Curriculum - 'Slavery Is Personal History for All of Us'

By Bloom, Adi | Times Educational Supplement, February 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

Curriculum - 'Slavery Is Personal History for All of Us'


Bloom, Adi, Times Educational Supplement


Steve McQueen, director of the Oscar-nominated 12 Years a Slave, says Solomon Northup's memoir is essential reading for students.

When Steve McQueen read Anne Frank's diary as a schoolboy, he was instantly captivated.

"She's actually speaking to you," the Oscar-nominated director says of Frank's writing. "It's Anne talking to us. That's the thing about Anne Frank's diary - it's as if she's speaking directly to the reader. That's why, when I read it at school, it was so important and so engaging."

McQueen, whose film 12 Years a Slave has just been named best picture at the Golden Globes, believes that the 1853 autobiography on which his film is based could have the same effect on today's students. He believes this so strongly that he is campaigning for it to be taught to all children in Britain and the US.

"When I first read the book, the first thing it reminded me of was Anne Frank's diary," he says during an interview with TES. "I finished it and I didn't (previously) know this story, and also no one I knew, knew this story. So for me, when I first read it, I thought, this should be on the curriculum. This was always one of my aims. As well as making the movie, of course."

McQueen is currently in talks with the Department for Education in England about adding the book to the curriculum. "Yeah, some letters and so forth," he says. "And people are working at it as we speak. We'll see what happens. I'm very optimistic."

In the US, too, he has been talking to "people of influence" in the education system. "People are so engaged with this history, you know, and there's a lot of goodwill. So, fingers crossed."

The book 12 Years a Slave was written by Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York State in 1841. Northup was tricked into travelling to Washington DC by a pair of men offering him some work. They subsequently drugged him and sold him into slavery.

McQueen had already been planning to make a film about a free man kidnapped into slavery when his wife, a Dutch theatre critic, discovered Northup's first-person account of exactly that scenario. "I was sort of blown away by it," he says. "It's similar to Anne Frank's diary, where she's actually speaking to you. Solomon is speaking to us.

"This is another situation, another account of someone trying to survive in an unfortunate - in a harsh - environment. I thought it would be great, not just for children, about a time in history. But it's a first-hand account, so it's as if they're speaking directly to you." He pauses. "Goodness gracious," he adds, as though exhaling after running up a hill.

An American hero

There is an obvious question to be asked here, about why Anne Frank's diary has achieved international fame whereas Northup's account was only rescued from complete obscurity by McQueen's film. McQueen, however, disagrees.

"Well, the question is not so much why is she better known as why did we not know Solomon Northup before?" he says. "And I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know. I have no idea.

"I'm not really worried - I don't really think about it so much, because picking on sores is not my interest. Getting things done is."

McQueen's inability - or unwillingness - to address this question seems surprising, given current high-profile discussions about the books chosen for study in school.

Michael Gove, England's education secretary, has spoken of his belief that schools should teach the English literary canon. Last month, TES reported that Dmitry Livanov, the Russian minister of education and science, was calling for the rest of the world to follow his country's example and compel schoolchildren to study the full canon of its nation's classic authors.

The weight of political opinion, therefore, is essentially behind a collection of dead white men, with dead white women in second place. …

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