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Slavery and the lost meaning of equal protection

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, left, and Paul Giamatti in a scene from “12 Years A Slave,” which is up for a best picture Oscar at Sunday’s Academy Awards. (Fox Searchlight)

The success of the film “12 Years a Slave,” which is up for the best picture Oscar at Sunday’s Academy Awards, has made an unexpected best-seller of the book on which it is based. Solomon Northup’s memoir, published in 1853, reads a bit like the best science fiction, in the sense that the world it depicts is fully recognizable, but with an odd twist that gives it a constant sense of being off-kilter.

Of course, the twist is slavery, so we are dealing with neither science nor fiction.

A recurring presence in the book is the law, which is almost a separate character, a kind of unholy ghost. Matter-of-factly, Northup shows how the legal system both constrained and institutionalized slavery, through a series of everyday prohibitions and permissions. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Northup was originally persuaded to leave New York, his home, by two men who assisted in the kidnapping that forced him into slavery. To win Northup’s trust, the men made it clear that “it would be well, before leaving New York, to procure free papers.” Complying with the legal niceties, “they made an oath to certain facts showing that I was a free man.” After Northup was whipped and stripped of those papers, he was initially sold to William Ford, whom he describes as “a model master.” But Ford ran into financial difficulty, and he sold Northup to John Tibeats, a man of great cruelty. Tibeats was unable to pay Ford the full amount and therefore owed him $400; that debt saved Northup’s life.

In one of the book’s most harrowing passages, Tibeats marched Northup to a tree to be hanged, placing his neck in a noose. Mr. Chapin, the overseer charged with protecting Ford’s legal interest, brought pistols to the scene. He told Tibeats that if he hanged Northup, Ford would lose his debt: “Until that is canceled you have no right to take his life,” Chapin said. “You have no right to take it any way. There is a law for the slave as well as for the white man.”

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