Watching “The Long Song” on PBS Sunday night coincided with my reading the autobiography “Twelve Years a Slave,” by Solomon Northup. In addition, I am substitute teaching in an eighth-grade classroom where we are beginning a study of black leaders and Abraham Lincoln during Black History Month.
Both works, the first fiction, the other a memoir of true events, have been adapted to the television version presented in three episodes, “The Long Song,” and a feature-length film, “Twelve Years a Slave.”
Though historical fiction, Andrea Levy’s novel “The Long Song,” set in Jamaica in the last years of slavery before Britain outlawed it in 1833, contains autobiographical elements, too. The protagonist, a slave named July, is writing her story as a memoir about her life at Amity, a sugarcane plantation. In a BBC interview, Levy said: “I’ve always used my books as a personal journey to understand my Caribbean heritage, and within that sooner or later you have to confront slavery.”
Ironically, Levy found out more about her ancestry after she had published “The Long Song” in 2010. Her great-grandfather was born a slave. His mother, housekeeper on a plantation called Mesopotamia, had a field slave named Minnie as her mother. Levy’s great-great-grandfather, William Ridsguard from England, was an attorney on the plantation. He had a child with his housekeeper, and that child was Levy’s great-grandfather, Richard Ridsguard.
Levy’s previous novels include “Every Light in the House” in 1994, “Never Far from Nowhere” in 1996, “Fruit of the Lemon” in 1999, “Small Island” in 2004, “Six Stories and an Essay” in 2014, and “Uriah’s War” also in 2014. Stricken with breast cancer, Levy died at age 62 on Feb. 14, 2019. She won the 2004 Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize which awards a bronze sculpture called the Bessie and more than $40,000) for “Small Island,” the Whitbread (now Costa Coffee) Book of the Year award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES IN THE TWO WORKSSolomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1841 meets two white men who entice him to join them in work for a circus where he would be generously paid for playing his violin. Solomon, thinking the job would keep him away for a day, leaves with the two only to awaken from a drugged sleep — in chains and handcuffed. The two men are slave traders who sold Solomon to another slave trader bound for New Orleans where Solomon would be in servitude for the next 12 years. He has no way to alert his wife, Anne, and three children about his absence though later in his account, he succeeds in contacting them.
July in Levy’s novel is born a slave, the child of field slave Kitty and the plantation overseer who has raped her. July becomes lady’s maid to Caroline Mortimer, who as a widow lives with her brother John Howarth. Caroline sees the young child, July, wants to have her as a plaything, changes her name to Marguerite, and intends to train her as a house slave, telling July that her mother has been sold away.
Both July in “The Long Song” and Solomon in “Twelve Years” learn to suppress their real feelings or face severe punishment. July, mischievous and clever, finds ways to undermine her mistress, while Solomon no longer protests that he is a free man after a severe beating and promises for even worse punishment if he continues to say he is a free man.
The settings — New Orleans and Jamaica — offer heat for hot-blooded times: In “Twelve Years,” arguments between two plantation owners lead to threats of a duel. Beatings of the slaves occur several times a day — for insubordination, for failing to pick the maximum quantity of cotton, for merely existing, it seems.
In Levy’s novel, the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 occurs just as Caroline is entertaining guests for a dinner party. Soldiers arrive to enlist the help of the men in the party to fight against the slaves who have set fire to the island. John and the other men join the soldiers, but afterward, when the rebellion is quelled, John shoots himself because of the failure of his business. July’s lover Nimrod has been hiding with her under John’s bed, but when they are discovered, Nimrod is hanged. July has his child but abandons the infant at the church door, believing that she cannot care for him. Her mother, Kitty, having stabbed the overseer, is hanged along with others who rebelled.
THE WORKWhen July is banished to the fields again after the revolt, she knows for the first time the grueling labor the field slaves endure. Caroline, missing her companion and servant, brings July back to the house to work.
In contrast, Solomon has a respite from field work only when he is needed to play his violin at plantation parties and at holidays. His descriptions of the processes involved in planting and harvesting cotton and sugarcane and hog slaughtering add realism to his account. His name too is changed: One of the slave traders calls him Platt; his surname is the same as his owner at the time, whether William Ford, John Tibeats, or Edwin Epps.
Both works seethe with the injustices the main characters observe and endure. Solomon writes: “John M. Tibeats was the opposite of Ford in all respects. ... He was ignorant, withal, and of a revengeful disposition. ... During my residence with Master Ford, I had seen only the bright side of slavery. His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth. He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as his fellow-mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all.” Solomon’s fight with Tibeats offers a triumphant moment — negated when Tibeats determines to hang Solomon, but the overseer Chapin saves Solomon’s life.
Comfortable viewing and reading? No. Necessary reminders of people’s inhumanity to each other? Yes.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.