Writing historical fiction is hard. You read shelves full of books, study documents, interview experts, ponder maps, photographs, and data. You work really hard to insert authentic details (what color dress would she have worn to the dance? What did he eat for lunch? What bus would she have taken to work?) and then plunge forward to create as authentic a character as possible.
But when you're writing a story about a young man who lived over a hundred and fifty years ago to whom you want to pay tribute, but yet there is little "real" data, your task becomes even more difficult. You have a few bones to build your story around-- perhaps a death certificate and a few photographs. If you're lucky, maybe you'll find a few newspaper articles you can dig up to authenticate your story.
Such was Walter Dean Myers challenge when he wrote Juba! (Harper Collins, 2015)
This book for middle grade or young adult readers, is based on the true story of a talented young black dancer considered to be the inventor of tap dancing. While performing in New York City, he was noticed by Charles Dickens who wrote about him in American Notes:
"Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man's fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs - all sorts of legs and no legs - what is this to him?"
"And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!"
Even after Juba was well received by Londoners who had read accounts of him by Charles Dickens, he still encounters this same prejudice from fellow performers.
Juba finally gets a few gigs as a dancer but when Mr. Charles Dickens comes to New York and watches him, he dances as he never has before. This quote begins with Mr. Dickens speaking.
"...There's a freedom about the way you move that makes me wish I could dance. Have you ever had a difficult time in your life?"
"At times, everything seems hard," I said. "I'm not sure what tomorrow is going to be like. I'm just hoping it's something good."
"I imagined--and I know I'm talking too much--that you must have had some difficult times along the way. I think that's the mystery of greatness and of people who achieve wonderful things," Mr. Dickens said. "That somewhere in their lives they have felt the cold winds of despair, but have kept their hearts warm themselves." (p. 104)
In order to make a small living Juba is forced to make compromises.Jack [his "fair minded" white landlord] knew how black people were treated in New York. We were second-class people every day and third-class performers when we tried to exercise our talents outside of the black community. What he did was to needle me so I wouldn't give up all together, and in a way, I appreciated it. In a way, I didn't, though, because sometimes he made me feel that when I accepted a job with a minstrel band or put on blackface I was betraying my people. To me, putting on blackface was the strangest thing in the world. I was born black, and yet the promoters wanted me to dress up like some kind of strange image of a black person that really wasn't a true Negro. It was as if a lot of white people had a place in their heads for black people and you had to fit in that place in a certain manner or they didn't want you. They wanted black performers to talk bad, say stupid things, and be like pets. Jack said a lot of white people were afraid of real black people. (pp. 123-4)
Huff [another performer] walked across the room and put his nose an inch from Gil's. "What I see with my own two eyes is that I'm not going to make no kind of steady living working for a nigger. And that's what I'm doing over here, working behind Boz's Juba or whatever it is he's calling himself. In America you make a living working with white men, and for white men. And I aim to go back to America, back to Mableton, Georgia and make a living. And if I want any coloreds around me, I'll buy a few!" (p. 157)
|Possibly depicting Juba performing in England|
To enter this giveaway, please leave me a comment by noon on Thursday, February 25. If you are new to my blog, please leave your contact information also. For extra chances to win this ARC, post on Facebook or Twitter and let me know what you have done.