Thursday, August 16, 2007
Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue by Julius Lester
What continually horrifies me about human beings is their willingness to view other human beings as less than human -- as animals -- as things. That’s what happened to the Jews during World War II (and many other times in their history). It’s also what happened to slaves in the United States. It’s such an easy cop-out. After all, if slaves aren’t real people, then they are not capable of having the same emotions as their white masters, and it is acceptable to own them and to do such things as sell them away from their families. In Day of Tears, Julius Lester does a masterful job of expressing the viewpoints of both the slaves and the white people involved in a fictional retelling of the “biggest slave auction in American history.”
Will and Mattie grew up with their owner, Pierce Butler. They have a daughter who looks after Butler’s two little girls. Even though most of the slaves on the large Georgia plantation are being sold to pay off Butler’s gambling debts, Will and Mattie know that they and their daughter Emma are safe, or so they think. When a lady from Kentucky offers to buy Emma, Butler caves in and she is sold without even the opportunity to say goodbye to her mother. She will never see her parents again.
Besides the obvious, heart-wrenching effects the sale has on all of the slaves involved, none of the white people ever really recover from it either. While most of the whites continue to view the slaves as sub-humans, they do not gain from the sale the things they hoped for. Lester creates interludes so that we learn what happens to all those involved in this horrible day, known in history as “the Weeping Time.”
Every year I read aloud Gary Paulsen’s Nightjohn to my eighth graders. I want them to truly understand that slavery wasn’t like what was presented in Gone with the Wind. Now I have another tool to use with my classes. Because it is told in dialogue, it will make great reader’s theater.