A Hippo Reads Exclusive Reprint, Courtesy of Gently Read Literature

Liberty is rendered even more precious by the recollection of servitude.
—Marcus Tullius Cicero

What tangled skeins are the genealogies of slavery!
—Harriet Jacobs

Slavery was an era in America’s history which negatively impacted an entire race of people for many generations. Several books, both in fiction and non-fiction have been written about the subject. I plan to shed light on the trends and ideas written about slavery by five authors specializing in contemporary African-American fiction.

Unlike in earlier novels like William Wells Brown’s Clotel, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, these author’s narratives encompass facts about slavery not normally written. Some of the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to popularize many of the stereotypes that exist today about black people. The books that I will analyze have been written within the last three decades and provide a different perspective into the nature of slavery.

Each novel deals with the fundamentals of the slavery era, but each author uses their own unique lens to look into the institution of slavery. Through the perception of the authors, these portraits of slavery tell the stories of brave, courageous and intelligent slave characters. As Don Delillo said in an interview on the power of history in the NY Times Magazine, “Ultimately the writer will reconfigure things the way his own history demands. He has his themes and biases and limitations. He has the small crushed pearl of his anger. He has his teaching job, his middling reputation and the one radical idea he has been waiting for all his life. The other thing he has is a flat surface that he will decorate, fitfully, with words.”

The characters these writers develop in the novels betray the stereotypes of slaves, such as the Jezebel, the loyal and sanctimonious Mammy, or the always noble and obeying Uncle Tom. You will not find any Mammy characters in any of these books. According to Deborah Gray White in Ar’nt I a Woman? Mammy was the perfect image for antebellum Southerners. As the personification of the ideal slave, and the ideal woman, Mammy was an ideal symbol of the patriarchal tradition. Mammy was part of the benign slave tradition, and as part of the cult of domesticity.

These portraits of slavery reveal the obstacles, and challenges of both female and male slaves in the landscape of the era. The reader is transformed into experiencing slightly different settings and concepts of slavery. Although the writers describe situations, circumstances and experiences already known about slavery, they tell them in innovative ways. When writing about history the novelist, Delillo says, does not want to tell you things you already know about the great, the brave, the powerless and the cruel.

The first author I will explore, Edward P. Jones, tackles the concept of black people owning black slaves and the minor difference this fact had on the daily life of the slave. He also reveals to the reader the consequences involved when black slave owners rule over their own kind. In The Known World, Jones uses extraordinary detail and numerous switchbacks to frame his story.

Science fiction author, Octavia E. Butler uses time travel to tell the harrowing story about a contemporary character repeatedly yanked back to the Ante-Bellum South. With her novel Kindred, she paints a portrait of slavery by combining the genres of Science fiction, Historical fiction and African-American fiction.

In Cane River author, Lalita Tademy, writes about the concept of beautiful black slave women voluntarily having sexual relationships with their white masters, or rich white men in their communities. Tademy explores the various dilemmas and consequences involved with having such unions.

Author, Susan Straight writes about slavery using the lens of a mixed-race heroine in early nineteenth century Louisiana. Like Jones, she uses great detail throughout A Million Nightingales by mastering in the timeless writer’s tip of showing versus telling.

The last author I will explore is J. California Cooper. In The Wake of the Wind she writes about the complexities surrounding the slave family and their struggle to survive while enslaved and immediately after being emancipated.

Finally, dispersed throughout my explorations of the various novels, I will discuss how they helped me to prepare my novel in progress, The Avenue of Palms. In my manuscript I use a different lens to show a portrait of slavery that is seen through the eyes of the ghost of a slave.

Power and class struggles are the common threads that run throughout each novel and link them together.

At least three separate genres are represented in these novels. The genres of African-American fiction, Historical fiction, and Science fiction overlap depending on the book.

All the books except one are considered African-American literature. William Harmon in A Handbook to Literature simply describes African-American literature as the literary work of African-Americans.

The authors in the novels I will discuss incorporated great settings, developed strong characters, and used enterprising plot lines. The protagonists in all the novels are intuitive, strong-willed, and intelligent slaves.

In his debut novel, The Known World, Edward P. Jones, gives a unique and different perspective to the institution of slavery. Written in 2003, the book concentrates on the hypocrisy and the often underwritten aspect of black slave owners during Ante-Bellum Virginia. The setting turns the traditional story of slavery upside down, providing conflict and tension.

