The Bell Rang

Cover of The Bell RangAny time I have heard an African American person speak of learning about slavery as a child, the memory entails some degree of shame. In his memoir Bad Boy, Walter Dean Myers wrote about feeling, as a child looking at his textbook’s shallow treatment of slavery, that somehow those people deserved to be shackled; without a satisfactory explanation, the young mind was left to assume it. While presidents and generals were presented as complex human beings with rich internal lives, the thousands of slaves whose free labor enabled those lives were nameless and cut off from any semblance of humanity. 

Ransome’s The Bell Rang is a corrective meditation on the internal lives of the enslaved. Instead of dwelling on the perspective of the enslavers, this narrative, both in words and in pictures, closes in tightly on the perspective of the enslaved. Their enslavers exist, mostly in the background, as a force in the lives of the enslaved, but they are not the focus; the focus of this story is on the relationships among the people who are enslaved. The narrator is an individual child within a family within a community. That child feels, sees, observes, and reflects. The plantation determines their schedule and routines, but the girl and her family members are the cast of characters; their bonds and choices are the plot; the overseer and master are extras. By centering the enslaved family’s story, their home and their emotional bonds, Ransome plants a seed in young minds that signals the humanity of people whose humanity is often overlooked.

In Ransome's book, the bell rings daily, early, when there is “no sun in the sky.” Mama and Daddy begin their workday gathering wood and cooking for the family. Their faces are tired and expressionless. But when they sit to eat together, they relax a bit and smile at each other as they sit around the hearth. Then they exchange hugs, kisses, and loving touches before separating for the day: Mama, Daddy and brother Ben going out to the fields to work, while the young narrator, a girl, goes with Miss Sarah Mae and the young’uns. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. The same routine. But on Wednesday, when the family members part for the day, brother Ben gives the girl a pretty doll before running to catch up with his friends, Joe and Little Sam.

“Slaves had friends?” my daughter asks.

Well, slaves were people too.

“Did they have recess and play together?” She is being silly, but it opens up a conversation: what did it mean to be a friend in that context?

When it is discovered that the three boys have run away from the plantation, the closeness required to plan to leave their families together makes the magnitude of their friendship clear.

In the boys’ absence, the mood transforms among the family left behind. At breakfast, the girl says, “We’re quiet. I can’t eat.” They think and talk of Ben. “Ben’s touch. We miss him. We hope he’s free like the birds.” Love, too, takes on an added dimension among the enslaved. Love isn’t only holding close; it is also releasing, wishing safety and freedom for loved ones, wherever they are.

What Ransome accomplishes in his painted illustrations is stunning. The silhouettes against the dawn sky on the cover signal the agency that even the children have in this story. Deft brush strokes effectively bring to life a variety of scenes — inside the girl’s home, as well as various locations around the plantation. The varied expressions of the girl’s family members juxtapose tenderness and love with the pain and endurance of their working days. The expanse of sky and land and the use of light and shadow add weight to their survival through oppression. Throughout, the reader is placed at eye level with the girl so that readers experience the days with her. Her pink head wrap keeps her prominent on each spread.

The last two spreads offer a special treat. The family stands in the community setting of Sunday services by the river, where Big Sam “preach of Moses. He preach of being free.” While most of the pictures are fixed at the young narrator’s eye level, this spread shows the community from above, as if to remind the reader that Someone is watching over the group — or that those who have left are never truly gone.

On the final page, the girl stands apart from the other children, clutching her doll and looking at a point in the far distance, in the direction of the reader. “Monday…” -- and on the opposite page, a bird flies toward the upper corner of the final page-turn. Will the girl follow the bird — follow her brother — and fly away to freedom too? The reader is left wondering what happens next.

There are other stories about enslaved people finding freedom. Today’s children may be less likely to have a shameful and humiliating first encounter with the history of slavery than those who grew up in my generation, or before. But very few books accomplish this vital task of representing human beings who, rather than being defined by slavery, are entire human beings who happen to be living as slaves at the time of the story. The precariousness of their status as such — and the tensions caused by their love — make these characters rich and real. The visual aspect of this story generates feelings that stay with you long after you close the book.

Autumn Allen
Autumn Allen

Autumn Allen is an educator, writer, critic and independent scholar of children's and young adult literature. She holds an MA-MFA in children's literature and writing for children from Simmons University, and a master's degree in education from Harvard University. She is the 2020-2021 Writer in Residence at the Boston Public Library.

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Thank you so much for this brilliant and insightful review. The book is beautiful in every way, and vital to helping sort our feelings and understanding about what slavery meant and how it impacted us all.

Posted : Oct 27, 2019 03:55


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