What’s up, y’all. It’s your favorite nearsighted bibliophile and skeptic of all things, the Insomniac Who Worships at the Throne of Olenna Tyrell… me.
You know, I am often asked by friends to recommend books, and lately I’ve been getting some requests for Young Adult (YA) book recommendations. And until now, that was a category I knew very little about. I think at the time (about a month ago), the only YA books I had read were ones that everyone had read – the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series. Both of these series I enjoyed, but I then fell into my African author phase, and I didn’t return to the genre for a several years.
So, when a few friends started to ask me for recommendations for their children again, I got to work. I went to the library (yes, I still have a library card – chill out) and asked my Friendly Neighborhood Librarian where I could find the YA book section. And that’s when I came across this:
This is an historical fiction based on the life of William Henry Lane, or Master Juba – a free black man born in Rhode Island who is often credited as the founder of tap dance.
Now, when I saw this on the shelf, I was instantly geeked – this is a man who is almost completely absent from my high school/college history courses, who I was lucky enough to learn about from my mother, a black dance historian. So to finally see him represented in literature… it was almost too merch, y’all.
On one hand, I was pleasantly surprised at how this book tackled heavy issues like racism, blackface and slavery – but it wasn’t heavy-handed, which is why I stay away from the violence porn which is most slavery-themed literature.
This is a rather quick read, since the book begins with Juba in his teenage years, working and barely making ends meet in an area of New York City called “Five Points”, located in lower Manhattan.
(a portrait of Lane)
It chronicles his life in New York and London, and how his life changed after meeting the author, Charles Dickens and becoming an international celebrity.
At times, the book mentions the racism and hatred he endured. For example, after being rejected in a dance audition for a revue, he says:
“… they just changed all my dreams about dancing and all my hopes to make something of myself. My dancing didn’t mean a thing. The only thing they see in a black man is a clown or a slave…” (55)
There was brief mention of “blackface” – the theatrical tradition of using burnt cork to blacken the face and red lipstick to accentuate/exaggerate the lips. In many cases during the vaudeville/minstrel era of theater, both white and black actors blackened up and took on exaggerated, clownish roles that were supposed to “portray” black people, but were mere caricatures – offensive stereotypes. Lane, or Juba says:
“To me, putting on blackface was the strangest thing in the world. I was born black, and yet the promoters wanted me to dress up like some kind of strange image of a black person that really wasn’t a true Negro. It was as if a lot of white people had a place in their heads for black people, and you had to fit in that place… or they didn’t want you. They wanted black performers to talk bad, say stupid things, and be like pets.” (123)
The book starts in 1843, and while Juba was born a free Negro in the North, selling free black men and women back into slavery in the southern states was still practiced. Near the end of the book, Juba gets a letter from a friend while he is in London, telling him that his colleague had been sold:
“… word has come that Fred was sold into slavery. He tried to run away and got to a newspaper to tell them of his predicament but then was caught and had the backs of his heels cut so he could not run away again.” (173)
Okay, so here’s my take on this book. I like the fact that an important figure in American history, a man who played a major role in the creation of an American form of dance was featured in a book for young people. That was awesome. And there are some scenes in here (like the “being re-sold into slavery” and “blackface” issues) that can get classrooms and families talking about the harsh, evil, yet very real parts of this country’s history.
What I found difficult was that while these things were written into Juba’s narrative, and told in his voice, we rarely got a glimpse of his inner thoughts. How does he feel when he is humiliated on stage? When he hears about his friend being sold back? We’re not really sure. Juba reacts only on the surface level; he is “shocked” or “angry,” sure, but what does he do? How does he work through this? How do these things affect him on a deeper level?
Juba is only drawn with broad strokes. The finer points, any inner dialogue or struggles are only minimally shown. So the real, psychological damage of racism is not really touched here.
After saying that, I do recommend this book for kids, although not for small children – unless you are willing to explain slavery and racism, and your child is mature enough to handle that.