With a wealth of detail, Jones transports the reader to the past, using innovative plot techniques, providing an entertaining yet, complex story about the lives of free and enslaved blacks. His narrative centers around the life and death of protagonist Henry Townsend, a former slave turned slave owner. The novel begins with Henry on his death-bed.

Henry Townsend a black man of thirty-one years with thirty-three slaves and more than fifty acres of land that sat him high above many others, white and black in Manchester County, Virginia sat up in bed for most of his dying days… On the fourth day on his way to death, Henry found sitting up difficult and lay down. He spent that night trying to reassure his wife. “Nothing hurts,’ he said more than once that day, a day in July 1855. “Nothin Hurts.”

Jones weaves together the past, present, and the future throughout the book. These switchbacks can at times be disorienting, but somehow, he makes it work. This technique allows him to flesh out almost all his characters.

Flashing back, Jones writes about Henry’s beginning days as a slave owner. After purchasing his first slave, Moses, for $325 he immediately puts him to work building the big house.

It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Moses had thought it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore?

Henry’s character connects in one way or another, to all the characters in the novel. They range from Moses, the cruel overseer, to Caldonia, the mistress of the plantation and secret lover of Moses, Augustus and Mildred Townsend, Henry’s parents who buy their way to freedom, Fern Alston, a woman who rules over her plantation with an assured hand, and many others.

As a new slave owner, Henry is less assured about telling his father a former slave himself, that he is now the owner of his first slave. In the passage below, Henry comes up with the nerve to tell him the truth. Augustus takes the news with first disbelief, then fury.

“You mean tell me you bought a man he yours now?” Augustus asked. “You done bought him and you didn’t free that man? You own a man, Henry?”

Finally full of indignation Augustus takes one of his homemade walking sticks and hits Henry with it.

Augustus slammed the stick down across Henry’s shoulder and Henry crumpled to the floor. “Thas how a slave feel!” Augustus called down to him. “Thas just how every slave every day be feelin.”

Power and class struggles continue during the course of the book with the character, Fern Alston, a slave owner who is light enough to pass for white. Although everyone in her family left the county and lives as white people, Fern is a proud and highly educated black woman. However, her racial pride doesn’t stop her from maintaining class boundaries, as she prefers not to mingle with “any slave that was not house broken.”

Jones continues to cross class lines with racial undertones, with a relationship between Moses the overseer and the Mistress of the plantation, Caldonia. The widow experiences deep grief after Henry dies, and depends heavily on Moses to keep the plantation running smoothly.

At the end of each day they meet to discuss the events of the day. Jones reminds the reader that although Moses and Caldonia are both black, their separation of class is a deep divide. The two begin a secretive intimate relationship. After an episode of lovemaking, the passage below describes Caldonia’s dilemma of having sexual relations with her slave.

They were done and partially clothed on the floor. His words caused her to wonder if Virginia had a law forbidding such things between a colored woman and a colored man who was her slave. Was this a kind of miscegenation? A white woman in Bristol had been whipped for such an offense, and her slave was hanged.

Throughout the narrative, Jones doesn’t tell, he shows by using specific, definite, and concrete details. His accounts of the day-to-day life of the slave are told through the lens of both the slave and the black slave owner. His fresh new voice recounts the history of this often unreported fact about slavery in African-American literature.

While studying the class structure in The Known World, I recalled my novel in progress, The Avenue of Palms. The manuscript is based on facts about the owners of a real slave plantation in Florida owned by an African princess and her white husband. As the Mistress, this black woman diligently controls every inch of her land, treating her black slaves callously, just like a typical white mistress would treat hers. Her story, like Henry and Fern’s, are reminders that whether the owner is black or white, it doesn’t take the hate and bigotry out of slavery.

Jones exposes the lives of black people owning other black people providing a picture of slavery not normally reflected in African-American fiction.

Similar to Jones’s novel, Octavia E. Butler’s novel, Kindred, provides snapshots into the daily life of the slave. Butler is most known for being one of the first African-American’s to break into Science Fiction.

I found Kindred while doing research for The Avenue of Palms. A quarter of the way into Kindred I noticed three similarities between the two. I also realized how I could improve my narrative just by studying Butler’s use of the super natural, dialect, and setting.

The three elements that Kindred and The Avenue of Palms have in common are: they both have super natural elements that transport a character from one era to another; they both have settings that surround the institution of slavery; and they both have strong protagonists that are female African-American writers.

