Understanding a Slave Narrative
In the period of American history shortly before the Civil War, a type of biography became quite popular in the north. These were the stories of those slaves escaped from the South who could either write their own tales, or dictated to abolitionists their harrowing experiences as slaves. Famous among them where the stories of Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, which depicted a life of being looked down upon or treated as an animal or inferior at best. Many of these stories show a person on the run for a great part of their lives, constantly on the move with little sense of home or safe refuge.
“The narratives told of the horrors of family separation, the sexual abuse of black women, and the inhuman workload. They told of free blacks being kidnapped and sold into slavery. They described the frequency and brutality of flogging and the severe living conditions of slave life. They also told exciting tales of escape, heroism, betrayal, and tragedy. The narratives captivated readers, portraying the fugitives as sympathetic, fascinating characters.”
As a depiction of blacks that showed them as people with culture and families, that showed their humanity, these stories went a long way to show white people that blacks were people too. No slave narrative was as effective in its purpose as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This novel shows a man of high Christian principles who refuses to give his fellow slaves up even though it costs him his life. He is contrasted by Simon Legree who is the monstrously cruel slave-dealer turned plantation owner. It is important that he is from the North, and therefore insists that unacceptable racism still lingers in the North. By appealing to white readers and showing a system where the just and noble Uncle Tom is enslaved and where the cruel and merciless Legree is uplifted, Stowe highlights the injustice of a system that utilizes slavery.
Essun is separated from her family at quite a young age, while still going by the name Damaya that she was given at birth. She was taken by Shaffa and taught why she was not human and could not be trusted to mind herself, why she needed others to control her. Her time at the Fulcrum is one of degradation, where she is bent to the purposes assigned to her and not allowed to pursue her own interests. When she grows older and into the name Syenite, the Fulcrum assigns her Alabaster to breed with, in order to produce children regardless of her own desires. This is a small blessing for Syenite, as it allows her to see what Alabaster has seen of the world that makes them both slaves. After being enlightened to her place in this world, and inevitably the place of her child, she escapes it with Alabaster and tries to create a life hiding on Meov. The Guardians, her captors, track her and Alabaster there and force a terrible decision on Essun, either allow her child to be taken and live through a life of slavery, or kill him and spare him from a hopeless fate. After escaping the destruction and being separated from Alabaster, Essun lives a life in hiding by running to the remote villiage of Tirimo and starting another family there, in the hopes that she may life a happy life without the consequences of her previous life catching up to her. We the reader find her after just that happens, when her children’s nature as orogenes becomes obvious to her husband, who then murders their son Uche and steals away Nassun in the hopes that he may make her “normal”.
How Essun’s Life Fits the Slave Narrative
There are many ways that are obvious in which Essun’s story acts as a slave narrative. From an early age she is displaced and from then on has little in the way of a solid home to return to, for the Fulcrum is not a place one can comfortably be themselves. She holds many admirable traits, or at least ones her readers may find sympathetic that draw attention to injustice of her status in society. Her daring escape after being assaulted by a Guardian just for being with Alabaster, and her attempts to find a place to call home afterword. Her life among the Fulcrum also highlights the inhumane treatment there. Another reason dips in the meta-narrative a bit as it has to do with Jemisin’s intent in writing the books, to draw attention to the injustice with which Africans and African-Americans have been treated and are treated in America. I’d say Jemisin’s work is more clever in it’s design than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as it doesn’t obviously present white people as an antagonist to black’s in their search for freedom, but rather presents the society that has been built up around exploiting minorities as evil and unjust.