There is much literature on the subject of and/or set during the era of slavery in America, and our archives brim with books describing antebellum life. Except for slave narratives, however, there is scarce literature written from the slaves’ point of view. To date, novels, in particular, have failed to depict the lives of slaves accurately or in a way that even approaches the true accounts of slave narratives. Further, most novels have provided us with little authentic information of the inner life of slave communities and even less about the personal lives of slaves-their everyday horrors, their loves, hopes and incredible strength in transcending evil.
The majority of books set in American slavery present us with a white person’s point of view, an incomplete and skewed version of the facts that some would say sits well with the comfort level many of us have had for the subject. Gone With the Wind is a prime example of a largely romanticized representation of slavery from the white slave-owners’ perspective. It does not include a true reflection of African American experiences before or after the Civil War. Yet, a few authors have attempted to expose the myth perpetuated by such works as Gone With the Wind-namely, Margaret Walker’s response to it, entitled Jubilee, and Alice Randall’s parody of the book, called The Wind Done Gone. In his book, The Known World, Edward Jones has also provided us with an authentic voice of slaves who, up until recently, have been portrayed as racist stereotypes and who have been completely marginalized in popular literature.
My Jim, by Nancy Rawles, is in the same category as The Known World as one of the most memorable revisionist novels that truly illuminate readers about the authentic lives of African-American slaves. The Known World is an important, breathtaking and informative novel, but its complex chronology and plethora of characters will likely overwhelm high school students. Beloved, by Toni Morrison, may also be too complex for use in secondary schools. My Jim, however, is an excellent candidate for high school English. Although it is a novel, Rawles based her facts on extensive research, making it a stellar read as well as an excellent segue into history courses. Rawles’ novel revisits Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and for that reason, it is already being taught in a few schools alongside the controversial classic. Many students will already be familiar with Huckleberry Finn, and this provides a unique opportunity to examine the overt racial hostility of the time and to transition over to My Jim, which reexamines the story from a slave’s point of view.
Rawles resurrects the character of Jim, the runaway slave from Huckleberry Finn, and tells a heart-wrenching story from the viewpoint of the wife Jim was forced to leave behind. In Twain’s classic novel, Jim is Huck’s faithful, kindly and gullible sidekick. However, he has no agency and is stereotypically portrayed; he serves mainly as a stimulus for Huck to examine his own morals. Jim briefly mentions his family twice in the book, but that is the extent of our glimpse into his personal life; in fact, his wife is not even given a name. Instead, Rawles frames her story with Jim’s wife, Sadie, narrating the tale to her granddaughter, Marianne. While sewing a “memory quilt” for Marianne’s impending marriage and move west, Sadie recounts her love for Jim and their brutal life of slavery starting from Jim’s birth and ending long after the Civil War.
Part of what makes the novel so powerful is that it is told in authentic slave vernacular. While other novels that employ authentic dialect may present difficulties for students, Rawles creates such a smooth rhythm that students will undoubtedly read it with ease. It is impossible not to be enveloped into the world Rawles creates so vividly through the language-a world where the African American spirit perseveres past the point of what seems humanely possible in the midst of the horrors of slavery. While Sadie’s story evokes profoundly disturbing images, it should nevertheless be required reading for high school students. Not only does the book give a humanizing view of history, but it presents a more accurate one, and it does so through medium students can relate to (and one that has heretofore done no justice to the subject.)
In My Jim, we get to know Jim as a vital, kind and passionate man, far from gullible, who has lost his innocence, but who perseveres to overcome great odds. Rawles immerses us into the inner lives of the slaves themselves through Sadie’s recounting of her life and her love for Jim. In Twain’s novel, although Huck recognizes Jim’s humanity after he mentions his family (“I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks do for ther’n.-Chap. 23), Twain nevertheless portrays Jim as a one-dimensional, stereotypical caricature. Rawles’ book shows us just how remarkable it is that Jim’s humanity is indeed intact by the time he meets Huck. The novel takes us back to Jim’s young life in bondage, tells us how he struggled for freedom and shows his nearly unbearable suffering over being torn from his family.
Through Sadie’s reminiscence, we learn how Jim and his family coped and endured inhumane treatment, including horrendous physical, emotional and sexual abuse, backbreaking work and various other human indignities. It is a powerful, horrifying, and, at times, a nearly unbearable story to comprehend and one that must be told. In contrast to the lighthearted manner in which Huckleberry Finn presents us with the unthinkable horrors of slavery, Sadie’s story does not spare us the brutal details. I believe, however, debatable as it may be, that the ironic manner in which Twain imparts this information is an intentional device to call attention to the brutality of the situation. Still, Sadie’s story is far more effective in this regard. She shows us mothers who would rather kill their babies than feel the agony of having them torn away from them for sale or the masters’ sexual playthings.
