Do We Really Need Another Story About Slavery?

A Virginia Slave Auction

I can imagine eyes rolling already in response to this question. Why rehash what we’ve already heard before? But stop for just a moment and think about something. Imagine having literally no say in your circumstances. Imagine being the property of someone else- subject to their every whim, and free to do nothing other than their bidding. Have we just heard so much about this “peculiar institution” as it was called, that ours hearts have hardened towards it?

I read something while researching my upcoming novel,Burning Prospects, that just chilled me to the bone. It was a bit of a Civil Code from the state of Louisiana in 1825. It reads: A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labor. He can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything, but what must belong to his master.

Wow. Even though I’ve read many stories about slavery, this was shocking to me. This was literally the law of the land saying that a group of people was “nothing”. Their only value coming from what they can do for the ones who own them.

Shocking, yes. But there will still be people adamant that we do not need yet one more story to dredge up the past. Here, in my own very humble opinion, are the reasons we indeed do need this story.

1. Slavery still exists. It is not only ancient history involving Moses and the Hebrews, or the horrors experienced by those of African and Caribbean descent enslaved in the nineteenth century in North America. It took a quick search of CNN to find some staggering statistics. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking, aka slavery, is estimated to be the third largest crime industry internationally. So what about in America? The estimates from a 2005 report from the U.S. State Department estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year. And why? The same exact reason slaves were depended on so heavily in the agricultural states of the South. Slavery is still profitable. The estimate I saw for the profits of world wide slavery in modern times was $32 billion. Yes, billion. I was glad to see the website for the CNN Freedom Project had links to ways we can help. Obviously we can’t change the past, but we can help end this practice in the modern day.

Am I not a man?

2. Many of the novels and movies regarding American Slavery contain caricatures of the real men and women involved. I wanted to write a novel that told the same story as seen through the eyes of both the slaves and the slave owners. I do not think we need more stereotypes put out there, but a story that portrays the real, flawed human beings that found themselves on both sides of slavery. I wanted to explore the reasons that slave owners justified the practice. The perfect story to bring this to light already existed. And I didn’t have to look far to find it. It occurred in my own family.

3. The story of Colonization has not been the primary focus of mainstream novels. How many people are aware of the efforts to free slaves and send them to Liberia, in Africa? Here is what makes it such a fascinating topic: at first glance the motives seem quite noble. An organization devoted to ending the practice of slavery seems like a cause worth supporting doesn’t it? But, many abolitionists despised the practice of Colonization. Why? Because the hidden agenda of many of the notables who supported Colonization was simply to see the slaves gone. By the time this movement was in full swing, the former slaves being “deported” to Africa had never set foot on the continent. So, it wasn’t truly “going home”. But white slave holders were terrified of free blacks remaining in America. This seemed like a good solution: the slaves will be happy to have their freedom, and the white folks will be rid of them for good. Let’s face it. Once the ship sailed for Africa, it was a one-way passage; and the hardships they faced there were extreme.

4. We still have a long way to go with race relations in America. I enjoy books that open honest dialogue about race relations, such as The Help.
I loved my grandparent’s maid with all my heart. She was a permanent fixture in my early life, and I still think of Liz often. But until I read this book, I had never once thought about what Liz must have given up with her own family to spend so much time working for mine. I can tell you that I shed more than one tear. But the book also made me laugh out loud in parts. Let’s not be afraid to honestly examine the past and learn from it. Isn’t that why we have museums dedicated to Civil Rights and the Holocaust? We learn from history partly because it makes us see something in human nature that still exists…and could happen again if we are not aware and vigilant not to allow history to repeat itself.

5. The plot for my novel is based on a true story. It is better than anything I could have made up. A Revolutionary War Captain, Isaac Ross, frees his slaves in his will. His estate is to be sold off and the proceeds to fund the passage to Liberia and establishment of a school for the benefit of former slaves. His heirs assure him that they will support his wishes, but after his death, his grandson breaks that promise. Around two hundred men, women and children are left in a state of limbo, while still toiling in the fields waiting for the courts to decide their fate. Even when the courts rule in the slaves’ favor, the grandson won’t allow the slaves to be removed from the plantation- promising neighbors with guns will show up to prevent it happening. The desperation of the Prospect Hill slaves is literally palpable- even this many years later. Can you imagine being a 10 year old child who is told that you are being freed, but find yourself still waiting as a nineteen year old? The injustice and despair had to have been excruciating for them. I wanted to tell their story in a novel, and attempt to give a voice to their despair. I hope that I have done them justice. According to family lore on both the Ross side and the Belton (slave descendant) side, some of the slaves grew tired of waiting. They conceived a plot to drug the heir and his family, viewing him as the only obstacle standing between them and their freedom. Once they were in a drug-induced sleep, the house was set ablaze. This is the opening scene of Burning Prospects- a story I grew up hearing, as Captain Ross was my great, great, great, great grandfather. I’ve wanted to write a novel about this story for years, and I finally have done it. It will be published soon. For those interested, Alan Huffman has written a very well researched non-fiction account of this case Mississippi in Africa. He took it one step further and followed up on the Liberian side of the story as well. It was reading his book about 6 years ago that rekindled my interest in writing my novel.

I would love to hear your feedback on the topic of my novel. I hope that I’m not the only one who thinks that this is a story worth telling.

image courtesy of: http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/auction_Richd_1861.JPG

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7 thoughts on “Do We Really Need Another Story About Slavery?

  1. Beth Wheeler

    I anxiously await your next novel. I am intrigued by the peak you gave into it and it sounds fascinating!!! Can’t wait to read it!!!

  2. Linda Johnston

    What a thorough and compelling argument for our ongoing need to be more fully informed about both past and present issues of slavery in any form!! I can’t wait to see Burning Prospects in print!

  3. I have read a preview of Melissa’s book, and I found that it gives a very human perspective of life in Mississippi during the days of slavery. The characters are described with all of their virtues as well as their faults. The white folks don’t sit around drinking mint juleps and the black folks don’t grin and bow, both groups are treated in a real and honest fashion. I highly recommend this book when it becomes available!

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