Taking on a Heavy Theme and Doing it Justice

Martin Luther King day has just gone by, and our church choir sang the old gospel song, “Go Down Moses.” I’ve sung this many times in Mead Chapel at Middlebury College, along with a huge chorus of students and townspeople–and always ending with the poignant and rousing “We Shall Overcome.” But this year more than most I’ve been thinking about tyranny, slavery and its aftermath–in part because of the troubles in Africa and the Middle East.

And now there’s the powerful film, “12 Years a Slave,” in which a free black man from upstate N.Y. is sold into slavery, and taken south to pick cotton. I watched the film with a crowd of spectators. all of us wet-eyed and silent at the end as we stumbled out of the theater. Afterwards, I pulled out a dusty family Bible and went straight to Exodus. And was moved all over again by the story of the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians–and doubtless forced to build the bricks that fed the pyramids I’d seen (ironically) “on holiday” a few years back. There it was: the poignant line, “Let my people go.” While over and over old Pharoah hardens his heart and keeps the workers in bondage. I understood, rehearsing that song, why African-Americans have so deeply identified in their spirituals with the plight of Jews.

Then I read in the NY Times about the brilliant actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who took on the role of the abducted Solomon Northrup. Ejiofor, the London-born son of Nigerian immigrants, tells the story of visiting a 19th-century slave pen used to hold Africans before they were sent to auction. “What are those bolts in the walls?” he asked, and was told they were “extra chaining for the Ibos.” The Ibos, he realized with shock, were his ancestors. “And you recognize,” he writes, “that you yourself were there. And that’s powerful.”

Through empathy and an understanding of the period, an actor can virtually become the person s/he portrays, and for Ejiofor it was a perfect match: he had “lived” the role that from start to finish “taxed and drained” him. In fact, he had almost turned down the role, despite reading books about the history of the slave trade in Africa and the Americas. He felt “intimidated,” he said, by “the weight of the issue.” He worried he couldn’t “do it justice.”

How many writers have worried about taking on a heavy issue and being able to do it justice? Tragic deaths in one way or another bleed through our work. We try to become our characters, whether invented or taken from real life. In The Slave Girl of Jerusalem, set in Roman times, Caroline Lawrence imagines the miserable life of young Flavia,  while Barbara Hambly becomes Benjamin January, a mixed-race former slave in the dangerous ante-bellum days of New Orleans.

In truth, many of the characters in our books are enslaved one way or another before someone comes to exonerate them; their bonds, metaphorically speaking, are usually lifted in the end. For my novel, Stolen Honey, I researched the 1930’s eugenics project in which  so-called “degenerates” are sterilized (a forerunner of the Holocaust)–and was horrified, during my interviews with Abenaki women, to discover the extent of the abuses against American Indians right here in northern Vermont.

Like my own forays, Ejiofor’s research for his role in  “12 Years a Slave” turned up far more than he’d ever anticipated. He travelled from Calabar, a Nigerian port for the slave trade, on to rural Louisiana to experience first hand the sugarcane and cotton fields in a feverishly hot summer. The actor Paul Dano, who played opposite Ejiofor as a cruel overseer, said that despite the heat, “I never saw him (Ejiofor) doing pushups to get his energy up, or looking at his script. He was there in the sun, totally present, and in the zone.”

“Totally present and in the zone,” as we must be in our books. A challenge surely, for those of us tackling issues far beyond, in many cases, our own modern day experience.