In Kindred, Butler uses time travel to connect late 1970’s with the early 1800’s. Butler takes her protagonist, Dana Franklin back in time from urban Los Angeles to the Ante-Bellum South.

In The Avenue of Palms, my protagonist, Kara Sloan is a contemporary woman who meets the spirit of a slave, Violet Kingsley, right after the election of American’s first African-American President. Violet is transported forward in time from the year 1821.

What amazed me most about Butler’s use of time travel was the relative ease in which she seemed to do it. She states in the forward of Kindred that although it’s classified as science fiction that, “there is no science in it.” She describes it as a, “grim fantasy.”

Butler’s method of transporting her character back in time is extremely realistic to the reader. When Dana is in the process of traveling back in time, she becomes physically ill. After a while the symptoms become a sign to her that she is about to leave the twentieth century for the nineteenth century. While unpacking boxes in her new home with her husband, Kevin, Dana has her first bout of time travel sickness.

I bent to push him another box full, then straightened quickly as I began to feel dizzy, nauseated. The room seemed to blur and darken around me. I stayed on my feet for a moment holding on to a bookcase and wondering what was wrong then finally, I collapsed to my knees…I raised my head and discovered that I could not focus on him. “Something is wrong with me,” I gasped. I heard him move toward me, saw a blur of gray pants and blue shirt. Then, just before he would have touched me, he vanished. The house, the books, everything vanished. Suddenly, I was outdoors kneeling on the ground beneath trees.

After Butler sets Dana up for her time travel she describes a distinct change of setting to adjust the reader to the new place Dana arrives at in Maryland across the river from Baltimore.

I was in a green place. I was at the edge of some woods. Before me was a wide tranquil river, and near the middle of that river was a child splashing, screaming…Drowning!

In Kindred when Dana is transported back to slavery, she is going there as a modern highly educated black woman. Everything about her stands out. She is self-assured. “Why do you talk like a white person,” one of the slaves asks her. Everyone she meets is appalled by her attire. She wears pants. “Why do you dress like a man,” another slave asks her. The Master and Mistress of the plantation she arrives at do not trust her and do not like her, because she “isn’t like any other nigger they know,” the Mistress says.

When transported back in time Dana is labeled as the “trouble-maker” slave. She is considered dangerous to have around the other slaves because of her high intellect and ability to read. Although Dana is living as a slave in the era she still has her modern qualities about her.

She doesn’t tolerate being called a nigger, until after her first whipping at the whipping post. After that incident she did not care what they called her. Dana’s self-confidence and empowering characteristics would be enough to have her sold, according to Kenneth M. Stampp, in The Peculiar Institution – Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, “It is a melancholy fact,” wrote a South Carolinian, “that a large proportion of our ablest and most intelligent slaves are annually sent out of the State for misconduct.”

It really did not benefit a slave to showcase their intelligence. In Kindred, Butler takes this concept and subjects Dana to the consequences of being a bright person.

Butler explores traditional concepts about slavery; such as the unusually cruel Mistress, a master that is a control freak and sex fiend rolled into one, and a group of subservient slaves.

What makes Butler’s novel unique to the concept of slavery is her use of the super natural, along with Dana’s strong personality.

In the novel Dana is transported back in time whenever the Master’s son, Rufus, is in extreme danger. For the novel it was essential that Butler provided a link that brought the two character’s worlds together. Early in the novel Dana finds out that Rufus will grow up to be one of her ancestors, so it is her duty to keep him alive.

The first time she is transported back in time to help him he is drowning in the river. The second time she is called back to him is when he starts a fire in his bedroom, a couple of years later. Only to Dana, a day has gone by.

Dana is transported forward to her life whenever her life is in extreme danger. Since she is a female slave her life is almost always ripe with danger.

Each time Dana is transported back in time, she stays longer and longer and learns extreme lessons on what it’s like to be a slave. On her second trip back to slavery her husband Kevin, who happens to be white, holds on to her when she begins to get sick and is transported back in time with her. There in the era of slavery instead of husband and wife, they have to pretend to be owner and slave. It is during her second trip that Dana begins to learn the daily life of a slave.

The slaves that Dana meets on the plantation don’t talk like her, but they do seem to talk pretty well. Butler uses very little phonetically spelled words in her dialog when the slaves speak. She uses patterns of speech that makes the dialog different and effective for the time period.

