Song of Slaves in the Desert by Alan Cheuse

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 I can’t quite decide what I thought about this book, in which Nate Pereira, a young man from New York, reluctantly visited his uncle’s plantation in South Carolina, in (the year wasn’t actually given) the late 1840s, and became involved with Liza, a young slave woman, whom he eventually helped to escape.  It tried to be a bit too clever by jumping around between too many themes; but it was certainly interesting, and different from most books about slavery.  It traced Liza’s family history forward from 16th century Timbuktu and, unlike, say, Roots, it showed how slavery was practised in Africa long before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, and that people like Liza’s ancestors were sold to European slave traders by fellow Africans.  It also covered issues about slave owners within America coming from different religious groups.  Some parts of it worked much better than others, but, overall, I think it was worth reading.

It worked best as a “house divided against itself” book, showing the reaction of a young man from a free state to spending time in a slave state.  I don’t actually think that that was the angle the author was aiming for, but that was what worked for me.  Sometimes I think about all those decades of Compromises and Provisos and talk about popular sovereignty, and wonder how the Union lasted as long as it did.

I was very sorry to learn that the author of this book was killed in a car accident a few years ago.  That’s extremely sad.

As far as the book went, there were two stories intertwined, which didn’t work too badly – it can sometimes be very confusing when there are two stories in one, but this was OK –  but I could have done without the bits that went off into mysticism and talked about goddesses and spirits.  We had the story of Liza’s female line ancestors, through several generations of slaves, first in Africa and then in America.  That was interesting, and quite unusual: there seems to be so much emphasis on white people enslaving Africans that histories of black and Arab slave traders are rather neglected.

However, every single generation had children only through rape.  Obviously this was something that happened to many women; but not one of the women was able to form a relationship with a fellow slave and have children with him, which happened as well.  Liza had a friend called Isaac who thought he was the child of a happy marriage between two slaves, but it turned out that even he was the result of the master raping his mother.  Liza herself was Nate’s uncle’s daughter, born through rape, and her own father repeatedly raped her.  It was all just too much rape.  There were happy relationships between slaves, and there were children born of those relationships.  But that didn’t happen here.  Not once.

The relationship between Liza and Nate was shown largely from Nate’s viewpoint, as the second storyline was his story of his visit to South Carolina, and was rather confused.  As far as he was concerned, they were in love … but then it turned out that her father/rapist, his uncle, had asked her to seduce him in order to try to keep him there (the uncle wanted his brother’s money), and then that she’d decided to try to seduce him so that he’d help her to run away.  In the end, she did get away … and ended up in San Francisco.

He went back to New York and his old life, married his childhood sweetheart and had children, but was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas.  This only came out in an epilogue, but the impression given was that he’d volunteered as soon as war broke out, because he wanted to fight against the southern states because of his abhorrence of slavery.  Amid the confusion, that message was strong: the boy from New York couldn’t deal with a society based on slavery.

Another confused relationship was between the slaves and Rebecca, Nate’s cousin’s wife, who had some bizarre idea about her mission being to civilise all the slaves.  She was teaching them to read, saying that she could free them but then get more slaves to work on the plantation, and teach them to read, and then free them, and so on.  What?  Apart from anything else, it was illegal to teach slaves to read.  That bit didn’t really make sense.

And then there was the confused relationship between everyone and religion, the Pereiras all being Jewish.  The issue of Jewish slave owners also came up, albeit briefly, in “The Plot Against America” last week.  I feel uncomfortable writing about this, because there are a lot of utterly vile conspiracy theories regarding this subject – the disgusting “artist” Wiley has repeated them just within the last few days, some members of Momentum have been repeating them over the last few years, and factions in America have repeated them as well.  It’s even something that’s been linked to terrorist attacks in America.  That was not for one second what the author of this book was doing, but it’s such an awkward subject in the current climate that it’s difficult to write about.

I hate that.  I shouldn’t have to feel like that.  Slavery was practised across the antebellum South, at least amongst people who could afford to have slaves.  There were Protestant slave owners, Catholic slave owners, and a small number of Jewish slave owners.  It was not about religion, and no religious group behaved any better (other than the Quakers) or worse than another. I don’t think anyone really needs to be making a big deal of the fact that members of any one religion owned slaves, any more than that members of any other religion did.  .

However, apparently Alan Creuse wrote this book because he was surprised to learn that there were Jewish slave owners.  I’m surprised that he was surprised.  This has come up in loads of books – Belva Plain’s Crescent City and Eugenia Price’s Savannah, to name but two.  And surely he knew that Judah Benjamin was Confederate Secretary of State, although Benjamin personally didn’t own slaves until his marriage. It wasn’t about religion or culture.  Almost all well-to-do people in the South did own slaves, and there’ve been a small number of well-to-do Jewish people in the South since way back when. In the days of concern about Catholics in Florida and Louisiana, there was a kind of Protestant-Jewish alliance in the Deep South, and there was not the same degree of anti-Jewish prejudice that there was in some parts of the North.  And I’m getting off the point now.  The point is that it was a regional thing, not a religious thing.  It’s not really an issue that there were members of different religious groups amongst the slaveowners.

However, Nate seemed very troubled by how owning slaves fitted in with the Bible stories in the book of Exodus and about the Babylonian captivity.  I’m not sure that bringing Bible stories into it was all that convincing.  It might have been better to have had him talking about the 1492 expulsions instead.  I know that that would have lost the point about slavery, but it would have been more relevant.  That was presumably where Alan Creuse was coming from – he was surprised that members of one demographic group which had faced persecution throughout the ages should have been amongst those in enslaving another group.  And I understand that.  But, as I’ve said, I think we need to accept that owning slaves in the antebellum South was not about religion or culture, and that there was no religious exceptionalism over that.

I seem to be doing a lot of moaning here.  It was actually a good book!  The points about the many generations of slaves in Africa were well made, and it did a particularly good job of getting across the message about the house divided against itself.  Here was a young man from New York, going to visit another American state, another state within the union, to visit his own close relatives, and finding a way of life that was alien and abhorrent to him.  As I said, it’s perhaps surprising that the Union lasted as long as it did … the Missouri Compromise, Nullification, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, all the Kansas/Nebraska stuff … it is actually quite surprising that it didn’t all come to a head sooner.  I don’t think that was meant to be the message of the book, but it was the one which came across best.

This was a very ambitious book.  Some of it worked, some of it perhaps didn’t.  But it certainly made me think.  I like that. In this weird times, getting my head back into 1840s/1850s America, a favourite subject for nearly 35 years, is great.   I could write all day about this stuff.  And I’ve already spent ages writing about it, for a handful of people to read, so I shall shut up now!   If anyone’s reading these long waffles, thank you.  Writing them keeps my brain occupied in these strange times!