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The Slave Dancer: Author Paula Fox’s 1974 Newbery Medal Acceptance

by Paula Fox

fox_the slave dancerNearly all the work of writing is silent. A writer does it alone. And the original intention — that first sudden stirring of one’s imagination — is made up of many small, almost always humble, things. Because a major ef­fort of writing is reflection, which is silent and solitary, I place thought under the heading of the experiences I had while I was writing The Slave Dancer.

By thought, I do not mean the marshalling of one’s intellectual forces to refute an argument or to bring about a temporary victory over what agitates and bewilders us. All such victories are, I believe, transient. By thought, I mean that preoccupation with what we feel and why we feel it, and the enormous effort we must make to educe from a tangle of impressions and fleeting images the nature of those feelings. In this sense, thought is the effort to recognize.

It is an effort carried out against formidable enemies: habit; inertia; the fear of change and what it will entail; the wish to preserve our idiot corners of safety, of being “right”; and self­ righteousness — the most dangerous enemy of all, full of a ter­rible energy that would turn us away from pondering the mystery of existence towards its own barren pleasures.

This effort to recognize is an effort to connect ourselves with the reality of our own lives. It is painful; but if we are to be­ come human, we cannot abandon it. Once set on that path of recognition, we cannot forswear our integral connections with other people. We must make our way towards them as best we can, try to find what is similar, try to understand what is dis­ similar, try to particularize what is universal.

Once we accept the responsibility of our connection with oth­ers, we must accept that we are like them even in our differ­ences; and if in one instance, we are not a victim, we can be in another. And if in one instance we do not persecute, in another we will. And if we have not experienced the ultimate shame and anguish of captivity, of utter helplessness, we have experienced — at some time in our lives — something approximate to it, something from which we can construe a sense of what it is like to be other than ourselves.

Thought and feeling and recognition are the fruits of effort, and some of them are bitter. Once, years ago, I had a fleeting notion while I was reading a news story about a man pursued by a mob which intended to hang him. I thought: I could have been the victim, and I could have been one of the mob. Victim and mob are composed of my kind. We need not forgive what is vile in ourselves, but we must try to understand what is vile. If we cannot concede that we are born into this world with a capacity for cruelty, we cannot act against it.

The cat may not die from curiosity; but without it, the cat will likely perish. This curiosity, this puzzlement about our own ex­istence and the lives of other people, is not an idle thing. It awakens the imagination, and the imagination makes it possible for us to realize that our own experience of life is both special to ourselves and generic to our kind. When we understand the continuity, the indivisibility, of human experience, we can begin — timidly perhaps, and with many a backward glance to the illusory snugness of those idiot corners — to consider the fact of our union with all others. Against the habitual indolence of the imagination, curiosity pushes itself, asks its shocking questions, and shoves us up against the folly of our wish to remain singu­lar — and unmoved.

Writing is immodest although the experience of it is full of chagrin, even of mortification. A writer dares to claim that he or she will tell you a story about people and circumstances you know the writer could not have known. Because writers have sovereignty over their own inventions, they appear to make an outrageous claim: They will tell you everything about the char­acters in their stories. This is a world, they say; and every stick of its furnishings — every gesture and grimace of the people who live among these furnishings — is true and revealed. But this is not what happens in life. In real life, we stammer, we dissimulate, we hide. In stories, we are privy to the secrets, the evasions, the visions of characters in a fashion which real life only permits us during periods of extraordinary sensibility, be­fore habit has made us forget that the cries behind the locked doors are our own.

The effort of writing is to approximate being, but our books can only have a degree of success. As we all know, when we put away the book we have been reading and return to the con­sciousness of the moment, art is not life. Our own individual lives are not finished inventions, but questions we can only part­ly answer.

No writer can truly answer the question, “Why did you write that book about those people?” Because, though the story be­tween the book’s covers is finished, the impulse that generated the story has been a question all along. I write to find out. I write to discover, over and over again, my connections with my­ self, with others. Each book deepens the question. It does not answer it.

The ultimate experience of abandonment is to be abandoned; the ultimate experience of injustice is to feel its outrage in every part of one’s life; of hunger, to be hungry; of violation, to be violated. And so the immodesty and claims of a novelist are ap­palling. Yet, lying just behind that immodesty is a nearly over­-powering sense of how little one knows, of how one must labor with the stuff of one’s own life and struggle against the narrow­ness of one’s own experience of life. It is an appalling claim. Without that claim and without those stations along the way that fall far short of ultimate experiences but from which one can sense what it might be like to go the whole journey, no book can be written.

The story of human slavery is a terrible story. Yet how one’s heart clenches at the knowledge that there are those who wish it forgotten, even denied. The Spanish playwright Calderon said, “To seek to persuade a man that the misfortunes which he suffers are not misfortunes, does not console him for them, but is another misfortune in addition.”

