There are two ways in which human beings may sink to the depths of victimhood and total destruction. The first is involuntarily, when we fall prey to others that
society holds in higher power, through no wrongdoing of our own. The second is voluntarily, (though we live in denial that it is so), when we allow ourselves
to become prey to those of low moral character because our own sense of self-identity and esteem is undeveloped or has been compromised. This gripping
1902 novel by the Black-American author, Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of two former slaves, tells a heartrending tale of both kinds of victimhood.
The story begins in the South. The Civil War has freed the slaves, and Berry Hamilton chooses not to move up North. He gets a job as a servant for Maurice Oakley. As Oakley moves up in the world, so does Berry, living in a nice cottage near the main house. He takes the housekeeper, Fannie, as his wife and they have two children, Joe and Kit. They are considered well-off for Southern Negroes and some of the locals find them a bit snobbish. Joe, now age eighteen, has trained as a barber, but won't shave the heads of black folk. Fannie prides herself in clothing sixteen-year-old Kit in the prettiest dresses. Life is very good for the Hamiltons. They serve the Oakleys loyally, honestly, and joyfully for thirty years.
Then disaster strikes.
A going-away party is given for Maurice's loser brother, Frank, whom Maurice supports and dotes upon. He is
going to Paris to study art, and on the night of his party, discovers that his money has been stolen. Because Berry was the one with access to his room, and
because Berry is a Negro and former slave, he is naturally the one accused of the theft. The fact that he has faithfully served the Oakleys for all these
years with the highest sense of morals and ethics suddenly becomes irrelevant. The detective discovers that Berry has made a large deposit to his bank
account. Despite Berry explaining that he has been saving this money for a long time, and upon his wife's constant urging, finally decided to put it in the
bank, it becomes the main evidence for his conviction.
We know that Berry did not steal the money, but nevertheless, he is sentenced to ten years hard labor. To make matters worse, even the black community now ostracizes Fannie and the children. Joe loses his barber job, and the barbers who serve Blacks won't hire him because of his former attitude. The Oakleys evict them from their little cottage. They become victims of those in power, though they have done no wrong.
They decide to move to New York City. There, through naivety, weakness, and inability to trust their deeper judgment, they become voluntary victims of the Big City. Lured by its vices and their need to fit in, they turn their backs on Berry and their painful past and make all the wrong life choices. Their downward spiral of self-destruction has begun.
But as they say, what goes around comes around, and the truth has a way of making itself known, sometimes through the most unexpected circumstances.
And it certainly does make itself known here, though the results may not be what we expected or desired.
This is really a great story, and you won't be able to put it down until it's finished. Dunbar has a direct manner of writing; he doesn't decorate his sentences with fancy language, so his message is easily accessible. It would make an excellent teaching tool for ethical and social issues for even younger children
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