Sunday, February 17, 2008
Day of Tears
I recently finished reading Day of Tears, by Julius Lester, as part of the Young Adult Book Challenge. It is a historical fiction novel set during the largest slave auction in U.S. history, "The Weeping Time". The story is told in dialogue format which allows you to hear several perspectives. In addition, you get the characters take on the events as they unfold and as they reflect on them many years later. Lester uses the main character, Emma, and the events of the auction to tie the dialogues together in the least confusing way. Emma demonstrates the emotional and psychological pain which slaves endured and triumphed over. Through this character and others this novel did an excellent job of laying bare the fact that many felt slaves were not human beings and giving voice to the actual depth of their humanity.
True to the historical setting, the "N-Word" appears when many of the white characters refer to or address the characters of African descent. While discussing the use of this term with students, I appreciated the balance of characters represented in the novel. Those sympathetic to the plight of the slaves tempered the cruelty of slave owners and other pro-slavery characters.
Initially, it was easy to put this book aside and not come back to it for days on end. When I finally made a conscious decision to give myself over to the characters, I was able to get through it but still did not feel fully engaged. My use of reading as an escape from the harsher aspects of life is probably to blame there.
I read it with a group of sixth students at my school site and during our biweekly discussion meetings it was clear that this book captured and kept their attention from the beginning. Before passing out novels, I sent home permission slips which gave parents a warning that the text would evoke more emotions than past reads. During SSR in her math class, one young lady began to cry and a classmate, who was also reading the novel, helped her explain to the teacher what brought on her tears. The math teacher was impressed that young people were that engaged in reading, and I was thankful I had been proactive in warning the parents and students.