“You watch out,” said the black man softly. I looked at him, surprised, not sure he was talking to me. He was. “Marse Tom can turn mean mighty quick,” he said. “So can the boy, now with him growing up. Your face looks like maybe you had enough white folks’ meanness for a while.”

Butler uses the juxtaposition of the eras to flesh out her characters. The Mistress of the house, Margaret Weylin, is the typical wife of a slave owner, who berates her slaves, especially the children that looks like her husband and the slave women her husband lusts over. In Kindred, Dana finds it hard to take such abuse.

She cornered me one day as I swept the library. If she had walked in two minutes earlier, she would have caught me reading a book. “Where did you sleep last night!” she demanded in the strident accusing voice she reserved for slaves. I straightened to face her, rested my hands on the broom. How lovely it would have been to say, none of your business, bitch! Instead, I spoke softly, respectfully. “In Mr. Franklin’s room, ma’am”…Margaret slapped me across the face…“You filthy black whore!” she shouted.

As a reader it was captivating to imagine Dana’s journey back and forth from the modern world to the slave era. Butler’s narrative and writing techniques give a different perspective to the tales told about slavery.

Like in Jones’s novel, Lalita Tademy’s debut novel, Cane River gives a snapshot of a subculture in slavery society. Tademy explores the complex issue of consensual sexual relationships among female slaves and their Masters, or other white men.

Tademy left a job in corporate America in 2001 to dedicate herself full-time to researching and writing the novel. Her story is about four generations of strong-willed black women in her family who survived the hard times of slavery and post-slavery with their beauty, sheer wit, intelligence and guile. She recounts the history of her ancestors with the legacy of slavery; blending the genres of fiction and non-fiction.

Cane River begins with the history of Tademy’s great-great-great-grandmother Elisabeth, a slave living in a little Louisiana farming community called Cane River. A diverse group of people lived in the isolated, close-knit community of Creole French planters, slaves and free people of color.

Like Jones, Tademy writes about several issues that still affect the African-American community today. One issue she tackles is that of class-consciousness and the division it caused. In the passage below she writes about light-skinned Elisabeth’s early childhood days on the plantation as a “house” slave.

She was eight years old today, would be nine tomorrow, and she was meant for the house, not the field. Everyone, white, colored, and Negro, told her how much pride there was in that.

The history of slavery has shown that once the little slave girl enters adolescence and her true beauty begins to show whether she be a house slave, or field slave her life takes a drastic turn. It is then when she has to fight off the sexual advances of the white men on the plantation.

According to Linda Brent in her slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave girl, sexual advances towards slave girls and women were a daily occurrence. She states that if a slave is burdened with the gift of beauty her plight would be made even worse. “If God has bestowed beauty upon her,” she writes, “It will prove her greatest curse.”

The two main characters in Cane River, Emily and Suzette each deal with sexual exploitation. Tademy describes Suzette’s vulnerability after her father a white man leaves, and her Master dies. She is faced with having to fight off the Master’s son, who begins to grope after her.

The puzzling thing was that he was moving toward her with caution when they both knew he could take her if he wanted, without consequence, especially once her father had left Cane River. Only then had she realized how much her father’s presence had protected her. Without him living on Cane River, she would need to find some other way to defend herself or be prey for any of the men who would come and expect her to service their physical or emotional needs.

Brent describes how her cruel Master’s sexual assaults affected her. “Truly, Satan had no difficulty in distinguishing the color of his soul!” She writes. “O, what days and nights of fear and sorrow that man caused me?”

It was to escape sexual exploitation by her master that Brent did as Emily and Suzette did; have intimate sexual relationships with white men other than their Masters. Sometimes they did so out of necessity. The children were often times the result of these liaisons, making them instant slaves, like their mothers, not free like their fathers. Occasionally, the women would fall in love with these men, revealing some ugly truth to what Southern society thought about the morality of black women.

According to White in Ar’nt I a Woman? Black men and women were thought among Southern women and men to have such insatiable sexual appetites that they had to go beyond the boundaries of their race to get satisfaction. It was black women who, Southern society claimed, tempted men of the superior caste. White men, it was argued, never had to use authority or violence to obtain compliance from bonded women because the latter’s morals was so relaxed.

In Cane River, Suzette was hit with a double whammy; she actually loved the father of her children who were always at stake of being sold away from her. In the passage below she begs the children’s father to buy them and set them free.

