Comparative Paper of “12 Years a Slave”


As we have covered in this course, African American history and slavery hold a unique place in our national consciousness and few topics have as contested a historiography as slavery and African American history. Building historical interpretation from primary sources, such as Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years A Slave, historians have debated how to interpret the subject and what aspects to emphasize. These interpretations vary widely over time and each generation’s reinterpretation often suggests more about the era in which such history was produced than about the era that it is about.
The film adaptation of 12 Years A Slave is therefore an interpretation of history that represents the filmmakers’ understanding of slavery, slaves, slavery’s place in society, and its contemporary significance. The filmmakers made conscious choices on what aspects of the memoir to emphasize, alter, or downplay. Although Northup’s memoir is not very long, filmmakers could not reasonably be expected to include everything. Converting a written document to a visual medium also necessitates changes. Nevertheless, filmmakers purposefully decided what to remove, add, and what to reimagine in the adaptation. These choices have tremendous consequences in what overt and subtle messages the film conveys.
With this and what we have covered in class in mind, write a four-page paper comparing the memoir 12 Years A Slave to its film adaptation. Do not focus on determining which is better, the memoir or the movie, or other less analytically significant questions. The focus should be on the interpretation of the memoir the film represents and what the implications of this are. Nor should students focus on listing all the minor similarities and differences. Instead, students should select a few crucial similarities and differences and explore the significance of these. For example, how does the film capture or overlook some of the themes this class has covered? Does the film stress or downplay Northup’s resistance to enslavement, does it frame slavery’s place in the U.S. differently than the memoir, does it present the daily realities of slavery in a manner similar to Northup’s description? Why might the filmmakers have changed or kept any of these elements to convey the story they wanted to communicate to modern audiences? How do these differences shape our contemporary, public understanding of slavery and slaves?
Good papers will have a clearly stated thesis in an introductory paragraph that introduces the memoir, the film, and the student’s overall argument. Better papers will periodically cite reading or lecture material from the class and provide in-depth analysis of crucial lines of dialogue, scenes, or overall themes. All papers will rely only on the memoir, film, and course materials. I am interested in your interpretation, not outside sources’ interpretations. Use what you have learned in this course to unpack the film’s historical interpretation.
As this course requires you to have taken English 102, 105, 108, or its equivalent, I expect a high quality paper written in a narrative style with clear prose following grammar conventions for formal writing. Take advantage of the free services available at the ASU Writing Center. Both content and style will be factors in your grade. Review the common errors and grammar guidance at the end of this assignment.

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General Instructions:

(a) Write as if your reader has no knowledge of the topic or source. Define terms when necessary, introduce people, summarize the source, and explain the context sufficiently for understanding.
(b) Use 12 point and Times New Roman font only.
(c) Submit as a Word file.
(d) Align the text to the left, not center justified.
(e) Use 1-inch margins and double-space. Do not expand the spacing or play with margins. I will notice and will be annoyed. Pro-tip: do not annoy the person grading you.
(f) Use footnotes to cite sources. Use Chicago style as outlined on the next page, but do not stress about this—just make sure you always make it clear where you got what from.
(g) Include a cover page with your name, title of the paper, course number, and instructor’s name. Do not begin your essay on the cover page and do not include any of the information on the cover page in the rest of the paper.
(h) The cover page will not count toward the page requirements (a total of four pages plus the cover page). I will not read anything beyond four pages. Learning to write concise and focused papers is an important skill to develop. Likewise, not reaching the page requirements should signal you that you have not delved sufficiently into your subject matter. Ask yourself what more can be explored or explained? Where could you better support your argument by unpacking a particularly instructive quotation? Do not add “fluff,” but challenge yourself to dig deeper if you find yourself short of the required length.
(i) Quote your source, but do so carefully. All quotes must be introduced appropriately—DO NOT simply make them sentences onto themselves. Seriously, just don’t. It is both wrong and a huge pet peeve of mine.
(j) Do not over quote. Quotes should only be used when a source says something in a particularly unique or concise way. Use them sporadically and only when it serves your purposes. Papers that are over 20% quotations will receive no higher than a D. Block quotes (which are required for quotes longer than 40 words) are not appropriate in a paper this short. Instead, paraphrase and use only the most relevant portions.
(k) Take advantage of the free services available at the Writing Center, as both content and style will be factors in your grade. If you do not use the Writing Center, have a friend read your paper. A second set of eyes can do wonders!
(l) DO NOT use any other sources besides assigned course materials.
(m) Copying materials from the internet or any other source will be detected and reported as plagiarism to the appropriate authorities as required by university rules. I am here to help you so contact me if you need any assistance determining what constitutes plagiarism.
(n) Late papers will result in a full letter grade deduction for every 12 hours late. After two days, late papers will not be accepted.

