The movie title “American Playhouse – Half Slave, Half Free” refers to the true story of Solomon Northrup who was born a free man in Minerva, NY in 1808. The story relates the experiences of Solomon focusing on the time he was tricked by two white men into accompanying them under the guise of a paid job as a fiddler for an event they were having. This unfortunately turned out instead to be a trap and he was drugged, and sold to a slave trader. This trader wound up transporting him and several other slaves into Louisiana where he was sold to a plantation owner.
His first introduction to the life of a slave came at the hands of the trader who beat him mercilessly because he would not refer to him as master. The trader showed absolutely no mercy and would have beat him to death and told him so. The knowledge that this man could take away his life with impunity I am sure was very sobering for Solomon and extremely difficult to accept.
As the days turned into years, he would expand this education into the life of slavery, which included many lessons on what one will do to survive. He witnessed one of the women traveling with them into Louisiana having her children taken away from her to be sold, one dying on the way, never to see either of them again. He would later have run ins with the plantation overseer who was imbued with a level of racism that defies explanation through mere words. The stark differences between the way he was living his life prior to this instance and the changes he was forced to accept in order to stay alive are woven throughout the story.
Through his 12 years of forced slavery, he would see many things and would learn in the end to bend or be broken and survival took on a completely new meaning. Minor squabbles with some of the other male slaves who felt intimidated by him happened off and on but he managed as best he could and refused in those instances to be cowed into submission. There would be many indignities that Solomon aka Pratt would have to face and accept or deal with during his 12-year sentence of servitude. The movie illustrates some of the indignities that were commonplace during slavery: slaves being leased out to other plantations for profit was just one of many indignities that slaves faced. Being commanded to attend “services” where the plantation master would read bible scriptures to the slaves who ironically were not allowed to read and in many cases were not allowed to go to any “church”.
One of the indignities that Solomon faced has repercussions that are still being felt in today’s society. Solomon began a relationship with one of the female slaves named Jenny, with whom he traveled on the boat from Washington DC to Louisiana. When eventually they were sold to another owner, Mr. Epps, THIS master decided that he would have sexual relations with Jenny to assert his authority over Solomon whom he thought of as an uppity “nigger”. Mr. Epps knew that Jenny and Solomon were involved but he cared less since they both were his “property”. The ugliness of the scenario expands to include the plantation owner’s wife who became involved when she realized what her husband was doing and tried to intervene and cause Jenny to be beaten BY Solomon.
The scene where she berates them both and the other servants in the immediate vicinity resonates and reminds one of recent headlines where Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, made a decision to stick her finger in the face of the President of the United States, Barack Obama. While interactions between the two of them have been tumultuous at best, there was no reason and no call for her to appear in a public space and interact with the President in such a fashion, the disrespect was very blatant. It was strikingly similar to the level of disrespect and disregard shown by the plantation owner and his wife and their complete lack of regard for the slaves.
While Solomon was finally found and allowed to go back to his family – it is reminiscent of prisoners being let out finally after extended incarcerations – minus the one point most do not have a skill or trade and their prospects for employment are slim and none.
Everything old is new again. For all the claims of being in a post-racial society, every day there are reminders that racism is alive and well.
I would leave you with the words of one who lived during that time and who was instrumental in creating the circumstances upon which slaves were free. The irony of the statement and the circumstances in which it was made resonate deeply.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand, I believe this government cannot endure, permanently Half Slave, and half free.”
Lincoln’s speech at the State Republican Convention in Springfield, Illinois on June 15, 1858 – the day that he was nominated by the State Republican Convention to run for President of the United States vs. Democrat Stephen A. Douglass