“M’sieu Daurat. If I could just talk to you. You’re a gentleman, like Louis Derbanne was. And he freed his children…” She circled Eugene quickly and dropped to her knees, head bowed, in front of where he stood. A small sharp stone cut at her knee, and she rocked herself on it to clear her mind. She forced herself to stay on her knees, staring at the eyelets of Eugene Daurat’s shoes as she talked, willing the crisscross pattern of the laces to hold her together.

Another issue that Tademy explores is a direct by-product of slavery; color-consciousness in the African-American community.

In the introduction of the book, she explains how she felt about her great-grandmother’s color issues and the pride she felt in having white skin. Although she felt adverse to her great-grandmother’s color issues, she describes Emily below.

Great-grandmother Emily was color-struck. She bore five children out of wedlock over the thirty-plus-year span of her liaison with a Frenchman. She barely tolerated being called colored, and never Negro. My mother, the lightest of the grandchildren, with skin white enough to pass if she chose, was a favorite of hers… I was always unsympathetic to the memory of Emily because of her skin color biases.

In Cane River, Tademy doesn’t shy away from the issues that influenced generations of women in her family. Head on, she deals with the complex issues of slavery, class and color consciousness, and the legacy that slavery left on a generation of people.

The theme of the corrupting power of slavery continues in Susan Straight’s novel, A Million Nightingales. The mixed-raced slaves in A Million Nightingales live similar lives to the mixed-race characters in Cane River. Both of the books use small plantations just outside of New Orleans as their settings.

In an interview with Straight she told me what inspired her to write the book on slavery. “Slavery has informed most of American history,” she said. “Writers and Americans who ignore the fact are astonishing to me. Every President, every state, and every battle we fought or are still fighting on American soil is connected to slavery.”

A Million Nightingales is a story that centers on the lives of mixed-race slaves. Moinette the main character is a mulatto, with a mother that is African and a white father. Straight said for Moinette’s story, “I wanted particularly to write about mixed-race women and men in slavery.”

Moinette is a product of a rape. Her mother, Marie-Thérèse, a slave was given to one of her owner’s out of town guests as a gift for the night. Christophe, another young slave teases Moinette about her status.

“You useful for nothing, “Cadeau-fille,” he said. Gift girl. He always called me that, adding, “Yellow girl only good for one thing, for what under your dress. All you are.”

Straight tells Moinette’s story by also incorporating a considerable amount of different languages throughout the narrative. “I used French words, African words, and Creole French words,” she said. “Because that’s how people would have spoken back then. I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader, but to help the reader to feel as if he or she were in Louisiana in the 1800’s.”

Some of the French words used in the book were used to describe the mixed races of the slaves; sang mâlé, sacatra, mulâtresse, and griffone.

Straight’s portrait of slavery is done with great descriptive detail. By showing versus telling she creates an imaginary world for the reader to step into.

According to William Harmon in A Handbook to Literature, showing versus telling is an empirical concept. It’s a concept that emphasizes the superiority of dramatization, demonstration, enactment, and embodiment over mere telling.

In A Million Nightingales, Straight balances telling and showing very well. She uses specific words by showing with details and showing with emotion. Throughout the narrative she invites deeper understanding and reader involvement. In the passage below, Straight describes Moinette and another slave preparing the meat for the plantation.

Lèonide insisted I help her with the meat. A hard freeze had set in, the cane couldn’t be planted because the furrows were solid as stone, and the cold meant pigs should be killed for the smokehouse. At the long wooden table we waited for the sound of iron crushing bone. Pig skulls were long and slated compared to ours. Their brains would be made into jelly. We were covered in blood, after we had cut the ribs into curving shelves. The ax severed the spine. The wind blew tiny splinters of iced blood from the table. The entrails, for sausage casings, were transparent as wet muslin in my fingers. I breathed in the salty, coppery blood – why did blood scent not enter my lungs, as the indigo smell had spread its poison in my grandmother’s body?

Straight uses sensory language in the passage above. The reader can see, hear, feel, taste, and almost smell the meat being prepared.

Marie- Thérèse is the laundress of the plantation. She and Moinette spend most of their time in the yard washing and hanging up clothes. They live a somewhat peaceful existence working alone, until Moinette is chosen to work solely as the hair dresser for her young mistress.

Marie- Thérèse is an over protective mother always aware of the dangers that a young and pretty slave girl could face on the plantation. Her fears come true when Moinette is sold, and sent up the river. While sitting in the boat she is sent away on, Moinette remembers the stories her mother told her about her passage into slavery.

