Slavery and Public History

Posted on Wed 29 Jan 2014
12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s incredible true story of Solomon Northup’s fight for survival and freedom, has been screening here at Watershed for almost three weeks. We’ve received some fantastic audience responses and held two sold out Q&As (you can read the week one and week two round ups here).

Last Sunday (26 Jan) we held the third and final of our Q&As, this time with Dr Madge Dresser, Associate Professor of History at the University of West of England, who looked at ‘Slavery and Public History’.

In the introduction and Q&A, Madge explained how she thought 12 Years A Slave was a phenomenon on a variety of levels, its provenance and its relationship to Britain (and indeed Bristol). From her historical perspective, did accuracy matter? Her talk was fascinating, and you can watch it in its entirely – along with the audience discussion afterwards, below:

Madge said:

“I was really pleased to be part of Watershed's hosted 12 Years A Slave screenings, and it was gratifying that the Sunday screening attracted a full house. Just before we began I heard from Watershed’s Cinema Programme Producer Maddy Probst about a young woman she met who told her she had seen the film at one of the multiplexes and had found it both isolating and alienating to see such a powerful film and then have to leave the cinema alone and in silence. She subsequently attended one of the earlier Watershed Q&A sessions on the film which transformed her experience of the film in a positive way.

“To me, that underlined the importance of seeing such an emotionally potent and politically important film in a collective setting where people could process the strong feelings it stirred up and reflect on the insights others in the audience brought to the viewing.

“At our session, the questions people asked were thoughtful and varied and it was just good to have the space to share our perceptions of the film. All of us hosting these sessions contextualised the film in different ways and I hope the audience found my short and informal offering talking about the African-American slave narratives of the nineteenth century of interest.

“Bristol's (and Britain's) direct involvement in slavery formally ended in the 1830s - more than a decade before Solomon Northup's story begins. But slave-produced tobacco from America was of continuing importance to the city until American slaves were formally emancipated in 1865.

“It isn't widely known that white Bristolians of a liberal inclination invited Black abolitionist speakers in the 1840s and 50s to Bristol, including Frederick Douglass, and that he and other speakers were enthusiastically received - and I was pleased to share my research on this with a new audience.

“I was also able to pass on something I'd just learned from an academic mailing list, namely that Solomon Northrup after his liberation was involved not just in anti-slavery campaigns but in the campaign for reparations, something that gives the film additional political resonance. Talking more informally with members of the audience in the bar also made this a memorable evening - we have much to learn from each other.

“So thanks to Watershed for including me in this experience.”

In the talk, Madge urged the audience to read Solomon’s book (as well as other slave narratives), and provided a link where you can read it for free ( ).

She also kindly shared a link for a free download of a book she co-edited for English Heritage, ‘Slavery and the British Country House’, which examines the links between the wealth derived from slavery and the British country house – including many properties right here in Bristol.

12 Years A Slave will screen until at least Thu 6 Feb, so if you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, check out the screening times here. Our previous two Q&As – ‘A Context to Slavery’ with Ujima Radio’s Roger Griffith, and ‘Slavery on Screen’ with Dr Edson Burton – are both available online, and we’d love to continue to hear your thoughts however you want to share them.