'12 Years a Slave': Would it be a good classroom teaching tool?

Not only is the memoir by Solomon Northup now an Oscar-nominated film, but director Steve McQueen is encouraging schools to use the book as part of their units on slavery and the Civil War.

Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight/AP
'12 Years a Slave' stars Michael Fassbender (l.), Lupita Nyong'o (center), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (r.).

Might “12 Years a Slave” be the next “Diary of Anne Frank”: a literary and big screen hit that translates well into the classroom?

The popularity of the movie – which is nominated for nine Oscars – propelled Solomon Northup’s memoir to the top of bestseller lists. And now educators are betting that that same popularity may render the gripping story about a free black man kidnapped into slavery before the Civil War into a golden learning opportunity for secondary school students.

That’s why movie director Steve McQueen is working with Penguin Books to encourage public schools to teach the story as part of slavery and Civil War lesson plans, according to a report in USA Today.

In the book, “Northup describes how he was lured from New York to Washington in 1841 and then sold into slavery. He endured horrific conditions on Louisiana plantations until he was saved by friends from the north,” as the paper reports. 

Though the book sold well when it was published in 1853 and was written in “surprisingly accessible prose for a  19th-century narrative,” it faded into obscurity, unlike another classic slave narrative, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” 

"This is a book nobody was really aware of, except scholars in the field, which is being introduced to the country," John Siciliano, executive editor of Penguin Books, told USA Today of "12."

And possibly, to public schools.

Penguin has so far planned a teacher’s guide, available in March, for educators to teach students Northup’s story and discuss elements of the Civil War and slavery. The publisher also has plans to work with curriculum developers to get the book into public schools in the US and UK.

Some schools are already integrating the book into lesson plans. At Quality Education School, an African-American-owned charter school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, social studies teacher Aisha Booth-Horton introduced the book to her 11th-grade students as part of the slavery section of their American History curriculum.

Having read about the horrors Northup endured, initially, the students were angry.

But Booth-Horton pushed them to find the lessons in his struggle.

Soon, they were “creating a 21st-century version of Solomon,” “part President Obama, a little bit Mandela, and some Muhammad Ali,” she says.

Booth-Horton calls the book is "controversial" and "hard," but says it should be taught in schools.

"Any hard story should be told," she says, "but told under guided hands."

Movie director McQueen likens “12 Years” to another “hard” story that should be told – and has been – in schools across the country and the world.

“I live in Amsterdam and Anne Frank is all around us,” McQueen told USA Today. Like Anne Frank’s diary, he’s betting Northup’s story will speak to kids.

“[I]t’s so accessible, it’s readable, it’s so engaging. Solomon, like Anne Frank, is talking directly to us.”

For many school students, Solomon Northup may be to slavery what Anne Frank was to the Holocaust: a youth-appropriate entrée to one of the most painful parts of history.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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