Paula Fox’s THE SLAVE DANCER is, to my mind, a surprisingly challenging and psychologically sophisticated book for younger readers.
The main character is a white boy, Jessie, kidnapped from New Orleans in 1840 and put on a slave ship. While not free himself, he is not treated like the Black slaves that are the ship’s cargo; rather, his job is to play the flute as they, chained, are made to “dance” in shifts: a grotesque display meant, by enforcing brief moments of exercise and air, to keep a few more of them alive despite the inhumane conditions of their passage.
At first, the account of Jessie’s struggle to survive on the ship is dominated by his attempt to navigate among the distinct personalities of the ship’s various crew: they are, respectively, coarse and mean, personable, mercenary, and deeply pious. Some seem immediate antagonists; others, friends and protectors to Jessie. But as the book progresses, those differences recede into a portrait of the immense emotional sickness of each and every crew member. Despite their differences in affect, all are utterly compromised by their acceptance of their own role in the slave trade.
A Newbery and Hans Christensen Anderson Award winner after its 1973 publication, THE SLAVE DANCER is thus both critically acclaimed, and — from what I gather from fairly vague accounts online — controversial among anti-racists.
The criticisms, apparently, center around the slaves being portrayed in an unflattering light, rather than as more active agents for their own liberation. I think these criticisms are misguided, and — after all appropriate spoiler alert!s — here’s why.
It’s true that Jessie is the book’s main actor, and that what we see of the slaves through his eyes, especially while still on the ship, center around the appalling conditions they are in. But I disagree that this means the slaves are presented as child-like or as less than full characters. Jessie’s own shot at liberating himself ultimately depends on his casting his lot with one of the Black slave boys, named Ras, against the whole crew of white men that has participated in enslaving them both.
In this sense, the controversy over THE SLAVE DANCER surprises me because the book seems to conform to a very standard children’s book model: a child protagonist interacts with someone who experiences an oppression (often racism, sometimes class oppression) that the protagonist doesn’t; through ultimately rejecting that oppression — often overcoming their own prejudice in the process — the child comes to recognize ways that their own life is constricted as well. Seriously, is (for example) Avi’s THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE much different from this? So why all the criticism of THE SLAVE DANCER?
That’s not just a rhetorical question, by the way; I want to hear the argument, because I don’t get it.
And not getting it is frustrating to me, because in the abstract, I’m sympathetic to this type of criticism. There’s nothing I find more inspirational than stories of the most seemingly unlikely resistance; this is true in life and in literature. Nothing has moved me as much in recent years as resistance among prisoners in the U.S., and in the world’s largest open-air prison, Gaza. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve told everyone I know that M.T. Anderson’s THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION is the best book I’ve read in years; what I haven’t always said (because no one can stand to hear me talk about my love of M.T. Anderson any more) is that my favorite parts, by far, of the second volume were the stories of the assorted runaways the hero Octavian met. In tiny details, Anderson showed the immense ingenuity and personality of his slave characters. They were not just fictional characters; they were bit parts, most of them, but I believed in them utterly.
So I’ll be the first to say that we need more stories of slave revolts — and, by the way, to draw attention to the historical role of self-conscious, organized lefties in making space in the field of children’s literature for the slave revolt stories that we do have. (Julia Mickenberg is the main academic who’s exhaustively documented this history; I wrote about it briefly in a magazine article.)
But I also feel that there has to be room for stories like Jessie’s: stories that develop a small piece of what oppression looks like, even if they start from what it looks like from the outside. And stories that dramatize the connection between all those who are made unfree, even when the inequality in their servitude seems, at first glance, to make all the difference in the world. THE SLAVE DANCER starts there, but it ultimately draws its line between free and not free, between who is on the right and the wrong side, in a different place.