She said that boat was dark and the wood screamed. She was inside, held between her mother’s legs. I was in the cargo hold with hogsheads of sugar, which trembled like a thousand drums around me. She said her mother cried but silent so no one would hear, and the tears dripped into her hair when she sat on her mother’s lap, hot when they fell on top of her head and then cold when they slid down her neck…I put my arms around my knees. The wood shook under my dress…the boat croaked like an angry raven. What had screamed in the wood of my mother’s boat?

According to Straight, A Million Nightingales is based on a true story about a woman named Manon Baldwin, who never learned to read or write. Manon was a mulatto woman Straight found in a court document in Opelousas, Louisiana. Manon is sold to a planter, she then has a son, and when she is sold again, she is sold without her son. Manon later returns to the plantation and buys him. She mortgages him out twice, selling him at one time to save her boarding house. “I thought creating a fictional story around her, and him, would make readers understand their lives,” Straight says.

After being sold away Moinette’s main goal in life is to find a way back to her mother, her “memère” on the Azure plantation. Even after the birth of her child she strives and dreams of the day when she can reunite with her mother. Straight’s novel is full of descriptive language that shows the reader what it feels like to be snatched away from your mother and sold to the highest bidder. A Million Nightingales may not officially be classified as African-American literature because it is not written by a African-American, but I consider it a work of the genre because it is written about slavery and the African-American experience.

In J. California Cooper’s novel, The Wake of the Wind she plots the horrors of slavery and the consequences it had on the slave family during and directly after enslavement.

In the novel, published in 1998, Cooper uses the omniscient third person point of view, with occasional passages from her protagonist, Edessi-Lifee in the first person point of view. Conflict runs throughout the novel, with many layers of suspense, intrigue and mystery.

The reader follows the journey of two slaves, Lifee and Mordecai immediately preceding the Emancipation in Texas and during the early stages of Reconstruction. Lifee is a well-read seamstress that has spent all her life as a house slave on the Floyd Plantation.

She has been “cursed” with beauty. Like other overly attractive slave women their beauty makes them the ultimate target for rape by their masters and other white men. Cooper describes Lifee and the consequences of her beauty in the passage below.

Lifee had large, slightly slanted dark eyes. Soft, full lips, a short, pretty nose that flared delicately wide at the nostril. She was slender, around five feet seven inches with smooth, clear skin the color and texture of golden brown satin, with full, medium-sized breasts, curvaceous hips made for love, plump, rounded buttocks…The wives and daughters of Liffee’s new masters did not like Lifee even as skilled as Lifee was, because Lifee was a pretty woman and made a lie of their words, as many black, brown and yellow beauties did, that negras were ugly and were animals. And their men? Their men could not seem to keep their eyes (nor hands, when possible) off of Lifee. She had been taken with force repeatedly and, once, became pregnant (which proved further to the white ladies that negras were sluts). At first sight of the whitish baby, the mistress truck Lifee with the handle of a riding crop; it left a light scar on the satiny skin at the corner of her eyebrow for life. The male baby was taken from her and sold because of her resemblance to the father…Ahhh, what Black women have suffered without the least honest cause and no consideration.

Lifee is sold three times because of her attractiveness; she is moved from Louisiana to Alabama, to Mississippi, finally to Texas.

The other main character in the book, Mor, is an illiterate laborer and considered a field slave.

Their destiny is decided by their Master who forces them together to disguise the fact from his wife that he is raping Lifee.

Although Lifee and Mor do not know one another and are unevenly yoked, the Master demands they marry and live by show and appearances like man and wife in their small cabin. Whenever he makes his sexual calls on Lifee at night, Mor slips quietly out of the cabin. This dysfunctional family arrangement which was prevalent has left its mark on generations of African-American people.

In Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life, writer Fannie Barrier Williams writes, “In nothing was slavery so savage and relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the Negro race in America. Individuals, not families; shelters, not homes; herding, not marriages, were the cardinal sins in that system of horrors.”

Cooper continues to take her readers on Lifee and Mor’s journey, as the Civil War experiences its dying days. With utter desperation Lifee’s Mistress takes her to the back yard of the big house to help her dig up buried bars of gold. Intuitive and highly intelligent, she has the foresight to go back to the yard without her Mistress to look for more gold and is faced with a dilemma.

