The Slave Trade
Paula Fox is a contemporary writer, but The Slave Dancer is set in 1840, in New Orleans, and on the slave ship The Moonlight. Fox brings this time to life through Jessie's eyes: the reader learns that although it was illegal to import slaves from Africa, this trade went on, and that the sale of American-born slaves was open and accepted. As a World Book article on the trade noted, by the early 1800s, more than 700,000 slaves lived in the southern United States, and by 1860, there were about four million slaves in these states. Although Jessie's family is too poor to own slaves, he sees them in the streets and in the homes of the wealthy, and it is understood that anyone who has any money owns servants, and that most occupations are directly or indirectly related to the work of slaves. Until Jessie sees the truth about slavery, it doesn't occur to him to question whether this is right or wrong—it's just the way things are in his time and place. Attitudes toward people of African descent were also affected by the common racist conviction among whites, as Jessie notes, that "the least of them was better than any black alive."
Because the sole motive of the slave trade was profit, some captains of slave ships tried to pack as many people as possible into their ships and transport them for the lowest possible cost. Others believed in "loose packing"; they did not take on as many slaves, and allowed them more room on the ship, hoping that this would cut down on sickness and death among the captives. (In the book, Captain Cawthorne is called "a tight packer" by his crew.) On all ships, the slaves were kept chained in the hold at all times except when they were brought on deck to exercise. This crowding, and the complete lack of any sanitary facilities, led to disease and death on all slave...
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The Slave Dancer moves among various geographical settings—New Orleans, West Africa, the Gulf of Mexico, and the mobile setting of the slave ship itself. Jessie is kidnapped from his home in New Orleans in 1840 and voyages to West Africa on the slave ship The Moonlight: on the return trip, his ship is wrecked in the Gulf of Mexico somewhere near New Orleans. Jessie and Ras, the young slave he has befriended on the ship, then live in Mississippi with Daniel, an elderly black man, for a short while before Jessie walks back to New Orleans and Ras begins his trip to the North. Jessie then briefly summarizes the rest of his life to the time he tells the story—his becoming an apothecary, his moving to Rhode Island, and his fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War.
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"The distinction and beauty of the words she uses and her absolute command of subtlety and nuance in rhythms and sentence structure place Paula Fox above almost all other children's writers," Rees states in his book. Other critics agree: Fox's use of language has brought her the Newbery Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and recognition in both the United States and England. Fox's prose is spare but poetic, filled with rich imagery grounded in intense physical detail, rhythm, and cadence. For example, when Jessie is captured and taken by a small boat to the ship, Fox writes:
We passed a small island. I saw the glimmer of a light in a window—only that solitary, flickering yellow beacon. I felt helpless and sad as though everyone in the world had died save the three of us and the unknown lamplighter on the shore. Then, as if daylight was being born inside the boat itself, I began to make out piles of rope, a wooden bucket, a heap of rusty looking net, the thick boots of my captors.
In passages like these, Fox juxtaposes accurately drawn emotion with exact detail of place, time, and people, making the events—and the emotions—seem absolutely real.
Throughout the book, Fox describes Jessie's mixed emotions with stunning clarity, even when they are shocking in their intensity and negativity, or when they are not what the reader expects. Soon after he is captured, Jessie experiences a surge of happiness as the ship speeds on, and even he is surprised by this. "When I remembered...
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The Slave Dancer, a superb historical novel that probes complex questions of morality, deserves study for its stylistic brilliance and structural excellence. The telling is rich with dialogue and movement; the prose speaks directly to the reader's sensory perceptions. Even in the shortest of passages. Fox evokes the fundamental essence of the natural world that surrounds her characters: "Everything except the dark smudge of shore was gray now, sky and water and dull clouds. It looked like rain .... Except for the mutter of Purvis' voice, I heard only the fluttering sound of water about the hull of the ship. A man passed me wearing a woolen cap, his gaze on the horizon." The novel deals with feelings, thoughts, and moral ambiguities, but these issues are all developed through concrete external action.
Jessie is deeply scarred by his trip on The Moonlight. Retelling his story as an adult, he reveals that he can no longer listen to music: "At the sound of my instrument, a fiddle, a flute, a drum, a comb with paper wrapped around it played by my own child, I would leave instantly and shut myself away." Furthermore, there are signs that the psychological scarring extends beyond his aversion to music, for he writes formally and frequently uses odd syntax. This style shows Jessie's reserve and reveals his cautious approach to life following his traumatic voyage on The Moonlight.
Structurally, specific actions advance the plot...
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Various aspects of The Slave Dancer have come under fire, including the slaves' passivity and the abruptness of the novel's ending. But the novel has survived this criticism and has become an important work about slavery.
