movie starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. I figured the book must contain much more detail than the movie, and I was not disappointed.
Slavery is a difficult subject, especially for Americans. We want to believe that we have "risen above" such things, often citing that we fought a long and bloody war specifically for that purpose. None of this is entirely true, since even George Washington owned slaves, and emancipation was a convenient afterthought for President Lincoln, whose main objective was to keep the country united. Slavery, however, became a lightning rod issue for the North, and galvanized our resolve to change the Southern way of life from plantation agriculture to our new industrialism. Even today, some 150 years after the Civil War, vestiges of slavery remain across America, both explicit and implicit. We have made a small start, but we still have so far to go.
In many other countries, slavery has a long history and in some of them, it still continues.
Slavery can take many forms, including what we typically think of as indentured servitude (conflict goods, forced conscription) but what must also include sexual slavery, child labor and even religious slavery. At the far end of the spectrum, many Americans suffer debt slavery, unable to break free from their consumption-fueled lifestyles. Slavery can be defined as a hopeless repetition of labor without chance of escape, and this is the 9-5 (maybe now more like 9-9) that many Americans must endure without hope of financial freedom or eventual retirement. Post the financial crisis, many Americans are doomed to work until they die or are replaced.
Here are some other takeaways of mine from the book:
Freedom has no Guarantees
Solomon Northup was born a free man in upstate New York, near Syracuse. However, this did not prevent him from being kidnapped and sold into slavery into the Louisiana bayou for 12 long, hard years. Kidnapping and human trafficking exist even today in many parts of the world. The freedom we take for granted can be taken away by any number of means at any time. We think of this as largely a problem in the underdeveloped corners of the World, but actions of our own government are no different, slowly eating away at our freedom until we become slaves of the State - in mind if not in body. Freedom is preserved through vigilance, and lost through apathy.
We have it SO GOOD
Our modern abundance is truly mind-boggling. Compared to life 100 years ago, the incredible amount of goods and services available to us is almost beyond comprehension. For many of us, the biggest challenge of the day is simply deciding which size Starbucks we want (Grande or Vente). We have products from all over the world available to us at our fingertips, and our ease of access to information on any topic, in any detail, is truly an incredible human achievement.
The ability of modern medicine to prolong and improve the quality of our lives is past imagination for people 100 years ago. We have all but eradicated the major plagues of the past, and I actually believe it could be possible through concerted global effort to end global famine in our time.
I do not begrudge our advancements, and do not think we need to be ashamed of our good fortune. However, I do believe that this should cause us to have even greater charity, mercy and compassion toward others. We have far more than we need - it is time to share.
We have become WEAK and we complain far too much
Transformation of our global society from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age has brought humanity incredible prosperity. However, the trade offs have come at the cost of our strength, hardiness and resolve. My children cry when they cannot get Wifi access (actually CRY), and we need to go to the gym to develop the strength that our ancestors had as a by-product of their regular daily lifestyle. While many undeveloped regions lack basic sanitation, clean water, and enough food, most places in the world have far more than they could possibly need. We complain at the slightest inconvenience. I felt ashamed to read of the savage punishments inflicted on Simon Northup and his fellow slaves by their cruel plantation overseers and masters. Could I have endured them so patiently in order to wait for my chance to escape? Could you? He slept on a wooden board with a threadbare blanket and not even a cup or a bowl to call his own for 12 YEARS. Could I do that? Could you??
The Human Spirit is Truly UNBREAKABLE
I was inspired by this story. His love for his family, and his ability to endure the seemingly unendurable for so long, just to have a chance to go home. It would be unbelievable if I did not know the story was true. All of us will face hardship and challenge, and all of us have the ability to keep our dignity and self-respect. We can choose to be unbreakable. Next up in my reading list is the story of Nelson Mandela of South Sfrica, and I expect there will be much in common on this point.
Solomon Northup was a violinist and this skill served him well in captivity, helping ease the suffering not just of himself but of those around him. Music is a joyful thing, and life without music is a hell of its own.
Human Relationships Matter More
The life of a bayou slave was horrible beyond my imagination. Particularly for those consigned to labor on cotton plantations, who had to rise before dawn and toil until midnight 6 days a week nearly all year round. In addition to his music, Solomon and the other slaves forged deep human relationships based on compassion and mutual support. This social fabric helped them weather their trials and endure their hardships. We all face difficulty, but it is far easier when we face it together. Be CONNECTED. Invest in human relationships.
Family is the CORNERSTONE
Even enduring regular torture and brutal treatment in Louisiana, Solomon never gave up hope of seeing his wife and children again. He kept this fire burning and this must be a central reason why he ultimately regained his freedom. Family is the most important thing. Keep it sacred. Protect it above all else.
Justice Is Never Guaranteed
Despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, the fiends who kidnapped Solomon Northup and sold him into slavery were never brought to justice (except maybe in the Afterlife). Especially as Americans, we believe in the fair and equitable rule of law, however I am not completely certain it exists - at least not equally for all. Freedom is preserved by vigilance and lost by apathy. Recent events have shown some shocking examples of the cost when we assume the protection of the State or the goodwill of the Republic in our daily lives. We still have so far to go.
Poorly Run Companies Look and Feel a Bit Like Plantations
In a poorly run company, management care little for the workers except that they provide economic benefit. Motivation is achieved through fear and co-workers are pitted against one another in unhealthy competition designed to foster mistrust, lack of cooperation, and general unease. Solomon relates several different plantations some of which, despite being staffed by slave labor, treated the slaves with respect and kindness. These plantations produced more output for longer than those that relied on the lash. Despite reams of research that suggest a humanitarian management approach, most firms still employ a linear strategy of input and output, and fail to motivate and reward employees holistically. It is worth examining the HR policies of the very best companies to see why employees choose them - money is merely one factor. Treatment of the employee as a trusted individual worthy of respect and investment yields the greatest benefit for both sides and is the cornerstone of loyalty and out performance.
In closing, the quote from this book that I will never forget.
"What difference is there in the color of the soul?"
WE ARE ALL CONNECTED