When 12 Years a Slave, the film adaptation of the 1853 autobiographical slave narrative memoir came out in the cinemas in 2013 (directed by Steve McQueen), it was an immediate success. It received a total number of 206 awards and umpteen more nominations. However, many people did not know that the film was based on a memoir written by Solomon Northup. While watching the film might be a challenging activity for a high-school English class, reading the novel is definitely an educationally rich and a fascinating reading experience at the same time. It does not only help you learn about the historical background of the institution of slavery, it is also a great introduction to the narrative genre of autobiography.
- You will need a computer, Internet connection, and a projector or an interactive whiteboard to do this lesson.
- We recommend it for pre-intermediate and intermediate level students (CEF B1. B1+, B2).
- Visit the Helbling Readers catalogue to download the first chapter of the reader. The level 5 Helbling Reader Twelve Years a Slave was adapted by David A. Hill and illustrated by Giuseppe Palumbo.
1 Background knowledge: slavery
Discuss the following questions in class.
- How much do you know about slavery?
- What does it mean to kidnap somebody?
- How did slave owners buy people?
- What is ‘an auction’?
- What can you see in this image?
- What is happening to the people?
- How do the people being auctioned feel?
Visit this website of The National Museum of American History to learn more about slavery. Find answers to the questions below. Words to check: crop, plantation, citizen, rights, abolition.
- When was the earliest record of slaves in America?
- What was the definition of ‘a slave’?
- What did the American Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 say?
- What crops were mainly grown on southern plantations?
- What was ‘a slave tag’?
- Search the Internet for information on the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
- Who was Abraham Lincoln?
You can see more images of African-American slavery and freedom here, on the website of the Library of Congress.
2 Who was Solomon Northup?
Look at this image of Solomon Northup and describe it. Find information about his life on the Internet.
You can watch the film trailer of the film 12 Years a Slave on the IMDB website and answer these questions.
- What was Solomon’s job?
- Where did he live?
- How big was his family?
- Where was he kidnapped?
- When was he kidnapped?
Go to the website of the Smithsonian Magazine, and look at the images in the article “The New York Times’ 1853 Coverage of Solomon Northup, the Hero of “12 Years A Slave”. Find answers to the following questions:
- What is the full subtitle of Twelve Years a Slave?
- When did Solomon become a free man?
- What does the original newspaper article say about him? When was it published?
3 What is the ‘triangular slave trade’?
Go to this website of BBC History Bitesize, and study the concept of the triangular slave trade. What does it mean? Study the maps and explain the route of the trade.
Would you like to read more and do more Before Reading activities?
Read about the story and do our activities on pages 6-11 in the Helbling adaptation of the story (adapted by David A. Hill, illustrated by Giuseppe Palumbo).