Each semester I have the privilege of teaching a writing course for college juniors and seniors at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. This past semester’s was an evening class attended by so-called “non-traditional students,” meaning I had more students who were a bit older, worked full time, and had full family responsibilities, including wives or husbands, children, and even grandchildren to support. And although school is quite a drag on their limited time and energies, they push ahead to get their degrees.
A good percentage of the students were African-American, and their personal sacrifices and drive to excel would open the eyes of any citizen whose perception of them was formed basically through the lens of local newscasts, sensationalized headlines or talk radio, and little to no actual interaction with them as individuals (more in future blogs). On top of their other responsibilities, the adults in my class devote much time to their churches and charities, to helping others when some of them could use a helping hand themselves. Is it any wonder I so greatly admire their work ethic and perseverance in their efforts to better themselves and their families?
Big Josh: Giving Credit Where Due
One of the major characters in my novel, The Lies That Bind (to be published this year by TouchPoint Press), is Big Josh, a man of great heart and intelligence in his fifties who has lived his entire life as a slave. In one of the novel’s major plot streams, Big Josh and his group of enslaved men, hopelessly stranded in the Mississippi wilds, take great risks to form a secret partnership with the visionary charlatan Durksen Hurst to build an egalitarian plantation they will call Dark Horse. White and black share the work—and the deprivation—of building Dark Horse. However, there are limits to well-meaning equality in a society structured to be inherently unequal.
Having run the plantation back home, Big Josh is the real strength and brains behind the success of the farming side of their plantation scheme. He is a deep thinker and peacemaker within the ill-fitting partnership, a man with a tragic past (how many slaves who survived didn't have tragic pasts?). But with Durk serving as figurehead "white master," the town's admiration, and fear, are bestowed solely on Durk—whose only farming experience was busting up clods for his drunk-of-a-daddy. Big Josh and the other partners are virtually invisible. Ironically, Durk, whose incompetence is matched only by his naivete and blind ambition, is the one who puts their endeavor at greatest peril.
This dichotomy exposes one of the deeper meanings of the novel, and one of the currents in our society today. The antebellum South’s wealth was based on agriculture, but the wealthiest elite made their fortunes on the backs of slave labor. And slavery was not a benevolent institution. Don’t the bonded laborers deserve some credit—much less some remuneration—for the South’s extraordinary successes? But whose statues and portraits grace the region?
In one of the greatest American novels, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Thomas Sutpen builds Sutpen’s Hundred on the backs of slave labor; yet Sutpen becomes the legend. Isn’t this skewed slant symbolic of the antebellum South? Why shouldn’t Big Josh—or so many like him—get at least a public mention? As in my novel, slaves would have been satisfied to simply not be slaves, allowed to eat what they grew, to be warm when they could earn enough to buy a blanket, to live in a house they built for themselves—and to not live in constant fear.
But 700,000 men, white and black, would have to die before slaves could even come close to achieving that minimum condition. And even today, a skewed view of the African-American community by too many continues to hold them back.
Next Up: A campaign to require a disclaimer on hate speech.
To be announced soon: Publication date of Ed Protzel’s novel, The Lies That Bind, a darkly ironic antebellum mystery/drama set in Turkle, Mississippi, 1859-61, (TouchPoint Press, 2015).
Ed Protzel’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone. Blog copyrighted by Ed Protzel © 2015.