This week I started reading Solomon Northup’s autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave. Northup was a free black man who was drugged and kidnapped into slavery. Today, I am going to compare Northup’s reaction to being separated from his children versus Eliza, a slave mother’s reaction to being separated from her children.
Before Northup was kidnapped, he was very skilled with the violin and was asked to perform for a travelling circus one day. He agreed and went to the ‘circus’, but he did not inform his wife or children as they were out of town. This was a mistake as the ‘circus’ was a guise. He was kidnapped, drugged, and shipped off to New Orleans as a slave who had “escaped from Georgia.” During the whole ordeal the only thing on his mind were his wife and children.
Unlike most people, Northup was still hopeful that he would be able to escape. He was determined to escape and thought in terms of when and not if. He was thinking of when he would be able to see his wife and children again. Northup knew that he was a freeman and kidnapping a freeman was illegal. He was convinced he would get justice one day.
Before Northup was sold to a master, he was kept with other slaves, one of which was named Eliza. She had two children, Randall, who was ten years old, and Emily, whose age was never specified. We only know that she was much younger than her brother. Northup talked of Emily’s beauty for such a small child. She had fair skin and smooth, silky hair.
During the slave auction, Eliza had tried to be sold to the same owner as her children, but failed. Randall was sold to one master, Eliza to another, and little Emily was to be kept at the auction house until she grew up a little more. Eliza’s master had attempted to buy Emily as well, taking pity on the woman, but the auctioneer refused to sell Emily. Northup described how this ordeal affected Eliza. She was no longer sleeping or eating well and she was not taking care of herself. He noted how she started to get skinnier and less healthy looking.
How come Eliza reacted so differently from Northup? The answer is quite simple. Eliza was a born slave. Northup was kidnapped into slavery. While Northup knew he had rights and was convinced that one day he would be able to use those rights to get out, Eliza had none. She was born a slave and therefore had no rights.
I believe that Eliza also knew in the back of her mind that her children may be sold to cruel masters. She also knew that the possibility of seeing each other again was very slim. Not impossible, but not very likely either. She would not know which state they would be shipped to or what would happen to them.
While Northup would not be able to know what his children were doing and where they were, he could sleep peacefully knowing that they were free and their mother would be able to take care of them. Eliza did not have this luxury. Therefore she worried herself sick (literally).
As you can see, even though it seems like Eliza and Northup were in the same position, they were not. Northup knew that he would see his children again. Eliza knew that she would never see her children again. That is what makes her story so heart-breaking.