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February 04, 2013

New Audiobook Revives Slave's Firsthand Account

by Greg Flakus

In the decades before the U.S. Civil War, slavery was legal in southern states and slave pens and auction blocks were located right in the heart of the nation's capital. 

In 1841, a free black man from Saratoga, New York, was kidnapped and spent the next 12 years of his life as a slave in the deep South. His ordeal comes to life in a new audiobook production of his account, which was saved from obscurity by a white southern woman. 


Academy-award-winning actor Louis Gossett, Junior, reads the words of Solomon Northup from his autobiography, "Twelve Years a Slave," which was published in 1853. It tells how Northup, a free black man from New York state, was abducted on a visit to Washington, D.C., and taken to Louisiana as a slave.

The audiobook is based on the definitive, authenticated version of Northrup's book published in 1968 by historian Sue Eakin, who died in 2009.  Her son, Frank Eakin, the audiobook's producer, said she first encountered "Twelve Years a Slave" as a young girl in a Louisiana plantation library.

“And she was enthralled because of a lot of the last names. The book was about people in that area where she grew up, so the names were familiar, the last names, the locations,"  he said.


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​The book was long out of print and even after she managed to find another copy at a used book seller years later, she was told that it was all fiction. But Eakin doubted that because of all the details - the names and places - it contained, and she spent years investigating its authenticity, often with young Frank in tow.

"A lot of my childhood was on the road traveling with her," he said.  "Going to courthouses and researching every detail of that story."

Eventually Eakin published scholarly works on the 19th century slave account, and also devoted herself to fighting the racial bigotry of her own time.

"She was a Civil Rights leader. She was the daughter of a planter and ironically became a Civil Rights leader locally," he said.  "We had crosses burned in the yard; our house was burned down, twice."

Sue Eakin talked about that time in a family video.

"My black friends said, 'How in the world, with your ideas, did you survive?' I said, 'I never let it worry me. I did what I thought was right,'" she said.

And she also thought it was right that people know about the cruelty and injustice of slavery described in "Twelve Years a Slave." His mother's efforts gave Solomon Northup's story new life, said Eakin.

"It has been recognized now as one of the most compelling firsthand accounts of slavery in existence and it told a story that she truly, passionately felt had to be told."

The audiobook of “Twelve Years a Slave” is set to be released in February and a movie version starring Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Chiwetel Ejiofor will be released later this year.