The new film 12 Years a Slave is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup about his time as a slave in Louisiana from 1841 to 1853.
On October 17, 2013, the film’s director, Steve McQueen, and star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, were interviewed by NPR’s Renee Montagne. You can listen to the full interview at “12 Years a Slave: 160 Years Later, A Memoir Becomes a Movie.”
During the interview McQueen noted that he “was really upset with [himself] that [he] did not know about this book.” The story of Solomon Northrup is remarkable for the particulars of the man’s experiences as a free man tricked into being enslaved who then finds his way back to freedom. 12 Years a Slave, however, is not the only opportunity that we have to hear about the peculiar institution from slaves themselves.
During the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt employed jobless writers and researchers to capture thousands of voices of former slaves spread throughout the United States. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) eventually collected more than two thousand narratives from seventeen states, cataloging them in the Library of Congress as Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the U.S. from Interviews with Former Slaves. Though the WPA performed a major service by collecting these narratives, the stories languished in the Library of Congress for several decades until the 1970s when George Rawick put the narratives into a form that was more accessible to the public, entitled The American Slave: A Composite Biography.
Belinda Hurmence was among the first to realize that many readers were still intimidated by the multivolume sets of slave narratives made available by Rawick. Culling the narratives collected by the WPA and others, she edited her first concise volume of slave narratives, My Folks Don’t Want Me To Talk About Slavery, providing insight into the lives of former slaves in North Carolina. Following the positive reaction she received from the public, she published two more volumes of slave narratives from South Carolina and Virginia. Her books have proved perennial bestsellers for John F. Blair, Publisher and launched our “Real Voices, Real History” series.
We have continued to expand our line of slave narratives, and to expand the idea of history told by the individuals who personally experienced it. Since then, we have published 12 total volumes of slave narratives, three volumes from the Cherokees, and four other Real Voices, Real History collections. One Real Voices, Real History author described her collection of first person accounts as an opportunity to “give voice to the voiceless.”
The most recent title added to this collection is Voices of Cherokee Women, edited by Carolyn Ross Johnston, published in fall 2013. We will also be publishing Chained to the Land: Voices from Cotton & Cane Plantation, edited by Lynette Ater Tanner, in spring of 2014.