Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule

by Harriette Gillem Robinet

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Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1102

Robinet fleshes out this specific episode of the Reconstruction with a quintet of characters, each having strengths and weaknesses. Pascal, a twelve-year-old slave with a crippled leg and arm, is the likable narrator of the story. He is charming as he amuses Nelly and Judith, his two friends, with terrible puns. His generosity and kindness towards the poor, white Bibbs family has great appeal. Falling asleep in the cotton rows or sneaking away from the field are realistic reactions to the fatigue, hard work, and withering Georgia sun. The reader quickly empathizes and identifies with him.

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Pascal progresses from a tag-along little brother to a problem solver. His quick thinking saves Gideon after he falls through a dilapidated bridge. He also rescues Gideon from a confrontation with a white man. A clever youth, Pascal asks Michael and Judith to play near Green Gloryland so that others might think that whites own the farm. Night riders who would burn the crops on freed slaves' farms, thus pass by, fooled by Pascal's trick.

However, Pascal has a big responsibility as narrator in the story. He must tell the reader much of what happens before the story actually begins, either by conveniently remembering the past or by summary. Some reviewers feel that Pascal sees and remembers just too much for his age, and notice that his moralizing seems a bit forced. As freed slaves flee the burned down Jubilee Town, he wonders, "Brother? Sister? Yes . . . in bad times and good we all be family. He was looking for three brothers, but maybe he belonged to a bigger family."

Pascal's older brother, Gideon, enters Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule as a brittle militant. Slaves on the plantation think the sixteen-year-old has always been a "soundoff" and are surprised he has not gotten himself killed for his outspokenness. Pascal remembers that previously, Gideon put burrs under the overseer's saddle so his horse will throw. Gideon plans "slow downs" for the young slaves in the fields. He is rebellious and insolent to hostile whites.

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Though he cruelly calls his brother "crooked leg" and eight-year-old Nelly "good for nothing," he does possess a softer side. He tells Pascal to stay out of town and protect Nelly while he finds out about the Freedmen's Bureau. He reasons, "Just in case some white man get mad. I'll do the finding out." He offers food to other exslaves and asks Mister Freedman, an exslave they come upon, to join his troupe for supper. He is emotionally overcome when he obtains the farm land. When it is taken from him, he cries again.

Nelly is an eight-year-old with "biscuittan skin color and full'moon eyes of honey brown." An orphan, she joins the brothers' search for land. At first, she is so frightened all she can do is twist her braids and wait for Pascal's reassurance and protection. Later, when Gideon returns from town beaten up, she tends his cuts and holds a wet rag to his swollen face. Gradually she acquires a larger matriarchal role, suggesting she and Pascal fish, giving food to Pascal (actually, stuffing it into his mouth like a baby), and sewing pockets on his clothing. More importantly, her imaginative insight lifts their spirits. She tells Pascal to pick up a pretty pebble to appreciate "the glory of the earth" and urges him to make his shadow dance. She answers Pascal's question about dreams and wishes. "We living out the dream of every slave what ever been borned. Landowners of the prettiest farm on God's green earth."

Pascal provides the wit. Gideon provides the will. Nelly supplies the imagination for their new life. Mister Freedman, as the only adult in Pascal's ever-increasing family, brings adult skill to the enterprise of farming. He suggests clearing the land by burning instead of plowing. He knows how to build a house, complete with front porch and hidden escape routes. When they lose Green Gloryland, he dismantles the house and reassembles it on the Bibbs' place. He will survive after the farm is given to whites by his carpentry skills.

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Latest answer posted April 17, 2010, 2:57 am (UTC)

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The Bibbs family, who eventually settle on adjacent land, seem to be color blind. From their first meeting, they treat the freed slaves well. They see the freed slaves as individuals seeking a dream, just as they do. They regret the injustices that fall on Pascal's family when they lose Green Gloryland.

The characters in Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule consider the many nuances of freedom. Throughout much of the book, their definition requires owning land. Gideon first introduces the notion when he returns to the plantation with the news. He says, "President Lincoln freed us slaves two years ago. And better still, now we gonna have our own land."

The characters then embellish this requirement with the other trappings of freedom. Pascal concludes freedom means there will be no more running errands, fanning breezes, or shooing flies for the Master. Nelly believes freedom also means no more whippings at the whipping tree. Daydreaming, Pascal says "every morning we gonna rise up singing, and every night we gonna laugh till the moon rise, and the stars sing 'Glory to God.'" Mr. Freedman thinks eating biscuits for breakfast every day of the week is part of freedom.

In another discussion, they reach deeper definitions of freedom. Mr. Freedman says, "Freedom is all about having dignity. I don't have to feel shame." Gideon adds, "I think freedom be all about owning land and having people look at you with respect."

Once the makeshift family settles on their forty acres, freedom includes an education, an ability to make money, and a house with a front porch. But by the book's end, they have lost the land, the farmhouse, and its front porch. Faced with the loss of all these material things, the family arrives at a larger definition of freedom. Their new definition is internal—one based on what each person believes about himself. Pascal tells Nelly, "Freedom be here, like you said. Can't nobody take it away." Later he tells her ".. .we can BE free. We can do what be good and right."

Another theme of the book concerns survival. Gideon and Pascal's mother was shot because she fought injustice with confrontation. Gideon would be well on the way to same fate if it were not for Pascal's wiser counsel. He tells Gideon, "Sometime we got to talk nice to white folks and just accept things to stay alive." He seems to realize that the actions of ignorant white folks matter little when you already have the gift of freedom in your heart.

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