Saturday, November 10, 2001

The Dark Sun Rises: Slavery and Education in the Antebellum South

Denise Williamson's historical novel, The Dark Sun Rises, takes on the dark period of American history, of slavery in the South. Set in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1830s, this first book in the "Roots of Faith" series chronicles the story of a young African slave, Joseph. The favored manservant of plantation owner Abram Callcott, Joseph has secretly learned how to read, something forbidden for slaves. When Abram's son Brant discovers the secret, he tries to silence Joseph, and nearly kills him.

Abram Callcott practices his Christian faith through benevolent slave management. A member of "The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to Africans," he practices daily prayer and devotions with his slaves, and has converted and trained some Africans to minister to their fellow bondsmen. Yet when Abram learns that Joseph can read, he is challenged to consider how capable Africans really are. He soon takes on the challenge, sending Joseph to school for a year. Through Joseph's experiences at the plantation as well as in Charleston, Abram's eyes are opened even more to understand and recognize Joseph as more than a "boy" house servant.

Contrasted with the benevolent plantation owner, the neighboring Rensler family evokes the stereotypical white, racist, southern slave owners. Teddy Rensler, head of the Parish Patrol (the rural "police" for slaves), shows only excessive cruelty to blacks, who he regards as on the same level as animals. His cruelty goes beyond the imaginable, to include raping a mulatto (mixed-race) woman and plotting murder (to look like suicide) against a Negro man.

Nathan Gilman and his daughter Felicia, visiting from Boston, portray northern Christians, ever concerned for the plight of the slaves and insisting that they be treated as decent human beings. Curiously, it is a southern man--Colonel Rensler, Teddy's uncle--that views religion as man-centered and helpful for the less-enlightened. Yet during this historical period it was in fact the Northerners that embraced new religious ideas, such as Unitarianism, while Southerners, less influenced by commerce and immigrants, retained traditional beliefs.

Yet the story is primarily Joseph's, as he endures great hardship and persecution. Throughout the events of about a year and a half, Joseph yearns for education, and, inevitably, freedom. In Charleston he studies under the historical figure of Daniel Alexander Payne, a free colored man who taught other Africans at his school in Charleston. As the white population understands (and fears), education brings a greater desire for freedom; accordingly Charleston passes laws banning all schools for colored people. The Dark Sun Rises also tells of the many laws restricting Negroes. They must wear a numbered badge and be registered with the city clerk, who requires a complete description of a slave's physical characteristics, even any branding marks. Colored people must obey a strict curfew, and can be detained and arrested for seemingly any cause, as can those helping them escape. Abolitionists caught by the authorities are tarred and feathered.

Through Joseph we see the plight of Charleston slaves, and the abolitionists who help them escape. Since Charleston is a seaport, slaves use the shipping system, rather than the infamous "Underground Railroad," to effect their escape north. At least some of the northern ships, which come down for economic reasons, have captains sympathetic to the slaves' cause. Literacy again plays a role in the cause of freedom. As the slave Luck explains to Joseph, if they know how to read and recognize a ship's name, and read the printed ship schedules, they can find the ship captains who will help them escape.

Abram's son Brant, of the younger generation coming into his plantation inheritance, encounters the many obstacles against the benevolent slave owners. At first easily swayed by Rensler's ideas, he seems inept and unsure of himself. Brant matures during the story, from the wavering boy who cannot wholly agree with either his father or Teddy Rensler, to a competent plantation owner fully convinced of his duties as a benevolent slave master caring for his workers. Along the way he deals with his dislike of slaves, considering other possible occupations to which he might be better suited. Through Brant the author explores the economic and social realities of the time. White southerners without land are dependent on wages from an outside employer, subject to the uncertainties of the economy and at the mercy of another. Land seems a much more secure way to make a living. Brant also observes that Northern employers exploit their poor workers, paying them subsistence wages yet not providing any of their housing, food, clothing or other basic needs, in contrast to the slave system.

The novel's historical situation especially follows the actual events in Charleston from 1834 to 1835, when indeed the Charleston legislature passed a new law to ban the education of slaves. Daniel Payne (1811-1893), who later became a bishop to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founder/president of Wilberforce University, and the first black president of an American college, was forced to close his school.

In this brilliant work of fiction, Denise Williamson brings a heartwarming story about ordinary people, with great attention to the many slaves of the Calcott's Delora Plantation and the slaves of the nearby Rensler plantation. Joseph, Rosa, and so many other characters go through many hardships, yet find faith in God. The Dark Sun Rises shows the great struggle for freedom and education, as well as the struggles of Christian, benevolent Plantation owners against the hatred of a society that would harm even their Negro charges.

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