Solomon Northrup, an African American New Yorker who lived in mid 19th century, provides a powerful insight the suffering of his race in the United States. He was a free man who lived in a Northern state, in New York. At some point of his life, he was captured and enslaved, which marked the beginning of his personal life struggle as a slave. Northrup has left us a very detailed description of the slave market.
The author appeals to the society of his contemporaries. However, his story remains important to the modern reader. Northrup shows that slaves were denied respect, justice, and moral values, that is, they were treated as property. He describes the way the slaves were prepared for admission of the customers for the slavery market, ‘Freeman charged us to remember our places; exhorted us to appear smart and lively, – sometimes threatening, and again, holding out various inducements’.

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Solomon Northrup’s description of the slavery market includes details on tthe way slaves were treated, bought and sold. Author shows that if a black person was free it did not mean, however, that their freedom was secured. Neither the government, nor the society guaranteed any protection to African Americans from being captured, enslaved, and sold.

Northrup is especially diligent with his description of the ‘preparation’ of the slaves for the market. He writes that slaves had to wash themselves thoroughly and to shave. They were dressed in new clothes. They were trained how to behave, and ordered to remain at a particular spot. At the market, customers were examining slaves. They were evaluating them closely, from every angle. Moreover, it was not uncommon to bring a slave to a private room or house for a naked inspection. Customers were looking for scars on the slave’s body, which were considered the bas signs of rebellion and inappropriate behavior.

Slaves did enjoy any respect for the integrity of their family. Situations when family members were sold to different owners were common. The author describes a particular heartbreaking situation when a mother was separated from her children because the buyer could not afford to buy them both. They were separated forever.

In the antebellum era, the North and South had different views on slavery. Northern states were mostly against slavery, while the South remained pro-slavery. It is common knowledge that slavery played an essential role in the economy at that time. However, it is also important not to overlook the issue of maltreatment of slaves that included physical punishment, murder, and rape. Unfortunately, the society did not condemn these wrongdoings and did not question the unfair situation of African Americans. It was especially horrific for enslaved women who were treated as a “machine” for producing more slaves to benefit their owners.

So, why is it important for the society to know and to remember what was happening in the slave world of the 19th century? Northrup wrote his story during the cotton revolution. At that time, the United States acquired new territories and the government had to decide whether new states would become Slave states or Free states. It was the time of the rapid growth of the U.S. economy. Thus, Southern states lobbied to spread slavery to the newly acquired territories so that they would have maintained their voting power in the federal government. In addition, the new land meant new soil for agriculture and production of cotton and other resources. In the Southern model of economy, slaves played a key role in that production.

  • Solomon Northrup describes a slave market, 1841 | The American Yawp Reader. (2016). Retrieved 11 December 2016, from