Lifee went back to pack the earth down, but checked just a little with her shovel to see if anything was left. She heard a small ting and knelt to dig it out. It was a much smaller box, but it was heavy. Lifee didn’t open it but a little, and something glittered. More gold and silver coins, some big, some little. She sat back on the ground. It ain’t mine, but must I give it to her?” After a moment, “hell, no! It probably belongs to all the slaves who made this money. And I have worked hard.” She got up and started patting the earth down. “They have took all our lives. They took our children. They took our mothers. What do we owe them? They owe us! And I’m keeping this as mine. For a start.”

Lifee is definitely not the stereotypical image of the loyal slave.

She is constantly aware of how she is being mistreated and courageous enough to fight the system anyway she can. The treasure she finds in the back yard gives her concrete hope in her uncertain future.

Within days the slaves on the plantation walk away to freedom. Mor and Lifee meet throngs of downtrodden, but very happy former slaves on the road to freedom. More slaves walked along the roads as word of mouth spreads from plantation to plantation that the North had won.

It was a two-pronged road to freedom for the newly freed slave; one road they traveled was full of happiness due to their new freedom. The other road was the stark reality that they had to fend for themselves. For the first time in their lives they had to make their own decisions about their daily existence. For some of the people it was a concept too hard for them to comprehend.

According to Kevin Bales in his book, Understanding Global Slavery, “For some slaves, the first step out of bondage is to learn to see their lives with new eyes. Their reality is a social world where they have their place and some assurance of a subsistence diet. Born into slavery, they cannot easily redefine their lives outside the frame of enslavement.”

In The Wake of the Wind, Cooper writes brilliantly about the lives of the newly freed slaves and their hard adjustment to life without bondage.

Lifee and Mor start out better than most as they buy their first plot of land with Lifee’s gold. They share their home and the land with an extended family of people. This family consisted of the tired, hungry and weary people they met scattered along the roads directly after being freed.

Together they live, prosper and work on the land for over twenty years. Once told they would fail, the small community of black people survives Emancipation. In the passage below Mor describes what it feels like to prosper and be free.

“Ain’t nothing can get rid of us Negroes. We a strong people. We done seen em come and make do with nothing…We’s together. All together. A family. You and Me? We may not make it much further on down this road of life, but, our blood will. It’s goin a long way. Even into the next century. That African blood is strong, ain’t it, baby? That African blood has done survived. They couldn’t kill it with a whip, nor a lie.”

The overall theme throughout the novel is self-sufficiency for the black family. Cooper incorporates the concept of the old African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” As a contemporary African-American author, she uses her unique voice to write about slavery, the newly freed slave and their struggle to survive post-slavery.

Together Jones, Butler, Tademy, Straight and Copper all shed light on the institution of slavery by rendering stories about slavery that teaches the reader aspects about the era they may not be familiar with from reading older books.

The characters of Moses and Henry come alive in The Known World, a literary world where black people are faced with the dilemma of owning their own race.

In Kindred, Dana will be remembered as the courageous modern woman forced back to the era of slavery and forced to live the arduous life of one.

In A Million Nightingales, Moinette represents a mixed-race slave living in a city where there are not only power struggles, but class struggles.

In Cane River the female slave characters are faced with the dilemma of either consenting to sexual relationships with their Masters and other white men or being raped.

In The Wake of the Wind, Lifee and Mor show what life was like for the slave family and how it influenced them once they were free.

The contemporary authors of these stories tell them in a fresh new way in African-American fiction, using wonderful point of views, exquisite details and descriptions, and great dialogue and characterizations.

In these various portraits of slavery one learns about; a race of people owning people of their own race, the power and class struggles that a slave had to withstand, the life of the mixed-race slave, slave women loving white men, and the incredible strength of the slave family.

Image credit: André Mouraux via flickr

About The Author

Athena Lark
MFA, UC Riverside

Athena Lark is a writer, independent journalist and photographer. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside. Athena has been published in the literary journal The Whistling Fire, the Florida Times Union newspaper, Jacksonville Business Journal, Jacksonville Advocate, The Albany Herald, UNF Spinnaker, UNF Alumni Magazine. Athena also worked as the Associate Producer for the documentary “Slave Market Diaries” written and directed by Clennon King. Her Associate Producer credits include her work at WJXT Channel 4 News, Jacksonville, FL. Athena has worked as a contributing commentator on the radio talk show “The Advocate” AM 1460, Jacksonville Florida. She is currently writing the novel “Avenue of Palms“ and her memoir “Sailor Girl.”