The past few months of news regarding immigration policy have been in turmoil. Many Americans across the nation justifiably went to voice their opinions and protest Trump’s “zero tolerance” on immigration. Conversely, the forceful decision sought to halt illegal entry by detaining and separating migrant families is not an unknown occurrence as American history shows. Since the beginning of the trans-atlantic slave trade in the 16th century, white slave owners split up black families for a myriad of reasons including: punishment, paying debts, and creating equal inheritance. However, the most detrimental and unceasing reason slave owners split up families during the era of slavery was for the purposes of control and psychological abuse. By detaching the nuclear family from one another, the slave owners could ensure the oppressor/oppressed relationship remained intact. Children were exposed and forced to experience the horrors of slavery just as their parents were, but having done so without that familial connection severely damaged the psyche of slaves by depriving them of the closest individuals to them. To say the least, separation took a toll on heritage, legacy, and pride associated with family and lineage and explains why many African-Americans don’t have the privilege of discussing where their family tree actually originates. Even so, most can only trace their lineage to a southern US state where their surname was most common because death, birth, marriage, and other records were not recorded. Despite the constant battles faced on the plantation, Solomon’s mental security persisted largely due to creating a family away from his family.
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Us is a free-verse poem that serves as an adaptation of the experiences and feelings of Solomon Northup. Once a free man in the north, Solomon is kidnapped from his family and life as he knew it and diminished to mere property on a slave plantation in Louisiana. His collection of thoughts chronically guides the reader through significant scenes in 12 Years of a Slave that exhibit the depth of the role that family played in the lives of African-Americans.
The poem begins as Solomon laments about his wife and children and how being subjected to slavery is hindering him from his fatherly responsibility to them. The second stanza signifies a sense of anger and extreme bitterness with his current situation and tugs at the readers’ ethos by forcing them to empathize with his misery and violent-stricken world. Further, Solomon denotes the influence of God and life as he asks him to “show me the light.” Many slaves used Christianity as a way to display their faith while remaining optimistic about the future and heaven. His grasp of hope still remains through the familial connections built during his time on the plantation. Eliza, Patsey, and the slave who passed away in the field are all used as examples that epitomize family and community. Regardless of genealogy, Solomon is confiding in others to receive and show love, compassion, and loyalty. Though none of them chose their situation and would have rejoiced at being free, he explains the only thing that got him through was “Us,” who he’d formed a close bond with.
Adaption to his circumstances by creating a family unit did nothing less than establish a deeper source of comfort and hope in an indefinite time of distress and pain. It’s important to note the effect of not having control as Solomon was forced to encounter Patsey and Eliza’s struggle. His inability to protect women and his loved ones back home appealed to the readers’ own connection to their family and signified Solomon’s need for a deeper purpose in life. Hence, when his purpose was physically taken away, Solomon reverts to anger while grasping hope of a future reunion.
All of these elements exclusively reveal that slaves were in fact human beings fully subjective to feelings and emotions. So when we revisit the recent immigration policies disproportionally effecting nuclear family relationships, it comes as no surprise to American history. White society has historically ripped families apart with no remorse for monetary and hegemony purposes. It’s only done so much to keep them down because African-Americans have created solutions, like Solomon, to show their commitment to their families despite the challenges faced at any given moment. Regarding each other as “brotha” and “sis” today is just one way in which African-Americans recognize community in a time of heightened race relations. That being said, they will collectively start to take back what was taken from them: freedom, the freedom to connect and the freedom to relate.
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