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Alabama Shakespeare Festival Enter for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

James

This week, Don reviews "James" by Percival Everett.

Last year the movie “American Fiction,” based on Everett’s novel “Erasure” was released and now, finally, he is famous, a best-seller. It is somewhat unlikely, since there is nothing escapist or soothing about his work, no “notebook” or people one meets in heaven.

A hard and unforgiving writer, Everett was tough and perversely funny in “Trees,” where the ghost of Emmett Till comes back to Money, Mississippi to kill the murderers’ families. “James,” his thirty-fourth book, a reimagining of “Huckleberry Finn,” is smart, challenging, and as they say before unpleasant news segments, disturbing. Told from the point of view of the slave Jim, we have another look at antebellum Hannibal, Missouri, and it’s worse than we thought.

Life for a slave is much like being perpetually at war, with continuous stress and also humiliation. There’s physical danger from the whip and rape and the threat of lynching, always. Trust no one. White acquaintances will certainly turn on you, but so may deluded or frightened Blacks who have come to think their condition normal. Generally, these enslaved people are the Viet Cong of their time, biding their time.

The only comic relief, if we may call it that, is that James, and almost all other blacks, among themselves, speak perfectly good, standard English; they just don’t want whites to know it. The Sambo, Uncle Remus dialect is for perpetually keeping whites fooled. They understand white folks but cannot risk being known themselves.

Language, whether the whites realize it consciously or not, is power. James has been secretly reading in Judge Thatcher’s study. He can also write some. Reading leads to a freedom of the spirit, but writing is even more magic than that. It leads to the re-creation of the self. In James, a three -inch pencil becomes a magic talisman and a kind of saint’s relic.

For a while, James and Huck, friends, both escaping, go on their Mississippi river trip together. On their raft they survive storms and the always vicious river, including steamboats seemingly determined to crush them. It is almost NEVER calm and peaceful on the raft. Everett then separates them and James moves into a bizarre world where the vagaries and arbitrariness of race are explored. There are blacks passing as white, of course, then James joins a minstrel show—they need a tenor—and is disguised as a white man by wearing blackface.

One theory regarding Twain’s Jim and other characters like Stowe’s Uncle Tom holds that these virtuous, kindly men might be regarded, in religious terms, as “Black saviors,” Jesus figures who redeem the souls of white folk by their suffering. Not THIS James. He knows freedom will require both the power of words AND bloodshed. He declares “I am the angel of death, come to offer sweet justice in the night.”

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.