West End man pleased by ‘12 Years a Slave’ film’s depiction of ancestor

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Twice, Clayton J. Adams has seen “12 Years a Slave,” the new film about slavery in America.

Even so, he still hasn’t seen how it ends. Each time, he said, the viewing was too emotional for him to make it through to the final scene, to witness what befalls a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and held in brutal captivity for more than a decade.

But Mr. Adams, a 43-year-old resident of the West End, knows how the story ends.

Solomon Northup, who published his first-hand account of slavery in 1853 and whose story is now the focus of a film directed by Steve McQueen, is Mr. Adams’ great-great-great-grandfather.

And Mr. Adams, who saw the movie at two separate screenings for Northup’s descendants earlier this fall, said it provoked the same response that reading Northup’s account caused more than two decades earlier — tears.

“I can’t even remember the end of the movie, my tears were just coming down so hard,” Mr. Adams said of seeing the film for the first time at the AMC Loews Waterfront.

The release of “12 Years a Slave” has been, for many Americans, an introduction to Northup’s story. For Mr. Adams and his family, that story has long been part of their identity.

Mr. Adams, who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1993, was born in Rochester, N.Y., and lived briefly in Washington, D.C. before his family moved to Syracuse, N.Y. His mother, Carol Adams-Sally, was the daughter of Victoria Northup Linzy Dunham, who was the granddaughter of Alonzo Northup, who was Solomon Northup’s only son and youngest child.

As a high school student, Mr. Adams read “Twelve Years a Slave” and his mother told him the family connection, but he said it didn’t click for him at first.

Later, as a college freshman taking a course in black literature, he read it again. In the book, in the movie, and in actuality, Northup was an educated man with a family and children whose life in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was upended when he was kidnapped.

He was sold into slavery in the South, where he had different masters, some far crueler than others, until he was able to get a message through to people who knew him in New York to rescue him.

On his second reading of the tale, Mr. Adams remembered, he cried, realizing that the man telling this story was connected to him by blood.

“It was like finding a missing piece of my life that I didn’t know was missing,” he said in a recent interview.

Since that reading, Mr. Adams has written poetry inspired by Northup’s story. He has made sure that his two daughters know their ancestor’s struggles and that they understand the full history of slavery in the United States.

In 1999, Renee Moore, an educator and activist in Saratoga Springs, founded Solomon Northup Day there, and Mr. Adams and his family were among the dozens of Northup descendants who attended, traveling from places including California, Maryland and other parts of New York, Ms. Moore said.

“It just gave us a sense of pride, a sense of belonging to something greater than just belonging to the normal family that we know of,” Mr. Adams said.

Since 1999, Solomon Northup Day has been observed each year.

This year, when about 60 descendants attended, the impending release of the film about Northup’s life gave the gathering added meaning. Lupita Nyong’o, the actress who plays the character of the slave Patsey, attended, and representatives from Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributor, also were there, Mr. Adams said.

After so many years of imagining Northup’s struggle, Mr. Adams was somewhat worried about how the movie would depict it. Upon seeing it, he said, he was “very pleased.”

“He kept true to the book,” he said of Mr. McQueen. And Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Northup, captured “the essence of Solomon,” he said.

Seeing the film, he said, he was even more impressed by Northup’s perseverance and his undying belief that he would again experience freedom.

But the scene toward the end of the film, when Northup is forced to whip Patsey, another slave to whom he has grown close, proved too much for him to watch.

“That scene was very emotional to me,” he said, and through his tears he was unable to see what happened next, when Northup finally gains freedom.

But he knows what, at the end, the audience is told: that the details of Northup’s death, and where he is buried now, are unknown.

Mr. Adams, who is trying to get a book of his poetry published and is looking for a new job after losing his position with a real estate information company this year, hopes that the movie’s release might lead to some sort of discovery about Northup’s final chapter.

Already, with each year, he said, the family learns more about their ancestor.

“Hopefully, in the end, we’ll be able to piece it all together, and hopefully figure out that mystery of where he is now.”

Mr. Adams will speak and take questions following the 1:30 p.m. showing of "12 Years a Slave" Sunday at the Manor Theatre, 1729 Murray Ave., in Squirrel Hill. Tickets for the movie are $6.50.

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

First Published November 13, 2013 4:34 PM

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