Language and Literacy
As the Prologue establishes, Dessa's dialect is an authentic voice that struggles to be heard. Her voice is set up next to that of Nehemiah, a white man who can read and write, which Dessa cannot do. Nehemiah is recording events and writing an account of the information that he finds. He clearly has control in the situations in which he is interviewing Dessa. He uses his language skills to try to manipulate her into answering his questions. Dessa is expressive with her words even if they are not as fine as Nehemiah's. Writing and words have power. When Dessa is observing the plans for the money-making scheme, she feels at a disadvantage because she cannot read or understand the numbers. She is entirely dependent on others in this respect.
Music and Song
From the beginning, the novel establishes the retreat and solace that comes from music and song. Kaine’s great talent with the banjo and his singing are a relief at the end of a long and back-breaking day of labor. She hears his high, clear voice as he walks through the lane of cabins. She feels the rhythm of his banjo as the same one that powers her heart. Kaine risks being found by Boss Smith and Tarver just to see Dessa. He plays the banjo so well that the Mistress asks him to play at the house. Dessa sings herself to calm her mood and ease any thoughts about an event or circumstances. One morning, Dessa improvised with her voice from the jail. At one point, she is singing with Jemina. A call-and-response song develops. These moments of song appear regularly and when Dessa feels most vulnerable.
The women in the deep South, black and white, faced incredible danger. In Dessa Rose, the women survive by developing their own bonds and community. At the Steele Plantation, Aunt Lefonia, Dessa, Dessa’s mother, and others form an intricate bond that helps them recover from rape and other forms of violence. They develop ways to care for each other and look ahead to prevent any unfortunate circumstance that is likely to come their way. Dessa and Rufel manage to survive based on the friendship they develop. Rufel’s dangerous moment with Mr. Oscar illustrates that white women also were exposed to the same oppression and threats from men as black women. The fugitive slaves also form a community with Rufel to develop ways for her to survive on her farm. With her husband gone and no expected time for his return, Rufel is forced to consider her circumstances. How can she survive alone? How will she acquire money? The land is poor and none is forthcoming from her absent husband. The money-making scheme at first seems an unlikely venture until you consider her options. She has three children and a farm that is failing.
History and Memory
When experiencing such oppression as slavery, how important is the role of one’s memory? The slaves in Dessa Rose remember both the traumatic and the joyful. The women can...
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