(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Youma: The Story of a West-Indian Slave portrays slave life on the Caribbean island of Martinique in the 1840’s. In 1848, when the Republican government took power in France, rumors of emancipation and liberty for French colonial slaves swept across the island, creating fear and uncertainty among slave owners and desperate hope among the French slaves. Youma, a beautiful privileged young household slave, is caught in the fierce conflict when slaves and slave owners confront the issue.

Youma has grown up in the luxurious townhome of a wealthy merchant’s family. She has been the trusted childhood companion to Aimee, her owner’s daughter. In this position Youma is almost a daughter of the house, but also is clearly a slave. Her serious, intelligent mind, integrity of character, and beauty set her apart from other slaves but do not earn for her her freedom. She is compared in beauty, grace, and wisdom to the Queen of Sheba. When Aimee marries a wealthy plantation owner, Youma is sent to her young mistress as a nursemaid.

Upon Aimee’s sudden death, Youma promises to care for her young mistress’ infant daughter, Mayotte. As the substitute mother of Mayotte, Youma is admired by the household staff and earns the respectful title Manzell, or Miss. Life at the sugarcane plantation where Youma and Mayotte live is described as ideal, surrounded by the natural, lush beauty of the island coast. The air is full of the music of...

(The entire section is 452 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Youma is a slave and the godchild of Madame Peyronette, who lives in the city of Saint Pierre. Youma’s mother had been the nurse of Madame Peyronette’s only daughter, Aimée, and the two children, white and black, have grown up together almost as sisters. Even when Aimée, in accord with Creole custom, is sent to a convent to have her manners polished, during the vacations she spends at home she is always in the company of the young black slave.

As the girls grow to womanhood, Aimée begs her mother on several occasions to give Youma her freedom, but Madame Peyronette feels that she is safeguarding Youma by keeping her in slavery. Privately, Madame Peyronette has decided first to find Youma a good husband and then, after she is safely married, to grant her freedom. Before Madame Peyronette can carry out her plan, Aimée marries Monsieur Desrivières, son of a wealthy old Creole family. Upon her marriage, Aimée asks that Youma be permitted to serve her in her new household, a request speedily granted by her mother.

Thirteen months after her wedding, Aimée gives birth to a baby girl. The child is named Marie; the blacks call her by a diminutive, Mayotte. Tragedy strikes the household a year later when Aimée, who had been caught in a chilling rain while riding in an open carriage, falls ill and dies within twenty-four hours. Before she dies, Aimée begs Youma to assume the duties of nurse to little Mayotte. Youma, recalling the kindnesses she has received at the hands of Aimée, vows to do the best she can for the motherless child.

Monsieur Desrivières goes to live on his sugar plantation at Anse-Marine, in another section of the island, for he cannot bear to remain in the same house after his wife’s death. Not long after, Madame Peyronette sends little Mayotte, who is in delicate health, to the plantation in Youma’s care. The grandmother believes that the climate at the plantation will be better for Mayotte.

The little girl and Youma love the life at the plantation; for both, it is an experience in people. Little Mayotte is irked at times because she is not permitted to mingle freely with the little black children—not because of issues of race but because of fear that the child will be in danger of sunstroke while participating in their games. To pass the time, Mayotte and Youma go for walks in shaded places or sit on the veranda while Youma tells folktales of her race.

One afternoon, Youma warns Mayotte that if she hears too many such tales during the day she will see zombies at night. Mayotte laughs and asks for another story, but that night, she...

(The entire section is 1070 words.)