Curriculum - 'Slavery is personal history for all of us'

14th February 2014 at 00:00
Steve McQueen, director of the Oscar-nominated 12 Years a Slave, says Solomon Northup's memoir is essential reading for students

When Steve McQueen read Anne Frank's diary as a schoolboy, he was instantly captivated.

"She's actually speaking to you," the Oscar-nominated director says of Frank's writing. "It's Anne talking to us. That's the thing about Anne Frank's diary - it's as if she's speaking directly to the reader. That's why, when I read it at school, it was so important and so engaging."

McQueen, whose film 12 Years a Slave has just been named best picture at the Golden Globes, believes that the 1853 autobiography on which his film is based could have the same effect on today's students. He believes this so strongly that he is campaigning for it to be taught to all children in Britain and the US.

"When I first read the book, the first thing it reminded me of was Anne Frank's diary," he says during an interview with TES. "I finished it and I didn't [previously] know this story, and also no one I knew, knew this story. So for me, when I first read it, I thought, this should be on the curriculum. This was always one of my aims. As well as making the movie, of course."

McQueen is currently in talks with the Department for Education in England about adding the book to the curriculum. "Yeah, some letters and so forth," he says. "And people are working at it as we speak. We'll see what happens. I'm very optimistic."

In the US, too, he has been talking to "people of influence" in the education system. "People are so engaged with this history, you know, and there's a lot of goodwill. So, fingers crossed."

The book 12 Years a Slave was written by Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York State in 1841. Northup was tricked into travelling to Washington DC by a pair of men offering him some work. They subsequently drugged him and sold him into slavery.

McQueen had already been planning to make a film about a free man kidnapped into slavery when his wife, a Dutch theatre critic, discovered Northup's first-person account of exactly that scenario. "I was sort of blown away by it," he says. "It's similar to Anne Frank's diary, where she's actually speaking to you. Solomon is speaking to us.

"This is another situation, another account of someone trying to survive in an unfortunate - in a harsh - environment. I thought it would be great, not just for children, about a time in history. But it's a first-hand account, so it's as if they're speaking directly to you." He pauses. "Goodness gracious," he adds, as though exhaling after running up a hill.

An American hero

There is an obvious question to be asked here, about why Anne Frank's diary has achieved international fame whereas Northup's account was only rescued from complete obscurity by McQueen's film. McQueen, however, disagrees.

"Well, the question is not so much why is she better known as why did we not know Solomon Northup before?" he says. "And I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know. I have no idea.

"I'm not really worried - I don't really think about it so much, because picking on sores is not my interest. Getting things done is."

McQueen's inability - or unwillingness - to address this question seems surprising, given current high-profile discussions about the books chosen for study in school.

Michael Gove, England's education secretary, has spoken of his belief that schools should teach the English literary canon. Last month, TES reported that Dmitry Livanov, the Russian minister of education and science, was calling for the rest of the world to follow his country's example and compel schoolchildren to study the full canon of its nation's classic authors.

The weight of political opinion, therefore, is essentially behind a collection of dead white men, with dead white women in second place.

This, perhaps, is why Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, is far better known than Solomon Northup. "That's for you to answer," McQueen says. "I don't know. That's something that you can think about and try to answer. Someone can. I don't know."

This is how McQueen talks: he has clear points to make, but tends to obscure them with verbal meanderings.

"I'm just happy that I found the book and made the film," he says. "That I helped get Solomon into the public sphere, where he rightly deserves to be. I mean, he's a hero, similar to Anne Frank. He's an American hero and now people know his name. I'm just here to help. I'm just here to facilitate that purpose."

Northup's prose is pacy and highly readable. It is therefore particularly shocking when he begins to describe - in plain, unadorned language - his treatment at the hands of slave traders and owners. "With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me," Northup writes. "Blow after blow was inflicted on my naked body.At length the paddle broke." Elsewhere in the narrative, he witnesses a slave woman forcibly separated from her two children.

McQueen suggests that the book is best introduced to students when they are 13 or 14. Does he believe that early teens are capable of dealing with these kinds of harrowing details?

"Well, I hope so," he says. "That's the reality of humankind, I'm afraid. I mean, we're sending people off to war when they're 16 years old. I think people are - I mean, some people are." He cuts himself off. "I think it's the ideal age, 14. Yeah.

"When you personalise that kind of history, children are much more engaged in it. It's a wonderful way of bringing children much closer to an unfortunate past. And it's something I would have loved, I would very much have loved as a young person at that time, 13, 14 years old."

McQueen grew up in West London. By the time he was 13, his year group at Drayton Manor High School had been separated into three streams: academically gifted, middle-ranking and non-academic ("for manual labourers, more plumbers and builders", he has said elsewhere). McQueen, who only recently publicly acknowledged his dyslexia, was placed in the third stream.

Years later, a new headteacher admitted to him that the school had been institutionally racist at the time. Did McQueen, as a black teenager, feel the absence of narratives such as Northup's during his own school years? "Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It was, you know, all about dates, times and places, and then we move on. That's it. Nothing was delved into, really."

That is not entirely the point. Northup's narrative is overwhelmingly human: it makes universal something that might otherwise be sidelined as black history. "I don't understand the question," McQueen says. "Slavery is not black history. It never was. It's a personal history for all of us.

"There was a slave trade, and the riches that were made from it - all of our history. My film is not an African-American film. It's not a white American film. It's an American film. It's like the Second World War. It's all of our history. One cannot be excluded from that. It's impossible."

The book, he says, provides "a broad understanding of the existence of not just black people in the West, but also of how things worked, as far as capitalism, how nations were built on other people's free labour".

The film 12 Years a Slave is widely tipped to take the best picture and best director Oscars next month. But McQueen is keen that it is Northup's original book, rather than his film, which is taught in schools. "As a parent, I always tell my daughter, `Read the book first.' " He laughs loudly. "That's me. But, you know, the film's not bad." He laughs again. "I hope."

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