Indeed, after Jim’s father was murdered, Jim’s mother fought to keep him from being born. “All the time Jim’s mama carrying him she crazy with grief. Aint wants to give Mas that baby. She does everything she can to stop Jim from coming…She fights with Mas and the driver. Trying to get them to beat that baby out of her…But Mas makes them dig a hole for her belly. So they can beat her without killing that baby (p. 24).” She tells of rampant sexual and emotional abuse and her reticence to love any man before she fell in love with Jim. “I ain’t never loves any man…No man ever treat me gentle. I stay away from them. I don’t want the babies. I already stop three babies from coming…I don’t love the men who give them to me. But I can protect my own self in the fields. Any man wants to come up behind me ain’t nothing I do can stop him. Mas wants all the babies. That’s how he numbers his riches. (pp. 61-62).”
Throughout the book, we are in awe of Sadie’s fighting spirit, despite the horrendous conditions of her life. Her children are sold off and killed. She is repeatedly raped and beaten. She is told that not even her own daughter belongs to her. Yet, her strength is undeniable. After being beaten and tied up in the packhouse, she “tries to hold on cause I can leave my children. Not like this. I want them to see me strong again (p. 98).” Despite her suffering, throughout her life, Sadie uses the Congo bowl and medical knowledge passed down to her by her mother to make herbal healing remedies for black and white alike (although she does, understandably, attempt to poison her master with the same knowledge at one point). She shows Marianne the remaining shard of the bowl that was ultimately broken by her master in a fit of rage, and she sews her few meaningful belongings into Marianne’s quilt.
Rawles beautifully portrays Sadie’s ability to make meaning out of a profoundly harsh and chaotic life. Further, Rawles imbues the slaves’ superstitions and spirituality with respect and warmth unparalleled in most other novels, in which these beliefs are commonly looked upon as comedic or strange. Although the novel’s title is My Jim, it is predominantly an exceptionally moving story about Sadie, Jim’s wife. Rawles portrays Sadie’s painful experiences with such passion and heartfelt emotion that one cannot help but be drawn into the story. She presents the story as a personal testimony told by Sadie to her granddaughter, Marianne. When Marianne is conflicted about marrying a buffalo soldier and leaving her grandmother, Sadie encourages her to start a new life in the West. She sets out to sew a “memory quilt” for Marianne to take with her.
As she sews various items into the quilt, the fabric of Sadie’s life as a slave unfolds. Marianne says that when she expressed her fear of marrying, Sadie told her, “If slaves can love, you can love…(p. 13).” Indeed, after reading of the horrors Sadie endured, we find it incredible that she emerges at the end of the novel with her love for Jim, although he is absent, and her eternal hope that pervades the novel. Yet, Sadie does not gloss over the cold hard facts of reality. She tells Marianne, “Aint love make you lose everything. Life just mean that’s all (p. 15),” and “Live a bloody business gal. Better get used to it (p. 25).” Further, unlike Beloved, for instance, Sadie’s story does not have the quintessential “happy ending.” Instead, Rawles forces us to confront the reality of a more accurate depiction of how even survivors like Sadie were faced with minimal options after emancipation.
In both Twain’s and Rawles’ novels, Jim dreams of gaining his own and buying his family’s freedom. Twain’s story ends when Jim is set free after his owner dies. Rawles extends the story until long after the Civil War, giving us a true picture of what kind of “freedom” the slaves were actually faced with after emancipation. The most profound description of this sad and ironic view of freedom is found on page 140 of Rawles’ novel: When freedom finally comes, I ain’t feels it right away…Troops at the house…Colored soldiers read us a letter bout freedom. We pack up some food and water and join the lines moving north. We walk and walk. None of us got any money to ride the steamer we used to ride as slaves. But, we are free, so we got to walk. Folks think freedom gonna look one way, but it looks all kinds of ways.
Sometimes it looks like slavery. Folks think freedom is something like a button or a tooth. Something you can hold onto ain’t gonna break. But you can break a button with a tooth and break a tooth with a button. And both of them really easy to lose. Even when you know right where they drop, you are still gonna look and can’t find them. If freedom is a place, it’s a place you pass through. There are many remarkable aspects to My Jim, not the least of which is how Rawles intersperses the objects that Sadie is sewing into Marianne’s quilt throughout the novel so that we become filled with what forms the meaning of her life. Ultimately, love, freedom, spirituality all live in our hearts, and if not there, they truly cannot be found. The beauty and the miracle of Rawles’ novel are how Sadie kept all of these in her heart under the most horrifying and oppressive conditions.