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Can we empathize with slaves?


I watched the first episode of Underground (Wednesdays 9:00c on WGN America) and was not surprised that Dred Scott was mentioned in the opening few minutes. The show begins in 1857, the year the Supreme Court decided adversely on Scott's plea for freedom, and it centers on a particular plantation where slaves are contemplating running away.

Like many new and ambitious shows, Underground may need a few episodes before it hits its stride. Overall, I felt the depictions of slaves and masters were a bit stale, and I wasn't touched emotionally, though the story and characters seem promising.

I've been questioning my own depictions of slavery. It's difficult to talk about this subject without employing some well-known tropes: field hands in dirty, tattered clothes vs. clean, gloved servants in the big house; or impunity on the faces of slave owners vs. despair and defiance in the guarded eyes of slaves. Given the familiarity (thanks in large part to the television series Roots) of such motifs, when I wrote Speak Right On, I felt challenged to chisel out—what?—something that would make these necessary elements of the story, of the history, fresh and relatable.

Although I wasn't always successful, I realized I needed to develop the knack of personalizing the experience I wrote about; that is, I wrote about the emotional and psychological aspects of, say, daily wearing inferior clothes:

  • How would I feel about myself? I remember feeling shame when I was given hand-me-downs that I needed but thought were ugly.
  • How would I feel when I saw or sensed the reactions of others? I remember feeling hopeless and ugly. 

While few readers guess that my characterization of Dred Scott is autobiographical in significant ways, many authors recognize that this is what is required of the writer: dredging up sometimes painful memories so that readers feel what the characters are experiencing.

I've heard from readers who exclaim I helped them understand slavery in entirely new ways, and I believe it comes down to realizing that we are the same, in fundamental ways. White or black, privileged or deprived, we share common human reactions when we are debased: it hurts. When we are humiliated, we feel worthless. When we are stripped of opportunities that are laid out like a smorgasbord for others, we yearn.

But the writer doesn't stop there, because of course there are individual differences that matter greatly, which are rooted in each individual's circumstances and constitution. Depicting these variations is how we build memorable characters. When Joe is beaten in my story, young Dred perceives how it galvanizes the old man, as if the torn-open flesh released his opressed humanity and dignity—and the reader understands, in part, that Joe is suppressing his pain and fear, so that his agony does not add to Dred's trauma.

I believe good storytelling happens in the balance between what is universally human and how individuals exercise their will and talent to live through their ordeals. And empathy hangs in that balance: writers evoke it, readers feel it. This is especially true for a topic as historically remote as slavery, since few alive today empirically know what it feels like to be enslaved. But from our own empirical experiences, we do know what fear, rage, and shame feel like—as well as liberation, union, and triumph.

I look forward to seeing the emotional lives of the characters emerge in Underground, because its story, history, and legacy are important. We all need to be reminded that we need to empathize, so that we can better live with all the differences in our lives.

Speak Right On: Author reading on the 159th annive...
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Wednesday, 22 November 2017
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