1. Story Statement:
A charismatic 17th century African warrior leads the American colonies’ first slave uprising conspiracy.
2. Antagonist/antagonistic force:
My protagonist’s foe is the institution of slavery, quickly taking shape in mid-17th century Virginia and personified by Elizabeth Dunn, second wife of the tobacco planter for whom my protagonist works. It is Elizabeth, daughter of James Town’s late minister, who discretely champions new practices and laws that ultimately define what slavery is and will be. She is the one who suggests to her first husband that they purchase slaves from Africa instead of leasing more indentured servants from England. She is the one who resists a slave’s conversion, knowing the King’s mandate will require her to free a fellow Christian. She is the one who embraces the still-developing legal concept of lifelong slavery. And pivotal to the novel, she is the one who executes a key law, passed during the novel’s narrative, that children born to slave mothers will themselves be considered slaves.
Where does this hardness and harshness come from? From fear, of course. Virginia of the 1660s is a notoriously tenuous world, its colonists threatened by Indian attacks, fluctuating tobacco prices, and terrifyingly high rates of disease and death. Consumed by the urge to keep chaos at bay, Elizabeth repeatedly, ruthlessly acts to bolster her family’s position and security, advancing slavery’s institutionalization in the process.
Before This Day Breaks
Rise Against the Dawn
Historical novels Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver) and The Known World (Jones)
As does my novel …
Poisonwood Bible brings a chapter in African history to life through multiple narrative voices, incorporating the mystical dimension of the unseen.
The Known World delves into a little-known aspect of American slavery through distinct characters, incorporating – again – the mystical dimension of the unseen.
5. Primary conflict line:
A warrior enslaved in 1660s Virginia must conquer the obstacles of a culturally and geographically isolated African slave force, of fractious English-exile allies, and of his own inner doubts and fears to mount the colonies’ first slave uprising.
6a: Inner conflict
From his earliest years, the warrior Suntu, renamed “Jack” by his Virginia owners, struggles with self-doubt and the need to meet his mother’s high expectations. In his pre-dawn reveries on the Dunn property, Suntu again and again recalls his difficulties in becoming the leader his mother wants him to be, feeling pressures and doubts and resentments that stalk him into adulthood, even as he steps forward to lead the slave uprising. In lieu of a scenario that depicts the trigger and reaction of this inner conflict, I have attached here one of the novel’s pre-dawn reveries that deals most directly with it:
In the black of night, my spirit left and traveled to an unremembered, unwelcome place, returning only now when I half-wake before morning, bruised from my hours of un-rest. I am gasping. This is what I know, what I must believe: If I can master my breath, I will survive. If I can steady my heart, I can be strong.
I feel in these moments before morning as I did when I was a child, lost, thrown in the darkness into a chasm too deep to escape, still falling, waking, shaking with terror beside my mother — sleeping, unknowing — realizing I must catch myself, control myself before my terror wakes her.
As I lie here, I wonder, could she hear my panting? Can the others hear me now?
There was, in the before, in the place where I was myself, a sound that soothed me, saved me, that stopped my fall and steadied my heart, restored my breath. I reach for the memory of the sound. It is life, plucked from air, the music made by my friend Sama, the music also made by his father and family, always.
My friend was born to make this music. When we were the youngest of children, his father first made him a child-small version of his own kora from a child-small calabash gourd. His father carved its neck and bridge, and strung its sides with long-stretched bits of an antelope’s hide. When the strings danced beneath the father’s fingers to show his son, there was a dullness in the master’s eyes, the resignation of a man yoked from birth to his fate — though music — without choice, without joy.
But Sama was not like his father. At first, he was too young to be shy or afraid to fail. He played with his kora as we played with our unstrung toys. We tossed carved balls and chased each other while he did as he had seen his father do, plucking.
Well before he and I were marched along with others into the bush for a season of learning, his music changed. A few plucks from thumb and first finger became a sentence in a story, a sentence repeated so we cannot forget, varied so we cannot turn away. We strained to hear.
His music, once awkward plodding, became a bird of changing colors. It flittered and cast shadows as it flew beneath the sun, rounding into circles, deepening until the circles became spirals, dipping down, then up, circling wider, tighter, wider again, until we became enfolded. And as his strings turned stillness into magic, Sama’s eyes, instead of looking dully into a bleak tunnel of existence as his father’s had, glowed.
There are chickens in our compound. My child burden is to feed and watch them, to crouch by their hut and collect their eggs in the morning. Our household eats and sells the eggs and at times the chickens. A bird from our compound, from my watch, has been selected more than once for celebrations, ceremonies.
One morning I arrive to collect the eggs, and see blood and feathers in the chickens' yard where two chickens ought to be.
I know I am innocent: I did not kill the birds. I did not invite the hawk to kill them. I did not shrink from hunting the hawk and killing him, because the hawk came and went unseen. I am innocent. Still, the hawk felt safe enough — from me — to fly, attack, and eat its prey, completely. I am no threat even to a hawk.
I hide from my mother, cowering behind the home of Sama's father’s wives. Lowering myself into the dust behind the hut, shrinking beside its termite mud, I feel small, meaningless, powerless.
Somewhere a well-fed hawk is laughing. And a mother seething.
I wish for invisibility, knowing my mother despises incompetence, weakness. If I cannot protect chickens from a hawk, how will I be able to protect our people? And a protector, which means a fear and threat to others, is what I am supposed to be. That is my inheritance.