The novel is rooted in a sordid port of American history, and Fox has taken great pains to depict slavery in its full viciousness. She is not a revisionist and refuses to rewrite history to reflect contemporary social standards. As a result, the characters display the attitudes of the period and use such highly objectionable words as "nigger." But Fox's moral commitment is clear throughout the novel. She wants her readers to know the awful effect of slavery on slaves, slave-holders, and the entire nation. She stated her perspective on the issue in her Newbery Award acceptance speech: "There are those who feel that slavery debased the enslaved. It is not so. Slavery engulfed whole peoples, swallowed up their lives, committed such offenses that in considering them the heart falters, the mind recoils. Slavery debased the enslavers, and self-imposed ignorance of slavery keeps the mind closed."
Because of the book's historical accuracy and moral clarity, it can be used to illustrate the progress in civil rights made in America since the 1840s. The Slave Dancer should remind all readers that this progress came about only as a result of conscious effort.
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Compare and Contrast
1840s: Slavery is legal in the southern part of the United States, and African Americans have no rights.
Today: African Americans are legally entitled to all the same rights as other Americans, although American society is still struggling against racism.
1840s: It takes a ship four months to travel from North America to Africa and back, and the journey is extremely hazardous.
Today: Airplanes can safely make the trip from North America to Africa and back in just a matter of hours.
1840s: Children are not required to attend school, but they are expected to work to help their families make a living, and they often work long hours.
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Topics for Discussion
1. In later life, Jessie cannot listen to music. Does this reaction seem reasonable to you? Have you had a bad experience that has caused you to dislike or fear something you associate with it?
2. Fox has been criticized for the passivity of her black characters. Do you think the black characters in The Slave Dancer should have been more forceful? If so, do you think Jessie, a white character, should have been stronger as well? What might have happened to the characters if they had more actively fought the circumstances of their life aboard the ship?
3. Both The Slave Dancer and William H. Armstrong's novel Sounder (1969) deal with painful issues in black history, yet the authors of these books...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Jessie writes that he "spent three months in Andersonville, surviving its horrors, I often thought, because I'd been prepared for them on The Moonlight." What was Andersonville? Write a paper explaining how Andersonville's horrors were like the horrors on board The Moonlight.
2. Jessie records major places along the route of his journey, such as New Orleans, Bight of Benin, Whydah, and Cuba. On the basis of these references to places, what was the approximate route of The Moonlight? Was this a usual route for slave ships? Write a report tracing Jessie's route, and draw his route on a map along with other major nineteenth-century trade routes.
3. To Be a Slave( 1968) by Julius...
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Topics for Further Study
Create a map and draw the route that Jessie took from his kidnapping in New Orleans to Africa and then to the shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico and his walk home to New Orleans. Also, calculate how many miles Jessie traveled.
Jessie and Ras feel very close to each other even though they don't speak the same language. Many years later, Jessie is still looking for Ras and hoping that someday he will see him. Why do you think this is the case? How did the boys communicate with each other on the ship, during the shipwreck, and at Daniel's house?
In the book, the slaves on board The Moonlight do not rebel against their captors. However, on a real ship named the Amistad in 1839, the slaves did rebel under the...
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What Do I Read Next?
In Western Wind (1993), by Paula Fox, a lonely young girl is sent to live with her grandmother on a remote island off the coast of Maine.
Paula Fox's Monkey Island (1991) tells the story of a homeless boy, Clay Garrity, who lives on the streets and is eventually helped by two other homeless men.
In Up From Slavery, originally published in 1901 and reprinted in 2000 by Signet, Booker T. Washington tells the story of his early life as a slave and how he rose to become president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
To Be a Slave (1988), by Julius Lester, is a collection of reminiscences of ex-slaves about their experiences, from leaving Africa, through the Civil War, and...
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For Further Reference
Baker, Augusta. "The Changing Image of the Black in Children's Literature." Horn Book 51 (February 1975): 84-87. This article sets The Slave Dancer in a larger context.
"Paula Fox." Horn Book 50 (August 1974): 351-353. This article introduces Fox and her work.
Fox, Paula. "Newbery Award Acceptance." Horn Book 50 (August 1974): 345-350. The author discusses her work and her motivation for writing The Slave Dancer and answers some of the criticisms directed at the book.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bach, Alice, Review in Horn Book, August 1974.
Bosmajian, Hamida, "Nightmares of History: The Outer Limits of Children's Literature," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Winter 1983, pp. 20—22.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin, Review in New Statesman, November 8, 1974.
Dixon, Bob, Catching Them Young: Sex, Race and Class in Children's Fiction, Pluto Press, 1977.
Mathis, Sharon Bell, "The Slave Dancer Is an Insult to Black Children," in Cultural Conformity in Books for Children: Further Readings in Racism, edited by Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard, Scarecrow Press, 1977.
Rees, David, "The Colour of...
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