Monday, October 1, 2012

The Slave Dancer (1974)

The Slave Dancer is not a happy book.  It is the story of 13-year-old Jessie Bollier who, kidnapped by sailors from the slaving ship The Moonlight, is forced to play his fife to make music for the slaves to dance to during the dreaded "Middle Passage." Taken from his mother and sister in New Orleans, Jessie must learn to cope with the rigors of sea life on a slave ship: storms, hunger, thirst, violence, terror. And that is before the slaves are taken on board.

Since the slave trade was illegal, they were brought to the ship in the middle of the night.  The black men, women and children were brought aboard off the coast of Africa and forced into the hold, where they were kept in an unbelievably harsh, filthy, smelly, awful condition. Every day, some were brought to the deck and forced to dance to "keep up their strength." 

Then, when they were within sight of Cuba and almost through with their trip, the slave broker even on the ship, disaster strikes.  An American ship comes near and boats make ready to board The Moonlight.  In his panic and desire to not be caught, the captain orders all evidence of slaves thrown overboard, including the slaves.  Jessie watches helplessly as they are forced overboard to their death.  (Sharks have been following the ship.)  He is able to get one boy about his age safely into the hold and then a storm hits the ship.

The storm rages for several days and the two boys alone in the hold manage to survive, while the men above are all swept into the sea.  The boat lodges on a reef off of Mississippi and they swim to shore and meet an old escaped slave, who feeds and shelters them until they are strong enough to get on.  The slave boy, Ras, is led to the North, and Jessie returns home.  Changed forever.

Some quotes:

Jessie's mother had sent him on an errand one evening and he took the long way home.  "My mother...had asked me to promise her I would never enter a tavern or mingle with the nightly throngs on Bourbon and Royal Streets.  By keeping to these narrow byways, I avoided breaking the promise but still had the diversion of hearing from over the rooftops the rumble and rise and fall of men's voices, the bird shrieks of women, laughter and the shouts of quarrels." (p. 12)  It was on this longer way home, when he knew he shouldn't be there, that Jessie was kidnapped.

On becoming aware he was on a ship.  "The first object my eyes rested upon was crawling idly along my leg as though I was a yard of bread.  The insect was no stranger to me for we had them in all sizes at home.  But I'd never thought a cockroach was a sea-going creature.  I didn't care for the breed.  Still, I found it a touch comforting that such a familiar land thing was making itself at home on me." (p. 25)

The first time Jessie had to play for the slaves.  "We had formed a circle around them, dressed, shod, most of us armed.  Many of them were naked; a few had ragged bits of cloth around their waists.  I glanced at the sailors.  Ned's eyes were turned upward toward heaven.  I supposed he was reporting to God on the folly of everyone else but himself.  But the rest were staring fixedly at the slaves.  I felt fevered and agitated.  I sensed, I saw, how beyond the advantage we had of weapons, their nakedness made them helpless.  Even if we had not been armed, our clothes and boots alone would have given us power." (p. 65-66)

Fox, Paula.  The Slave Dancer.  Dell Publishing, 1973.

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