For New Yorker, ′12 Years a Slave′ is personal | Globalization | DW | 28.02.2014
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For New Yorker, '12 Years a Slave' is personal

The film "12 Years a Slave" had already won numerous other awards and now has the coveted Oscar for 'Best Picture.' For Irene Northup-Zahos, though, the film is an emotional part of her own family history.

The award-winning film "12 Years a Slave" tells the story of Solomon Northup, born a free man in New York state in 1808. On the promise of getting work in a travelling circus, he was tricked, drugged and sold into slavery. Transported south to New Orleans, he lived as a slave for 12 years before he was finally able to secure his release. On returning to his family, Solomon not only tried unsuccessfully to prosecute his kidnappers and slavers, he also wrote a book about his experience. The book was the basis for the movie currently being screened in cinemas around the world.

DW: When did you first find out that you were Solomon Northup's great-great-granddaughter?

Irene Northup-Zahos: I knew he was my great-great-grandfather when my mother sat down one time talking to us about my grandfather, who was Solomon's grandson. He had passed away, and she pulled me aside one day - I was the eldest - and started a little dialogue about his life, and we also spoke of my great-great grandfather then. My mom had a book, an original copy that was my grandfather's book and which was given to me as the first-born.

An image from the film is projected on a stage where the Oscar nominees are announced

The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards

What did you think when you first read that book?

The first time I read the book, I was about 15 years old. I remember it was summertime because I was out in the front yard underneath the tree. I simply wanted to read something and I just happened to take this book off the shelf. And as I read the book, it was like every page put you in that circumstance. The dialogue was so vivid, it gave you a sense that he lived through situations that I just couldn't fathom in my world at that time. Sometimes, when I pick up the book and just touch it or stroke it, I feel his presence. And feeling his presence I find it very hard to separate myself from that situation.

How did you feel when you first saw the movie?

I cried both reading the book and watching the movie. It broke my heart, just to see it come to life and be pictured so vividly. I could feel his pain, his anger, his heart, his disbelief. He trusted those men that came to Saratoga and took him to Washington with the promise that he would be making a vast sum of money just to play his violin for a circus. It breaks my heart sometimes just to think of things like that, to know that that's the reality.

You come from a mixed race family. Your father was mixed race and your mother was white. Did you suffer discrimination and racism, particularly living in Florida during segregation?

We moved there from a farming community where all you had to say was 'Can you help me?' and everybody was right there to help. It was entirely different when we left there and went to other villages, towns or even cities. We were called by names that we had never heard before. The people did not accept the fact that we were of mixed diversity. And to go down South during the civil rights era - we saw many horrific things. There was a clearly-designated line of black and white, showing what you could and couldn't do, where you could be and where you couldn't be. Everything was color-specific. Today in the 'Deep South' there is still that stereotype and those memories of slavery. There are still those pointed factors where you see that division of black and white.

Barack Obama walks through a crowd of onlookers at his State of the Nation address in 2014

Having Barack Obama as president doesn't mean the wounds have healed, says Northup-Zahos

Would you say these wounds were healed with the election of Barack Obama?

I don't think such wounds heal that easily. The only way that one can have something healed is by trying to reach and do better for the generation that comes after you. I do think it is a wonderful thing that we have Mr. Obama in the White House. Because he is black? Well, yes, there is a historical aspect, to think that the American people can trust him to lead our country. But as you have seen in the newspapers throughout his two terms, our Congress does not work with him, and a lot of their undertone has to do with this stigma of racial superiority or stereotyping.

In the book, Solomon expressed the wish to be buried next to his father, but nobody actually knows when, where or how he died. Have you been trying to bring a resolution to that?

We do know that when he returned home he went on a tour to sell the book and promote it. He also participated in a play that wasn't quite as successful. We also know that he worked for the Underground Railroad at one time. But there are many things we don't know after that period.

For somebody who hasn't seen the film or read the book, describe what kind of a man Solomon was.

I think he was a very intelligent gentleman, and I believe very deeply in my heart that he cared a lot about other people. In his book you will see that he does not point fingers at his slavers, he does not call them names. When he worked on the Underground Railroad he might not have had a lot of money in his pocket, but the little he did have he gave to the slaves to help them be freed and go to Canada. I also think that he loved his family dearly and that was the thing that kept him going: to persevere, to realize that eventually he would go back and be with his wife and their three children. I think he cared so much that perhaps in the end that was his downfall.

Irene Northup-Zahos is a direct descendant of Solomon Northup, on whom the film "12 Years a Slave" is based. She lives in New York State.

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