Summary and Analysis
Epps hires out Platt each year to work in sugar cane plantations. In this capacity, Platt is put in charge of a gang of up to 100 slaves for three years in a row. At this point, Northup interrupts his narrative to give a detailed report on the common practices for cultivating sugar cane.
Northup then tells what Christmas holidays were like on Epps farm. During this season, Epps’ slaves are granted three days off—the only time off they get the entire year. One plantation in the area hosts a celebration for all the surrounding slaves. Invariably, Platt is called upon to play violin for these Christmas events. There are unspeakable delights for Christmas supper, and there’s dancing and courting, and slave girls with their hair twined up in their best red ribbons. There are even marriages from time to time. Still, despite the happiness of this season, Northup points out, it only exists for three days of the year.
In Chapter XIV, Northup revealed that he was given a whip and made to lead slave crews in the cultivation of sugar cane. Apparently he was good in that overseer role because, according to Chapter XV, he was given a similar job for three consecutive years thereafter. He does not mention the whip this time—though it was clearly in use among the 50 to 100 slaves he oversaw. His not mentioning the whip is again a tacit admission to the insatiable, corrupting cost of slavery on everyone involved, including Solomon Northup himself.
The bulk of Chapter XV, though, is an almost happy reflection of slave celebrations at Christmas in the Bayou Boeuf region of Louisiana. Northup clearly enjoys the memories here. For example, he speaks with warmth at the recollection of Abram riding a mule to the party, and with delight at the sight of slave women decked out in their finest red hair ribbons. He’s practically overcome in his descriptions of the wonderful foods that were spread before the slaves at Christmas suppers. He recalls the black choruses sung at Christmas and speaks with mirth at the antics of the dancing slave Miss Lively and her would-be suitors. He says in summary, “…if ye wish to look…upon genuine happiness, rampant and unrestrained—go down to Louisiana, and see the slaves dancing in the starlight of a Christmas night.”
Like the descriptions of cotton picking or sugar production, these Christmas stories give added credibility to Northup’s narrative as a whole. The fact that he’s willing to tell of slave masters’ generosity and kindnesses demonstrates that he’s still intent on fulfilling the purpose he stated in Chapter I, namely “to give a candid and truthful statement of facts.” Yet, these joyful memories can’t undo, nor erase, the harsh evil that is still slavery. “Such is ‘Southern life as it is,’” he says in the end, “three days in the year, as I found it—the other three hundred and sixty-two being days of weariness, and fear, and suffering, and unremitting labor.”