Summary and Analysis
Northup opens Chapter VI with a deriding, sarcastic description of New Orleans slave pen–keeper Theophilus Freeman. He describes the white man’s morning routine as being “out among his animals” early, and quick to kick or whip young and old alike. Next he details the preparations Freeman requires to get “his property ready for the sales-room.” Part of that includes making slaves dance for prospective customers, and in that effort Solomon’s ability to play the violin sets him apart.
Buyers come with frequency to Freeman’s sales floor over the next days. One man is interested in “Platt,” but the price is too high. Other humans are sold, including Eliza’s son, Randall. Eliza’s separation from her son is told in heartbreaking detail: “Don’t cry, mama,” Randall says while being taken away, “I will be a good boy.” After a time, another man closes a deal with Theophilus to purchase Platt and Eliza. Again, the mother is distraught, this time at being separated from her daughter, Emily. Moved by her sorrow, the white man offers to buy Emily as well, but Freeman adamantly refuses to sell. In the end, they are forced to leave without the child, Eliza weeping and Emily’s tiny voice calling desperately for her mother to come back. Northup reveals that Eliza never saw nor heard of her children again.
Chapter VI in Northup’s narrative is a rhetorical masterpiece, particularly suited to the ears of his Christian abolitionist contemporaries. He begins with a scathingly sarcastic description of the New Orleans slave trader: “The very amiable, pious-hearted Mr. Theophilus Freeman…” Already it’s obvious that Freeman is none of those things, but Northup continues by listing the slave trader’s awful, everyday activities, including kicking old women and cracking a whip on the ears of sleeping young children. Brief, yet evocative, this opening description of Freeman would have greatly angered a truly pious, nineteenth-century Christian. Northup then adopts Freeman’s inhumane vocabulary as a means of deriding the white man’s abusiveness, calling the slaves “his animals” and “property.” Northup’s wry use of sarcasm in describing his captor is a way of accenting the moral toll slavery exacts and of accusing those who support the slave trade of being guilty of equal hypocrisy in their moral standing.
Northup next employs cold hard truth to make his point. The detail with which he describes the fracturing of Eliza’s family is heartbreaking. Here Theophilus Freeman proves himself a reprobate with his own words and actions. The cruelty of refusing to sell Emily to a willing and generous buyer is Northup’s testimony again to the corrupting evil that the slave trade imposes on the white master’s race. Rather than make a profit and keep mother and daughter together, he acts with extreme greed and indifference: He will keep Emily until she is sexually mature, then sell her at a higher price to a new owner, who will no doubt rape her.
When Northup recalls the now-orphaned child’s desperate cries for her mother to come back, his rhetoric is complete. He has used sarcasm, evocative vocabulary, cold hard truth, and (in Emily’s voice) emotional prompting to make his point: Slavery is a moral cancer that harms both black slave and white master alike.