Let me just start out by telling you that some literary critics believe that the book The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox is inappropriate reading for the Junior High grade level due to the violent nature of the story. The plot focuses on a disturbing topic and has some graphic images, therefore some discretion should be used. But I don’t believe that is sufficient reason for keeping the book out of the hands of students. I am, however, discussing this book as a work that would be best read as a literature study with the guidance of a teacher or parent and accompanied by thoughtful discussion. In my opinion, it’s not the kind of book you just give a ten-year-old for independent recreational reading. The Slave Dancer begins in New Orleans in 1840 and relates the story of a boy forced onto a slave trade ship. Slavery has played a very real part in the history of many civilizations, and for Americans it is probably the most shameful episode in our nation’s history. American students should be made aware of the horrors of slavery, and The Slave Dancer allows the reader to view from first person perspective how barbaric the practice was and what it was like for its victims.
Slavery has been used for thousands of years as a form of punishment or in war situations when prisoners were taken captive. This story is not about one of those situations; it is about the wicked practice implemented by the slave trade, where human beings were violently forced from their homes, shipped across the ocean like cargo, and sold on the open market like livestock. It would be difficult and even ridiculous to try to write a story about the slave trade without depicting some violence. In The Slave Dancer, Fox describes Africans being captured and treated worse than animals. She describes the confinement for months in foul conditions, the harsh, degrading treatment, and the disposal overboard of both the dead and the living. Although the depiction is somewhat graphic at times, I do not feel it is done in a vulgar or inappropriate way.
Regarding the characters in this story, the majority of them are pathetic human beings who are cruel, unfeeling, and greedy. There are indeed people like this in the world – people who care for no one but themselves, who would do anything to another person if it results in personal gain. The ship’s crew not only imposes their cruelty upon innocent, undeserving human beings, but shows no respect for their fellow man in general. Minimal profanity is used in the story to further reveal the corrupt nature of the individuals. These characters in the story are not likable or attractive; they are the villains, the source of conflict in the story. The author depicts them in a way to disgust the reader, and that is as it should be.
On the other hand, the reader will certainly sympathize with the boy Jessie, the “hero.” Since the story is written in first person from Jessie’s perspective, it pulls the reader quickly in. This helps to provoke the reader to consider, “What would I do if I were Jessie? How would I feel in this situation?” Jessie is horrified by the inhumanity that he witnesses and never accepts or gets used to the mistreatment of the Africans. He recognizes who the true savages are. His feelings of anger and hatred are justifiably directed towards that which is wrong and wicked. He finds himself in a situation in which he must learn to survive not only physically, but also and more importantly, emotionally. He succeeds in this, and he manages to retain his respect for his fellow human being in spite of the individuals around him. Jessie goes through a “transformation” or sorts, and his view and attitude of men and the world in general will never be the same after this experience. Although he is changed forever, he holds onto his integrity and can live at peace with his conscience regarding his own behavior.
When tastefully and effectively done, exposing students to negative human behavior can serve to discourage and repel them from such behavior, and thus contribute toward the prevention of such heinous practices in the future. In exposing truth, ignorance and prejudice can be overcome. I believe this story leaves an appropriate negative view of slavery and cruelty in the mind of the reader, not necessarily of mankind in general. The story shows a side of man that no one wants to admit exists, but that is not where the author leaves it, thankfully.
Jessie not only sympathizes with the Africans brought on board the ship, but he actually reaches out to a boy his own age and befriends him. Together they are able to help each other survive the ordeal that occurs at the end of the voyage. Evil is repaid, and good prevails in the end. Of course, as is often the case, innocent lives are also lost, illustrating the truth that the wicked actions of a few individuals often have consequences that affect others.
Good literature should engage the reader, challenge the mind and emotions, and uplift the spirit. With this in mind, The Slave Dancer is worthwhile reading. It is a compelling story full of descriptive language, intense emotion, and real life issues. It brings the reader down, but doesn’t leave him there. The reader is confronted with the awful realities of slavery, but is also shown that man is capable of compassion and goodness. As Jessie wrestles with his own feelings and conscience, the reader is challenged to think about his own view of humanity and his willingness to defend his beliefs in difficult circumstances. The reality that a time may come when others may try to force you to do something against your will would make for good discussion with children. How far do you allow other to push you? No matter what action you may be forced into, you still have control over your conscience, and no one can force to you change your beliefs and values. This may challenge readers to consider: Is there anything I believe in strongly enough that no circumstances would cause me to compromise on?
Advisory: Parents should consider pre-reading this book before reading it with or giving it to a child under the age of 12. Some language used may be offensive, but it is appropriate, and some incidents in the book may be disturbing for sensitive seventh graders, so discretion is advisable. I recommend The Slave Dancer for 8th grade and up.