Chicago Style Citations:

1. Always cite direct quotations.
2. Always cite a paraphrase of another’s thoughts or ideas.
3. Always cite facts, information, or data if that information is found exclusively in a particular source or is very specific. For example, you do not need to cite the textbook if you state that the Civil War ended in 1865. But, if you note that 179,000 black men served in the U.S. Colored Troops, you need to cite your source for this information.
4. In Microsoft Word, footnotes are created by going to “Insert” and then “Footnote” or “References,” instead of “Insert,” in some versions of Word. Footnotes are traditionally written in 10-point font, but annoyingly this must be changed manually. They should also be single-spaced, never double.
5. Footnotes should be placed at the end of a sentence after the punctuation and after the quotation mark. For example: Frederick Douglass declared, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”[1] Do not put a footnote in the middle of a sentence, before the quotation mark, or before the punctuation (i.e. don’t do this: Douglass declared, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress1.”).
6. Despite the name, footnotes do not go in a paper’s “Footer.” If you follow the directions in #4 for inserting footnotes, you will save yourself a lot of aggravation trying to manual insert footnotes.
7. The first time you cite a source, include the following information in the following order and with the following punctuation:
Author’s full name, Title of book/Speech/Source (Place of Publication: Publisher, Year), page number.
For example:
Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery, in Three Negro Classics (New York: AVON Books, 1965), 155.
8. If you are using an e-book, download the PDF version so you can provide page numbers and cite accordingly. If your e-book still does not have page numbers, cite as well as you can using chapters (i.e. middle of chapter 3).
9. The second time you cite the same source, simply provide the following: Author’s Last Name, Page number. For example: Washington, 105.
10. Footnotes should be sequential and each number should only be used once, even if they are referring to the same source. Following the directions for inserting a footnote will do this numbering for you automatically.
11. No works cited page is necessary as you are only using assigned course material.

Common Grammar Errors and Writing Guidance:

