My novel, Dark Enough to See the Stars, about a slave boy who runs away on the Underground Railroad opens at a train station. Twelve-year-old Moses watches his mother board a railcar going south, knowing he will never see her again.
An Account from a Slave Autobiography
My first chapter begins with an account based on a true story from the autobiography, My Life in the South, by former slave Jacob Stroyer. He was born a slave in either 1846 or 1849 on Kensington Plantation in Eastover, South Carolina. After the Civil War, he attended school and moved to Massachusetts where he became licensed as an African American Episcopal preacher. He published his autobiography in 1879.
In his account, he describes watching slaves from his plantation board a train because they have been sold to plantations in Louisiana. This was a state that Stroyer said “was considered by the slaves as a place of slaughter, so those who were going did not expect to see their friends again.”
He Never Saw His Sisters Again
Stroyer vividly describes the event. His sisters boarded that train and he never saw them again.
He wrote, “While the cars were at the depot, a large crowd of white people gathered, and were laughing and talking about the prospect of
negro traffic; but when the cars began to start and the conductor cried out, ‘all who are going on this train must get on board without delay,’ the colored people cried out with one voice as though the heavens and earth were coming together, and it was so pitiful, that those hard- hearted white men who had been accustomed to driving slaves all their lives, shed tears like children. As the cars moved away we heard the weeping and wailing from the slaves as far as human voice could be heard; and from that time to the present I have neither seen nor heard from my two sisters, nor any of those who left Clarkson depot on that memorable day.”
Empathy Brings Understanding
I learned a lot about slavery from reading autobiographies written by former slaves. History books can make news from the past seem distant and detached, but reading these emotion-packed words from someone who lived through slavery helps us understand the physical and mental pain these people experienced. This gives us empathy. Empathy is defined as being able to understand, be aware of, be sensitive to, and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. I cannot share in the pain of the Africa- American experience because I never lived it. But I can better understand their emotions and their journey by reading first person accounts. Writing historical fiction about slavery helped me feel what my character felt. My readers are placed in his shoes and can experience what he felt. Historical fiction about the African-American journey can produce empathy, which, I believe, can help bring the understanding needed for racial reconciliation.