that so unnerves both Mr. and Mrs. Epps. Mr. Epps wants to own Patsey’s body unconditionally. She must work harder than anyone else in his cotton fields by day, permit his sexual satisfaction at night, and yield to his barbaric whippings upon his whims. She was, he notes repeatedly, his property, to do with whatever he liked. Mrs. Epps wants to control her husband’s dalliances and maintain her pride. She wants all of her slaves to understand that they are her inferiors and only tolerated for their capacity to enrich her family. She cannot tolerate Patsey because her husband, through his sexual association with both women, equates the two, publicly and privately. It is only by ridding her home of the slave woman, either by completely destroying her or having her husband sell, that she can restore her honor as wife and mistress.

Both Northup and McQueen, to their credit, brilliantly expose Patsey’s pathos and her slave mistress’s contribution to it. Mrs. Epps, in Northup’s narrative and its film adaptation, certainly is not the submissive, compassionate Southern matron, so often depicted in literature and film. Although Solomon, like other male slave narrative authors, does try to expose a more gentle side of his mistress, McQueen paints her as the “hell cat” and “devil” that former slave women, in their own narratives, are so eager to commit to public memory. Neither narrative nor film adaptation, however, sentimentalize Master Epps’ relationship with Patsey. There is no love there, Northup and McQueen agree. Epps is a sadist; Patsey his bonded victim.

McQueen is less honest, perhaps, in his development of the third concubine character, Harriet Shaw. He embellishes tremendously Solomon Northup’s spare description of Harriet, having her appear on screen as the genteel hostess of tea parties organized on her master’s/lover’s veranda, accompanied by her two favorite neighbors, slaves Solomon and Patsey. The experiences of Eliza, Northrup’s first slave female acquaintance described in his narrative, flies in the face of McQueen’s Hollywood version of concubine Harriet’s “freedom” and “prosperity. “ According to Solomon’s account, Eliza too had been in Harriet’s position, only to be later sold, separated from her children and left to die in a poor slave shack on the edge of a cotton field she was too weak to work.

Like all primary documents on slave and plantation life, and certainly the films about these subjects that come to big and little screens alike, neither Solomon Northup’s 1853 account, nor Steve McQueen’s screen adaptation, deliver a comprehensive view of the lives of bondswomen and men or their owners. Still, both of these works provide a documentation and visualization of enslaved women in the antebellum South, their labors, loves and losses, that contribute to the ongoing, and burgeoning, discourse.