In my young adult novel Melitte, I did not let readers know that she was a slave until the third chapter. I wanted them first to identify with the soft-spoken, intelligent narrator.
Readers first learn that Melitte is running away with her sister, that the Chaouachas men are hiding them from the Louisiana Frenchmen, that the girls are at a crossroad and that they must separate.
Only when the narrator realizes that her skin color portends her status are readers introduced to the concept of slavery. Then, they enter a world that adults created where one child can be sold and the other protected.
I expect young adult readers to feel just as Melitte and her white, half-sister Marie did. When the Chaouachas aid Melitte’s escape, but return her sister to their white father, readers feel sad.
So the book is a loss of innocence story with race at its center.
The readers’ loss of innocence is recognizing slavery and the roles played by every echelon of American society. It is my challenge as a black writer to capture the feelings of racism without frightening, pacifying or fooling the audience.
Let me show you some elements of this process.
It begins with self-censorship. I have to choose from a repertoire of American degradations of people of African descent. I have to be true to this history of black experiences in America and yet not scare or discourage children. So, I must find examples of heroism and heroic spirits. In adult writing, one can emphasize the many people who were damaged and lost. I wouldn’t do that too blatantly with children.
Luckily, the survivalist spirit that emerged from American struggle in such tangible ways is a joy to describe. Melitte begins to sing the escape songs disguised as Christian music that she hears on the plantations. She creates a language in sewing, remembered from her mother and reflected in her environment. She recognizes, even in her isolation on a small farm, the warmth of animals to their young, and extends it to the baby who is born and placed in her care.
She finds out the child is her half-sister. I choose to write about race this way so children today will not be fooled. They must know that race is socially constructed. Especially, in the melting pot of the United States—as DNA evidence recently has shown—many of our people are genetically related. Color as a link to “purity” is even more fallacious in Louisiana, my home state. So children must know, as adults do, that race is not a given and racism is a choice.
I wrote this essay on race thinking about Katrina. I saw the dark skinned people of my hometown left on the highways and in the Superdome, as we all did, without even recognition from the government. It was the history of my state reenacted swiftly before my eyes. The darker and poorer the human being, the more rationales emerged for their disconnection from mainstream America. Children must understand that one important, working definition of race is the method of deciding who is left out.
In Melitte, which was translated also into German as Melinde, the two girls discover late in the book that they have the same father. He is a man down on his luck with a shrew of a wife. They need money. He decides to sell Melitte for their benefit.
The girls alone decide that it is better for Melitte to run away and leave her half-sister—the only person she loves—rather than to become the sacrifice. The girls are heartbroken, but they vow one day to meet again.
When I speak to audiences of young readers—almost uniformly white or black since they attend schools that still are overwhelmingly segregated in this country—they often ask me to write a sequel to the book. I ask the children, what do you want to happen? Each time, they shout, bring the sisters together again.
I tell them I can’t write an ending they have already imagined.
Perhaps they can take the next step in real life if I have written with care for their sense of hope, honesty to my knowledge of racism, and sensitivity to my own experiences.