Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Now Is Your Time!

I have been reading Now is Your Time! by Walter Dean Myers. It is a 1992 Coretta Scott King award winner. This book is fascinating. I can remember my seventh grade American History teacher reading aloud to us from a book on the Civil War. He was a wonderfully expressive reader and he loved his subject so we were all enthralled. His class is one of the few that I have clear memories of from Jr. High school. Reading again about the Civil War has brought back the way he told us about the battles at Manassas, Antietam and Appomattox. Watching him read with such excitement taught me that history is about real people and is significantly connected to our lives today. Myers book shows me that in a whole new way.

One of the things that impressed me is Myer’s explanation of the economic structure of Southern agriculture and Northern manufacturing which reinforced the dehumanization of African people. They became economic possessions whose labor was worth more that the (non-human) physical holdings of many landowners. “A person who held an African, even if he didn’t have use for the labor of that person, realized the value he held. An African who escaped was a serious monetary loss.” Reading about how the social system worked to enslave, subdue, and subjugate Africans into a slave labor force controlled by brutal oppression and backed up by law over the course of two centuries of our history is humbling and sobering.

Now Is Your Time is written beautifully. It is simple and clear and easy to understand, but shows a personal style that makes the history come alive. Myers starts in 1762 when an African prince named Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima is kidnapped into slavery and taken from Africa to the New World. Myers then follows the ancestors of several families through the generations as they live our American history, showing how the circumstances and decisions of their lives intersect the historical events that have shaped our country. In the preface he says: “History has made me an African American. It is an Africa that I have come from, and an America that I have helped to create.” Myers has a bold and personable voice as an African American telling the history of his people.

About half way through the book Myers is describing life in the South during the Civil War. He talks about a plantation called The Bower that was located a short ride from Harpers Ferry. It was owned by a family named Dandridge, one of the families whose history Myers traces and whose members were closely connected to his own ancestors through the institution of slavery.

“Somewhere on the Dandridge estate, as Stuart’s men were enjoying the hospitality of Stephen Dandridge, there was also a little girl named Dolly whose job it was to take care of the many babies produced in the quarter. She was of African descent but very fair skinned, listed on later census records as a mulatto… Much of African-American history has never been written down but has been passed from generation to generation in quiet family gatherings. I first learned of the horrors of African captivity while helping my mother snap beans in a Harlem tenement. The stories were not just information; they scared me so badly I couldn’t sleep at night for thinking about them. It pained me to know that so many in my family had shared this experience. Dolly was from my mother’s family, but I remember my grandfather on my father’s side telling us how he knew his age.

“I was born just before the war,” he said. “They didn’t allow none of us to do no reading or writing, but my mama took a newspaper, folded it up, and saved it so she could remember how old I was. After the war she folded the front page of that paper up and put it in the Bible.”

…I have been to The Bower and I have walked among the same oak trees that my great-grandmother, Dolly Dennis, must have seen when she was there… Dolly is part of the heritage of all African Americans and of my family in particular. It is a heritage I deeply cherish.”

I have found his book to be enjoyable and illuminating reading. He covers the years from 1762 through 1968. He gives detailed examples of the wisdom, strength, courage and love of freedom of men and women such as Ibrahima, James Forten, George Latimer, Lewis H. Latimer, Ida B. Wells, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.

In his Afterword he says:

“We are a people capable of understanding our own nobility, and our own failures. We have seen who we can be and know that those who have gone before us, who lived their lives well so that we might be free, would demand that we be no less than we can be. An Ancient symbol in Ghana is the Sankofa bird. “Sankofa” means to turn back and get what you have left behind. The people of Ghana use it to remind themselves that before you can go forward, you must know where you have been.”

Because of Myers research and writing we all can know more about where we have come from and build on the vision of where we might go. This book is highly recommended.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Thank you for the review, Cloudscome. This sounds like an excellent book that I would like to read. My son is a little too young, but I could save it for him for later. Because of Martin Luther King Day and stories of Rosa Parks, he is interested in the subject and trying to sort it out.