Historical tales broaden awareness


January 16, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Devoting a month to black history is better than nothing. Better yet would be a year-round commitment to incorporating the history of African-Americans into American history classes.

Maybe then the curriculum wouldn't have to be crammed with names and dates to be memorized and maybe forgotten by the time February rolls around.

Teachers could broaden the definition of history and let the classes include stories. "Historical fiction" has a negative connotation, sort of like "docudrama." But if it is carefully researched and well-written, fiction that is rooted in history can bear fruits of understanding, pride and respect.

An excellent example is "Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History," by Julius Lester (Dial Books, $13.99, ages 11 and up), a reissue of a National Book Award finalist first published in 1972.

In his foreword, Mr. Lester writes: "While it is necessary to know of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and many other figures in black history, they comprise only one facet of that history."

Such heroes stand out above the mass, he writes. "The mass, however, were the movers of history. While Frederick Douglass organized against slavery, he would have been an isolated figure if hundreds of thousands of slaves had not run away. . . . History is made by the many, whose individual deeds are seldom recorded and who are never known outside their own small circles of friends and acquaintances."

Mr. Lester lets us get to know some of those individuals in these six stories. Taken together, they paint a sweeping mural of life under slavery and in the years following the Civil War. But it is in the details that Mr. Lester proves himself an artist, depicting everyday sights and sounds -- and humiliations and heartaches -- with a storyteller's attentiveness.

The first story, "Satan on My Track," is based on interviews with and stories about rural blues singers Bukka White, Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Charlie Patton. The setting is the rural South of the 1920s, where the sons and daughters of slaves are trapped in another sort of bondage. As sharecroppers, their debt -- after paying rent, buying cottonseed and stocking up at the plantation store -- will always be greater than the amount the plantation owner pays them for the cotton grown and picked by their families.

Skirting that desperate life is Rambler, a young man with a guitar on his back. He hops the rails and travels from one plantation "town" to the next, earning $3 every Saturday night by performing in the big shack where the workers dance, gamble and buy the landowner's whiskey.

And every Saturday, a woman stays until he has finished playing and invites him to her bed. Sometimes he lets himself dream about a wife and family, but never for long.

"Settle down and the white folks would start choking the life out of you."

Mr. Lester writes about the Underground Railroad in "Louis," and in "When Freedom Came," he tells the story of Jake, whose wife and children are sold to another owner. Seven years later, when the Civil War ends, he immediately sets off to find his wife, his one true love. Jake's powerlessness is heartbreaking.

"The Man Who Was a Horse" is about Bob Lemmons, who grew up as a slave on a Texas ranch and was 18 when the slaves were freed. He stayed, becoming an extraordinary cowboy who is mentioned in two accounts of the West.

But the most intriguing chapter is narrated by a white man. At 23, fresh out of law school and full of noble ideas about the abolition of slavery, this Chicagoan falls in love with a woman whose father breeds racehorses at their tobacco plantation near Louisville, Ky. It is 1853.

Though uneasy because the McGuires own slaves, the narrator eventually settles into the misconception the family has about Ben, the black man who runs the stables, keeps the books and basically manages the plantation. Ben is like a member of the family, they say.

Then the patriarch, Eliot McGuire, dies, and his son inherits the plantation. Jealous of Ben, he sends him to work in the fields. The "model slave" runs away and the plantation goes to ruin.

Years later, the narrator is on vacation in Toronto. The waiter in a hotel dining room turns out to be Ben, who is finally free to give an honest answer to the narrator's question: "Were you happy as a slave?"

" 'Would you have been if you were me?" he replied. Then, very quietly he added, "Massa.' "

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