Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Julius Lester Helps Slaves Speak. Hear Them.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Some of the slaves cried worse than a baby what's sick. Most of 'em, however, did their crying on the inside, 'cause if you looked real close you could see the sorrow in their eyes. A few, however, looked like they was dead, but their hearts hadn't got the message yet."

- Will, Day of Tears, pgs. 4-5

On March 2 and 3, 1859, in Savannah, Georgia, over 400 human beings were bought and sold like cattle. The highest price paid for an individual was $1, 750, the lowest: $250. It was the biggest slave auction in American history. All of the slaves belonged to Pierce Butler, a plantation owner recently divorced from English actress and abolitionist, Fanny Kemble. He sold his "property" to pay off the debts of around $700,000 he had incurred from dabbling in the stock market and losing at cards. Torrential rain crashed down throughout the proceedings, stopping only when the auction ended. Thus, the auction became known as "The Weeping Time."

Day of Tears by Julius Lester fictionalizes the horrifying event. Through the eyes of Butler's slaves, the auctioneer, other slave owners, and Butler himself, we get not only the details of the auction, but also the strong emotions that must have been felt by all involved. Much of the story is told from the perspective of Emma, a 12-year-old house servant on Butler's plantation. She's spent her whole life there, working alongside her parents, and tending to Butler's young daughters. Although the master has promised not to sell her, he's in desperate financial straits, too desperate to keep a vow made to a lowly slave girl. Thrust into a frightening new situation, far away from the only home she's never known, Emma must learn how to survive. Through her firsthand accounts, we learn of her sorrows and triumphs. Although she never actually existed, her voice is strong and true. Her account is riveting, heart-wrenching, unforgettable. And then there's the rain. The sound of it pounding in the background, mournful and eerie, makes her story even more haunting.

While the majority of contemporary Americans - black, white and otherwise - agree that slavery was an impossibly cruel and inhumane practice, Lester makes a point of showing how widely attitudes differed during the 1850s. From a coach driver who prefers the "safety" of slavery to the uncertainty of freedom, to a young hand who refuses to kowtow to his white owner, to an auctioneer who believes his "inventory" to be devoid of feelings, to a store owner who risks life and limb to help slaves escape bondage - he reveals how slavery both murdered and inspired the human spirit. By remembering the Day of Tears, Lester makes us taste the brutality of which we're all capable, a not-so-subtle reminder that humanity and kindness bring their own rewards.

Lester's "novel in dialogue" is a spare, probing thing. It's disturbing and inspirational, sorrowful and triumphant, a tale that bears witness to the vilest evil and purest compassion known to mankind. Day of Tears will haunt you into hearing - and remembering - the hundreds of voices that never got a chance to speak. This is their story. Hear them.

(Readalikes: Hmm ... I can't think of anything else quite like this book.)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: While the inhumanity with which slaves were treated can be "rated" nothing less than R, the book is not overly graphic. I would rate it PG for mature themes.

To the FTC, with love: I received Day of Tears from Disney/Hyperion. It comes off their backlist of books published under the Jump at the Sun imprint. The purpose of the program is to help all children celebrate the beauty, history and diversity of Black culture. Many thanks, Disney/Hyperion.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like something I have to read.

    ReplyDelete

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