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Slave narrative is Common Reading Project selection for 2014-15 academic year

May 23, 2014

12 Years a Slave cover Solomon Northup's "Twelve Years a Slave" is CCRI's Common Reading Project text for 2014-15. 

The English Department at the Community College of Rhode Island has announced that its Common Reading Project selection for the 2014-15 academic year will be "Twelve Years a Slave" by Solomon Northup.

Most recently made famous by the Academy Award-winning film of the same name, the text is one of many slave narratives that unflinchingly tell the story of African and African-American slaves in the antebellum South. The narrative, written in 1853, tells the story of Northup, who was born a free black man in New York.

Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery to various masters in Louisiana, where he detailed his experience alongside information about some of the country's major slave markets. Eventually, Northup was released after 12 years of enslavement when he finally was able to make contact with influential friends and family back home.

Professor Robyn Younkin said the committee overseeing the selection saw Northup's book, which is in the public domain and available free online, as a good fit. There is even a local connection, she said, noting that Northup's father was from Rhode Island.

The Common Reading program, now in its fourth year at the college, seeks to choose a text that can be read at any level, is relatively short, is of interest to the population of the college and deals with social issues. Younkin, Professor Alicia Lyon and Assistant Professor Dina Levitre worked in conjunction with Dean Ruth Sullivan to select the text. "We look for a text that makes connections across departments," said Younkin, noting that previous selections have included historical fiction as well as memoir.

Younkin said she was initially attracted to the text because of her experience teaching it alongside other slave narratives, such as Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," in one of her English classes.

"It's so important to read these narratives. They teach history from an inside perspective. Although I'm not a history teacher, I am interested in the history that has formed the United States," she said, quoting George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Although Northup's experience is well-ensconced in a long ago time, Younkin stressed that his message still rings true today, making the book an ideal selection for the Common Reading Project.

"I suppose what I find most appealing about the book is Northup's indomitable spirit," she said. "Many people take freedom for granted these days, but Northup shows that freedom is precious and tenuous. Even though he had everything taken away from him – his freedom, his name, his family and former life – he still maintained his dignity and his belief in humanity. There's a lesson in that for anyone."

Events surrounding the Common Reading Project will be finalized later this summer and announced in early fall, said Younkin. During these events, the community and the public will be able to discuss and synthesize the experience of reading a common text together.

"We're a community, and by reading a text as a community, it gives us a unified experience that we don't usually have. I'm hoping we'll be able to get some speakers who are knowledgeable about slavery and the antebellum period," she said.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16