I hear voices call for me. “Suntu.” It is not an invitation or lure, but a blunt command. I begin to see the space around me, my refuge, up against another father's women's house, for what it is. Scrub, backing onto the compound’s fence, exposed. I examine the spaces between the grasses, the ragged cracks in the dirt, the insect creeping beside my foot. I cannot stay here forever, even I — the small, meaningless, powerless, vanquished enemy of a hawk — am finally forced to admit. Hiding is futile, stupid, an act more childish than allowing the waste of two birds.
I realize that the hiding itself will become my life’s shame, overshadowing the murder of chickens by a hawk. If I stay hidden until they find me, the birds’ struggle and my failure to prevent it will be forgotten, but my cowardice in hiding will be remembered.
I decide to emerge, confront my mother, to control my fate, a little.
I walk to my father's wives' house, to my mother, her wrath. No grief for a chicken, only cold disappointment, in me. She expected better, she said. Too empty of hope in my future to look at me, she stares at her wrap, its green blossoms, its purple diamonds, dyed in a far-off place. Brought by a coastal trader, the cloth has an exotic foreign-ness that comforts her. As she stares into its colors, she retreats within it.
I know coldness, too. Without tears, I stand before her. I will do better, I say.
In the days that follow, I do. I make a net of my own invention, weaving strong thick grasses tied at the ends to poles set in the soil beyond the chickens' hut and its yard, a net high enough for the chickens to dart upwards without damage, open enough for them to see the sky, distracting enough to keep a hawk away.
There is a part of me that feels clever, smarter than the hawk, perhaps one day smart enough for my mother, who still will not look my way. But alongside this weak pulse of pride, lurking quietly inside, is a belief in my bottomless deficiency — a devil ready to surprise me in empty daytime hours and defenseless nighttime dreams, pleased to remind me that I am disappointing. This unseen devil is always at an instant ready to catch and immobilize me, throwing me into nothingness or deeper into a pit of worthlessness, the dread it brings.
Somewhere, Sama is playing the kora, practicing old melodies his father taught him, but also straying from them, letting his fingers travel somewhere new, forming circles that became spirals that dip down, then up, circling tighter, wider, until I am enfolded. These days, the days after my disgrace, are the first time I realize the sound of Sama’s music can save me from falling into fear.
I let the pre-dawn memory of Sama’s music soothe me. I can hear it as if it drifts and dwells in the workers’ cabin with me. I ride his melodies, the familiar ones to visit my former self and the strange ones my memory composes to escape this present. Each note twines with others, knotting, reknotting. The braid of sound circles and swoops and spirals back to rejoin itself, becoming an invincible net that stops me from disappearing into the void and the chasm, that sustains me. I hear his music. I hear his music. For the moment, I can breathe, my heart steadies, the chasm retreats. I hear his music. I hear his music. I can go on.
And then I must.
“Jack, get up. Up.” [/i]
6b. Secondary conflict
As the social and racial divide between Virginia servants and slaves rapidly widens, the Dunns’ senior indentured servant Wickes begins an affair with the recently arrived kitchen slave, Becky. The affair, resented by Wickes’s fellow servants once detected, is dramatically, disgracefully revealed at a gathering the Dunns host to impress other landowners. During the gathering, Becky’s pregnancy becomes apparent and a jealous indentured servant girl announces that the white Wickes is the cause. Both Becky and Wickes are publicly shamed as punishment for their unbearably offensive miscegenation, and Wickes loses his status as trusted manager of the workforce. Worst of all, time is added onto Wickes’s contract term. After the infant is born, Becky is stunned to learn that a new law has decreed her son is as much a slave as she is. He is renamed by the Dunns and considered the property of the Dunns … for life. Becky’s response is utter despondency. She ceases even to feed her child. Concerned for her new asset, Elizabeth Dunn calls Becky to the grand house to compel her to care for the infant. During this visit, an immediate, strong attachment formed between Elizabeth’s younger daughter and Becky’s infant sets the stage for a last struggle on the Dunn property.
My novel is set in 1660s Virginia, specifically across its Northern Neck (bounded on one side by the York River), and most specifically on the fast-growing property of Richard Dunn. The property — in its year-by-year emergence from a hardscrabble farm to the base of Dunn’s greatly expanded holdings — is a microcosm of the colony as a whole. During these few mid-17th century years, rapid social and political changes took place, creating what we now look back on as ante-bellum Virginia. With a setting that embodies the turbulent uncertainty of this brief period, the novel tantalizes with the thesis: it didn’t have to be this way.
At the beginning of the novel, the pace of change on the Dunn property accelerates. A grand house, echoing with unfurnished newness, has been erected on stubbly spent fields for the arrival of the owner’s second wife and her household. Season by season, as slaves and servants work the property or escape its confines to Indian lands or to African gatherings, this setting serves not only as a backdrop to action, but also as a prominent character whose isolating distance from other properties, rows of needy tobacco plants, killing storms, woods, insects, crop gardens and bare cabins drive much of the action itself.
Another site for the narrative includes the clearing where the Africans gather, primarily for slave funerals. Shrouded in thick-rooted woods except for the area where dancings occur, secluded at the foot of an escarpment, and featuring a calm spirit-bearing pond, the site allows the slaves to reconnect with their past lives and make new connections with each other. (That said, I think I will revise the novel's depiction of this setting to make it more vibrant and to convey more strongly its influence on scenes that occur there.)
Large properties along the York and the abandoned cabin where the conspirators meet also play a role in my novel. The setting of the cabin, which I present as once belonging to a free former slave, is important as it embodies the possibility of an independent free life. It hints at a potential, new chapter in Jack/Suntu’s life worth fighting for. In contrast, the large properties along the York represent where this society is headed, vast tobacco farms with powerful, lord-like property owners and a heavy, growing dependence on slave labor. (Again, I think there is an opportunity here; I will develop these two settings and their significance more fully as my workshop experience continues.)