Sarny, a 12-year-old slave girl in the ante-bellum south, faces a relatively hopeless life. Her chief duties at the plantation of Clel Waller are serving at table, spitting tobacco juice on roses to prevent bugs, and secretly conveying intimate messages between Waller’s wife, Callie, and Dr. Chamberlaine. Then Nightjohn arrives. A former runaway slave who bears telltale scars on his back, he takes Sarny under his wing and, in exchange for a pinch of tobacco, secretly begins to teach her to read and write a crime punishable by death. “Words,” he says, “are freedom. Slavery is made of words: laws, deeds, and passes.” He starts by drawing letters in the dirt and cautions her that no one must know. At her baptism, Sarny steals a Bible that belongs to Waller’s son, Jeffrey, and practices reading by lantern-light in the slave quarters. The same Bible serves another purpose when, on a blank page taken from it, Nightjohn forges a pass for Outlaw, a young slave, to use in escaping to freedom in the North with his beloved Egypt, a slave on another plantation.
Waller finds the Bible and demands to know who stole it. Delie, who cared for Sarny as a child, fears for her now and accepts the blame. However, Nightjohn forestalls the lashing Delie is to receive, saying he is the one, for he can read. He tries to run away but is caught and his hand is tied to a chopping block. With an ax, Waller delivers the severing blow, exacting the brutal penalty for Nightjohn’s literacy. As he is dragged off to be sold, he tells Sarny, “When they cut off one hand, the other hand grows stronger.” The historical references used in the movie were accurate in a sense that if Sarney were a real person she would have experienced life just as he described it. His portrayal of an abusive slaveholder and the forbiddance of an education to slaves are mostly correct when comparing it to the narrative of Fredrick Douglas’ experiences. Although Gary Paulsen may have exaggerated at times, I feel as if his historical setting is not far from the truth.
George Fitzhugh in “Southern Thought” presents an argument of a new society in the South. The South must take for granted the fact that slavery is right and that a new ideology, a new philosophy must be created off the south’s foundation of an agricultural slave based society. Fitzhugh calls for “complete independence and isolation from all outside influences to the point of becoming a separate nation in order for the South to develop its own distinctive brand of thought. Fitzhugh attacks a capitalistic society believing that no security can be found in it and only from slavery can a society be free of immoral activities. Fitzhugh envisioned a South that incorporated slavery of every race as he compared the South to ancient societies that used slavery based on what a person is born into. Fitzhugh believed the need for the South to diversify her economy from an agricultural one to an industrial one to advance the South’s economy and education. Fitzhugh sought to prove historically the failure of a free capitalistic society, but when we turn to assess Fitzhugh’s critique we discover, at both its explicit and its ramified level that its strengths are also are its weaknesses.
Harriet Tubman was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War. After escaping from slavery, into which she was born, she made thirteen missions to rescue more than 70 slaves using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era struggled for women’s suffrage. If the movie were a book back in the 1850s, Harriet Tubman would have been more inspired by the book because it was about how slaves were learning how to read and spell words. On the other hand, she would have been disgusted with how the slave would have been treated on the plantation.
Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe is an American writer and reformer, best known as the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The sensationally popular novel presented an empathetic portrait of slave life and played a significant role in engendering moral opposition to slavery prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. Stowe wrote the work in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to assist an escaped slave. In the book, she expresses her moral outrage at the institution of slavery and its destructive effects on both races and especially on maternal bonds. If the movie were made into a book in the 1850s, Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe would have thought the book was truthful because her family knows how slaves were actually treated.