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Loose the shackles: when fiction writers brave the harsh realities of slavery.

A few years back, the folks at HBO asked Walter Mosley to write the narration for the film Middle Passage, a spare and haunting examination of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The movie, originally written in French, is told entirely through narration in the voice of an anonymous, dead African whose spirit haunts the ocean route and rises to tell a 20th-century child staring at the sea of the horrors that lie beneath the sea. Not exactly romantic, Saturday--night movie fare. Which is why, when the film debuted on HBO, Mosley wondered what the response would be.

"At the time, I was going around to these groups of intellectual black people," Mosley says. "And when I asked if they had watched the movie, the response was usually, 'Yeah, I saw the first five minutes, and then I had to turn that off. I couldn't take it.'"

Some writers might have been offended. Others might have criticized the members of the black cultural elite for failing once again to support a film depicting the story of our struggle in America. (Remember how Amistad set sail from the box office and promptly sank?) But Mosley sympathized. The film, though evocative and even strangely beautiful, was just too painful for most African Americans to watch.

"I might not have watched it myself," he says. "This is a story in which the happy ending is that the narrator kills himself. That is the best possible thing he could do, was to die"

The HBO experience sparked in Mosley the desire to create a new kind of story about American slavery, one that glossed over none of the brutality or inhumanity of that peculiar institution, but that nonetheless left room for hope, and even heroism. A slavery story, in other words, that folks could actually get through. The result is 47, a novel for young adults (see YOUNG ADULT REVIEWS, BIBR, July-August 2005) published last summer by Little, Brown and Company.

A Crack in the Door

The book is just one pick in a recent bumper crop of works of fiction exploring slavery written and published by African Americans over the past few years. My Jim (Crown Publishers, January 2005) by Seattle--based writer Nancy Rawles reimagines a riffler life for the runaway slave Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Two novels from the 1850s have even found a second life: Our Nig: Sketches From the Life of a Free Black by Harriet E. Wilson (Penguin Classics, 2004) and The Bondwoman's Narrative (Warner Books, 2002), written in the 1850s and attributed to former slave Hannah Craft. Perhaps most notably is The Known World by Edward P. Jones (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2003), which examines slavery from the unusual perspective of a black owner. That book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, among a slew of other honors.

While some industry watchers say such activity amounts to a new wave in slavery literature, Mosley scoffs at that idea. "More like a ripple," he says. "There should be a lot more."

Ashraf H. Rushdy, a professor of African American Studies at Wesleyan University and author of an influential text on neo-slave narratives, agrees.

"I think forty years of literary production is more than a trend," he says. "It's part of a movement." Rushdy traces that movement to a host of societal factors, including the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the emergence of African American history in schools and of black studies programs in colleges and universities, as well as the shift in attitudes toward the meaning of slavery among American historians.

Sharla Fett, a professor of history at Occidental College, plans to teach My Jim to her students this semester. Fett says she has noticed a definite uptick in slavery literature, but more in the form of memoirs such as Somerset Homecoming by Dorothy Redford (Doubleday, 1988) and in nonfiction books exploring reparations.

"The stream of historical fiction that treats slavery seems consistent rather than trendy over the past at least twenty years," says Fett. She uses a combination of history, slave narrative, political analysis and historical fiction in her classes. It is usually the fiction that resonates most with students.

"A good novel about slavery highlights what's missing from the historical archive and allows students to think imaginatively about the inner experience of both the enslaved and slave owners," says Fett.

Rushdy agrees. "A novel like Gayl Jones's Corregidora (Beacon Press, 1987) shows us the continuing psychic devastation of slavery in a way no sociological or psychological study can do."

Contemporary works such as 47 and My Jim can be viewed as the descendants of an African American literary tradition that stretches back to the slave narratives of William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Sojourner Truth.

These first-person, antebellum stories of resistance, survival and escape sought both to declare African American humanity and to sway white public opinion against slavery. Well into the 20th century, such narratives dominated African American literature with more than 200 published in book form by 1947; and thousands more are known to exist.

The Neo-Slave Narrative

In the 1960s and 1970s came an explosion of what critics call "neoslave narratives" works that depict the lives of slaves, newly emancipated people or even modern-day characters still grappling with the legacies of slavery. Among these compelling works: Margaret Walker's Jubilee (Mcdougal Littell/Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (Random House, 1976) and Kindred by Octavia Buffer (Doubleday Books, 1979).

In 1976, Alex Haley published his blockbuster family memoir, Roots. (Hutchinson). Later came the novels Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams (William Morrow & Co., 1986), Oxherding Tale (Indiana University Press, 1982) and Middle Passage (1990) both by Charles Johnson, and the great Beloved by Toni Morrison (Knopf, 1987).

Although these books range in language and narration, and in setting and tone, all share one theme in common. Octavia Buffer says, "I set out to make people feel history."

Certainly, Mosley's novel takes the reader straight into the harsh and brutal life of a young man on a 19th-century Georgia plantation. But Mosley says he wanted to do more than remind us of the painful past.

"Many young, black children find it hard to read stories about slavery because of their healthy resistance to identify with victims," he says. "I wanted to write a book in which the main character rises above his role as a victim by becoming a victorious hero. And I wanted the reader to know this would happen from page one."

Such assurances are more illusive in My Jim, Rawles's spare and elegant retelling of the story of the escaped Jim and his abandoned wife, Sadie. Rawles spent months researching slave narratives, reading oral histories and traveling to Twain's home town of Hannibal, Missouri, before writing the tale.

Rawles, the award-winning author of two previous novels, says she never thought she'd use a character from a classic work of fiction as a jumping-off point for her own work. But every school year seemed to bring a dust-up in public schools. black parents protesting the teaching of Huck Finn with its racial slurs and demeaning stereotypes. The problem, says Rawles, is that too often Huck Finn is taught without the critical and historical skill required to put Twain's portrait of Jim in the proper context.

The book is rarely seen for what it is--a biting political satire. Instead, it's taught as a great adventure yarn, with Huck as the clever boy humanist and Jim as his goodhearted but ignorant, superstitious and ultimately inferior pal.

Teaching Huck Finn Well

"No wonder so many black children suffer through the teaching of this book," Rawles says. It was the notion of her own eight-year-old daughter eventually encountering Huck Finn that lent fuel to the writing of My Jim.

But unlike The Wind Done Gone (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), Mice Randall's searing correction to Gone With the Wind, Rawles's book is not meant so much as a repudiation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but an illumination of that great work, a widening. My Jim is already being taught alongside Twain's classic in high schools in Berkeley, California, as well as in several colleges across the land. Rawles says she hopes the novel will also lead people to think about slavery as it continues to exist today, both economic and sexual.

For his part, Mosley believes the publication of these novels about slavery is just the first step. Getting those same millions of black television viewers who found Middle Passage too painful to watch to embrace these fictional accounts of an almore difficult. period in our history might

"It's not even clear these books are be read by black people," he warned. "But they need to be. You have an African Americ all of whom think they know population, something about slavery, but few of whom. really do."

Kim McLarin is the author of Leaving Motherland, to be published in May 2006 by William Morrow.
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Author:McLarin, Kim
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Bibliography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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