Forten the Sailmaker Critical Context - Essay

Esther M. Douty

Critical Context

When published in 1968, Douty’s Forten the Sailmaker provided a much-needed look at African-American leaders who aided in the development of the United States after the revolutionary war. To a generation of young adult readers in cultural and political transition because of school integration, political assassinations, and newly legislated civil rights programs, the book provided the role model of James Forten, a political activist who maintained the voice of reason and was able to persuade influential leaders to join with him to fight injustice.

Forten the Sailmaker remains an important biography for young adults. The issue of assimilation versus separation continues to be important, and maintaining cultural and ethnic identity in a multicultural society is challenging. It is most important for a young reader to realize that some of the book’s racial identifiers were chosen by Forten himself; therefore, Douty’s choice of language was culturally and politically correct for the historical period.

As she closes the book, Douty projects what might have been Forten’s view of the approaching tragedy of secession and civil war. Above the din of the voices of hatred and the destruction caused by them, she asserts that “his ear would have caught the voices that still spoke of justice to the Negro people—clearly, and with hope.”