Last year, I saw on the television news an elderly woman standing in front of a half-completed housing unit in Newark, New Jersey. She was a picket among a group who were determined that such a housing unit for black people was not going to be built. Clutching her pocketbook close to herself, her face as shut as any vault door, she explained her action this way: “Why should they get special housing?” she cried. “Their peo­ple decided to come to this country on ships just like mine did.” They decided! Is it conceivable that this woman could actu­ally have believed that the black people who were forcibly packed into slave ships, who perished by the millions, had decided upon such a fate? The belief of that woman is not “thought.” It is the brute self, rising up to obliterate all other claims to a just life for fear its own claim is threatened. And it is that brute self which is the enemy of all justice. Surely that woman must have read, even in those textbooks of her own youth with their indecently hurried references to slavery, some­thing of what really happened.

Yet even she, at the furthest outpost of denial, poses a ques­tion. Her stance in front of the television camera was one of alerted stupidity, which did not entirely conceal her fear and confusion. If I were to write a story about her, I would wonder what she had in that pocketbook, why she clutched it so fiercely, what she thought she was protecting, what she thought special meant, and why, during the middle years of her only life, she was walking in a picket line that sought to prevent other people from their rightful acquisition of shelter.

There are those who feel that slavery debased the enslaved. It is not so. Slavery engulfed whole peoples, swallowed up their lives, committed such offenses that in considering them, the heart falters, the mind recoils. Slavery debased the enslavers, and self-imposed ignorance of slavery keeps the mind closed and the heart beating too faintly to do other than insult and wound with such phrases as special housing.

There are others who feel that black people can be only humiliated by being reminded that once they were brought to this country as slaves. But it is not the victim who is shamed. It is the persecutor, who has refused the shame of what he has done and, as the last turn of the screw, would burden the vic­tim with the ultimate responsibility of the crime itself.

When I read the records of the past, I sometimes wanted to turn away from what I was learning — to sleep. But as I read on and heard the words of the captive people themselves, as I began to feel the power of their endurance, I perceived that the people who had spoken so long ago of every conceivable human loss were not only survivors, but pioneers of the human con­dition in inhuman circumstances. They not only maintained life, they had nurtured it, and what they knew springs toward us, out of ashes, out of a holocaust.

To battle one’s way into the past and to attempt to bring back what Lionel Trilling has called “the hum of the past” is to dis­cover that history is a kind of fiction. We know that such a man was born and died, that such a battle was fought and lost, that such a charter was signed. Through personal records, drawings , artifacts of one sort or another, we can say to ourselves the past existed, was; that is how people dressed, this is what they ate, how they were buried. But that “hum” is another matter. We must invent.

And so what we write must, as E. M. Forster says, “go beyond the evidence.” What we have for that task is our knowledge of ourselves in our own time. I lived for three months in New Orleans, near Rampart Street, where the line between black and white dwellings was then a stretch of pavement; and on the banks of the Mississippi, I used to eat my lunch — a “poor boy”  sandwich, which, as a consequence of the inflationary ten­dencies of modern life, has come to be called a “hero.” I spent years in Cuba when I was a child, living on a sugar plantation where no stick remained of the stocks in which slaves had once been punished only a few decades earlier. In ships’ logs, I dis­covered weather, winds I would never feel, the names of cur­rents I had not known existed, seas which I had not crossed. But once I was on a ship in a nearly disastrous storm at sea.

I wrote The Slave Dancer as a never-quite-to-be-freed captive of a white childhood in a dark condition. When I read a foot­ note in a book, the title of which I can’t now recall, that said that slaver crews often kidnapped youthful street musicians and signed them on ships as slave dancers — for such were they called — something consonant with, or peculiar to, my own sense of myself set me on the course of writing my book.

Writing The Slave Dancer was the closest I could get to events of spirit and flesh which cannot help but elude in their reality all who did not experience them. Still, the effort to draw nearer is part of the effort of writing. It is not so different from the effort to understand our own infancies which become fictions because we cannot consciously recall them. Yet a few powerful images maintain their grip on our imaginations for all of our lives. If we are able to invoke even fragments of those images, we can, sometimes, despite formidable differences in circum­stance, rouse them up in others. Little though we may feel we have in common, there is enough for us to take on the truest obligation we have — recognition of the existence of that which is other than ourselves.

Once I read a fairy tale of a poor fisherman who cast his net into the river and caught a genie in a bottle. Having released the genie, the fisherman and his wife wished for all the strange things we are supposed to wish for — worldly power and pos­sessions, and a staggering number of castles. But this couple grew sated and wanted an end to wishing. Then they discovered the price of all that beneficence — the genie would not return to his bottle until they had guessed his true name.

In The Slave Dancer, I have made an effort to call the genie by his name. But the genie is not back in the bottle. Other efforts have been made and will be made. Each time, perhaps, we get a little closer to the fires of that holocaust which have burned for so many centuries, and so begin to put them out.

I am profoundly grateful to all of you for your recognition of my effort.

©1974 by Paula Fox. Given at the meeting of the American Library Association in New York, New York, on July 9, 1974. The Newbery Medal “for the most distinguished contribution to Amer­ican literature for children” was awarded to Paula Fox for The Slave Dancer (Bradbury). From the August 1974 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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