The Historian Who Unearthed “Twelve Years a Slave”, Michael Schulman, New Yorker, March 7, 2014.
Accepting the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday—technically, it might have been Monday at that point—Steve McQueen took a moment to thank “this amazing historian Sue Eakin,” who “gave her life’s work to preserving Solomon’s book.” It was an unusual shout-out: we’re used to seeing Harvey Weinstein or God get thanked, not historians from Louisiana. But it’s safe to say that without Eakin, who died in 2009, at the age of ninety, none of us would be talking about Solomon Northup, or Patsey, or the other once-forgotten souls portrayed in this year’s Best Picture.
Eakin, who taught at Louisiana State University at Alexandria for twenty-five years, spent her career rescuing Northup’s memoir from obscurity. “There were five of us, and Solomon was the sixth,” Eakin’s son Frank said the other day, from his home in Texas. “There was never a time when he was not part of the conversation.” Eakin grew up near Cheneyville, Louisiana, the eldest of nine children, and discovered Northup when she was twelve.
One summer day in 1931, her father, a planter, drove her in a flatbed truck to the nearby town of Bunkie, not far from the property once owned by Edwin Epps (the Michael Fassbender character). They were visiting Oak Hall Plantation, where her father had business with the owner, Sam Haas. Haas brought young Sue to the library on the second floor (“My mom was a big-time bookworm,” Frank says), where he handed her a dusty copy of “Twelve Years a Slave,” first published in 1853.
“I began reading the old book as rapidly as I could, becoming more and more excited with every page,” Eakin wrote later. “I recognized local place names like Cheneyville, where our mail was delivered.” The family names were familiar, too: the Tanners, the Fords, the McCoys. Eakin was rapt, but her father picked her up before she could finish reading. Back then, the book was in scant supply. Eakin didn’t find another copy until 1936, when she arrived at Louisiana State University and spotted the book at Otto Claitor’s Bookstore. She asked Mr. Claitor how much it cost. “What do you want that for?” he said. “There ain’t nothin’ to that old book. Pure fiction.” He sold it to her for twenty-five cents.
Eakin devoted the rest of her life to proving him wrong. As a white woman growing up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, she had been forward-thinking about race. In 1944, she invited a black choir to sing at the Haas Auditorium, in Bunkie, causing community uproar. A burning cross landed on her front yard. After church one Sunday, she discovered some kids trying to set her house on fire. “I never let it worry me,” she later recalled. But her weapon of choice was history, and Solomon became her obsession. (Her many other books include histories of Cheneyville and Rapides Parish.) She wrote her master’s thesis on “Twelve Years a Slave,” and, in 1968, published the first modern edition. But her research continued. She contacted descendants of Northup and Epps, and helped preserve a side house on Epps’s former property. (In the movie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt are shown building it.)
With state funding, she developed the Northup Trail, a tour of key locations from the book. “I said, ‘Mom, I know how much this means to you.’ But I didn’t want her expectations to be unmet,” Frank said. “All you had was a bunch of rusty signs. Not many people showed up.” Nevertheless, Eakin believed that someday Northup’s story would get its due. Frank recalled going to courthouses and descendants’ houses as a child. “If she had any news of anybody that could contribute, we were off to the races in the car with the fifty-pound tape recorder and an old camera,” he said. In 1983, she even wrote a musical based on Northup’s life.
Eakin spent her last years working on an expanded edition of “Twelve Years a Slave,” including the decades of research she had accumulated since 1968. But her health began to decline, and her eyesight was poor. Frank’s sister helped her edit the new version, and, in 2007, at the age of eighty-eight, Eakin published the enhanced edition, with maps, pictures, and historical notes. She wrote in the acknowledgments, “Now Solomon and I can rest.” Two years later, she died.
Every couple years, Eakin would get a phone call from someone interested in turning “Twelve Years a Slave” into a movie. Nothing came of it. (Besides, the story was in the public domain.) The year she died, there was another call—Frank spoke to someone and shrugged it off. It wasn’t until 2011, two years after his mother’s death, that Frank heard that Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, was making the film. He offered to help however he could. Steve McQueen flew Frank to the Hollywood première, where they discussed his mother’s contribution: “Steve said, ‘There wouldn’t be a movie if it wasn’t for your mom’s discovery when she was twelve.’ ”
Frank spent Oscar night at a viewing party in Texas. “When Brad Pitt introduced Steve, everything was complete silence,” he said. Hearing his mother’s name, he was dumbstruck. “I couldn’t believe my ears. I looked around and said, ‘Did did he say that?’ ” As the publisher of his mother’s edition and the audiobook, Frank has been busy in the wake of the film’s success. But mostly he’s happy to see his mother posthumously validated: “She never sought personal publicity. Her passion was history, getting the history out.” Even the Northup Trail is getting refurbished—no more rusty signs. “Yesterday, I was on the phone with the tourism commission,” Frank said. “They see this as a large tourism opportunity.”
Full Text and Image Source: New Yorker, March 4, 2014