v Do not use passive voice. Passive voice is when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. Meaning, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Passive voice skirts responsibility and has therefore been used far too often in African American History to say things such as: The slaves were abused. Make clear who abused the slaves!
Ø Example: The law was passed. versus Congress passed the law. The first sentence is passive. It does not make clear who or what is doing the action.
Ø Silly example to remember: Why was the road crossed by the chicken?
v As a general rule, use past tense in historical writing. The people you usually write about in history are dead. They are not doing or saying anything anymore. Therefore, use past tense when referring to what historical subjects did or said.
Ø Example: Douglass says, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” versus Douglass said, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”
v Use a person’s full name the first time you use his or her name. After using the full name, subsequent references should only use the person’s last name. Never refer to a historical subject simply by their first name unless a last name is unknown.
Ø Example: Booker T. Washington was born a slave. Nevertheless, Washington eventually dined at the White House.
v Capitalize proper nouns. Proper nouns, unlike common nouns, should be capitalized as you are referring to something specific.
Ø When referring to the South—as in the former states of the Confederacy—it should be capitalized. Describing something as “south of here,” however, is using the word as a common noun. Likewise, describing someone as a “southerner” is a general term and should be lowercase. Think about how terms are used to determine their case.
v Avoid using adjectives and adverbs. These modifiers tend to be unnecessary and your prose will be stronger without them. If you feel the need to use an adverb, especially one that ends in “ly,” try using a stronger verb.
Ø Example: Something cannot be “really historic.” Just say “historic.”
Ø Example: He quickly ran home. versus He sped home.
v Do not use personal pronouns such as “I” or “you.” Personal pronouns are not appropriate in most historical writing. Especially avoid using phrasing such as “I believe” or “I feel.” The point in historical writing is not to convey your feelings or your beliefs but to convey an argument. Write accordingly.
v Do not use contractions in formal writing. To break yourself of the habit, try adjusting the “Grammar Settings” in Word so you remember not to use them.
v Paragraphs must be at least three sentences long and have transitions from one paragraph to the next.
v Cut unnecessary words. Strive to use as few words as possible to convey your meaning.
Ø Example: He successfully completed the speech. versus He completed the speech.
v Use the “correct” word. Bigger is not necessarily better. Use the most appropriate word for your meaning. Get into the habit of looking up the meaning of words that you already know, just to verify that it is the precise word you want and does not have any connotations you do not want. Do not use a word you found in a thesaurus without also looking the word up in a dictionary.
v Use respectful terminology. “African American” and “black” or “Black” are both acceptable words to refer to people of African descent in the U.S. Strive, however, to use “black” more as a modifier than as a noun. For example, “black people” instead of “blacks.” Black can be capitalized or lowercase, but be consistent with doing it one way or the other. White is typically lowercase. Other terms for African Americans are only acceptable when quoting or as proper nouns (i.e. U.S. Colored Troops, New Negro, Negro Problem). Never use older terms to refer to African Americans outside of quotes or proper nouns. In some rare instances, “people of color” is acceptable, but never “colored.” Also, there is no such thing as the African American race. Simply say African Americans or black people.
v Watch out for possessives. A possessive noun shows that someone (or something) owns an item. Make sure you are not indicating possession when you are simply making something a plural. Singular possessives are made by adding an apostrophe and the letter “s” to the noun. If a singular possessive ends in an “s” already, you must still add the apostrophe and the “s.” Plural possessives, however, can be more complicated. Most of the time, you simply add an apostrophe but no extra “s” if the word, to become a plural, already ends in an “s.” If the plural possessive does not end in an “s,” then you must add an apostrophe and an “s.”
Ø Normal singular possessive: John Rock’s speech…
Ø Singular possessive that ends in an “s”: Frederick Douglass’s newspaper…
Ø Normal plural possessive: African Americans’ views on the subject varied.
Ø Plural possessive that does not end in an “s”: That was considered black men’s work.
Ø Common error: African American’s versus African Americans’ The first refers to only one person who has possession over what follows. The second refers to all African Americans who have possession over what follows (you’ll rarely use the former).
v Edit your writing! We know what we meant to write, but we are not that good at reading what we actuallywrote. Therefore, try to finish drafting your paper a few days before it is due and then come back a day later to edit with fresh eyes so you can see what you actually wrote. Read your paper aloud to slow yourself down so you can really take in what you wrote and because your ear will often catch a mistake that your eyes do not. Even though you are submitting the paper digitally, you should still print out a draft and edit a hard copy at least once—you read better on paper.
v Peer edit. Ask a friend to read your paper for you. This can be very hard and painful to do, but the feedback will be invaluable. Even if your reader does not know anything about the subject, he or she can still catch grammar mistakes and point out areas that are confusing. Remember that you should always write like your reader does not know anything about the subject—meaning that a reader who does not actually know anything about the subject is a perfect test audience! Have your reader explain your thesis, the history, and your explanations back to you after reading your paper. If your reader cannot do this well, then you need to explain more in your paper and/or work on your clarity.

[1] Frederick Douglass quoted in Darlene Clark Hine, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold, The African-American Odyssey (Boston: Pearson, 2014), 223.

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