Fictional History

posted in: Good Reads: Fiction | 0

Juba! by Walter Dean Myers is historical fiction with a strong emphasis on the history.  The title character actually existed.  The events in the book are documented.  Fourteen archival images grace the pages, including map, photo, and engraving; portraits, posters, and original documents.  It’s not so much historical fiction and fictional history.

Documentary evidence of the dancer Juba exists, but large gaps, huge questions, will always exist.  To wit: How did a Negro boy from the Five Points district of New York rise rise so high, so quickly?  What obstacles did he face as an African American, and how did he overcome them?  Who was Sarah, the woman he married?  What was his attitude toward his homeland after traveling to the United Kingdom?  Walter Dean Myers put his novelist’s imagination to work and gave us a plausible accounting of a life that must otherwise remain opaque.

I was interested in Myers’s account of the prejudice inherent in minstrelsy.  I understood that white entertainers “blacked up” to perform Negro music, that they inserted lyrics and actions designed to make fun of blacks and assert their own superiority.  But Myers provides a window into the African American point of view.  When blacks performed they were expected to “coon it up”: act the buffoon.  Myers’s Juba character resents this and refuses to go along.

Here is a scene from the first half of the book:

“’Show your minstrel stuff, Fred.  You’re the best!’
“…Fred wasn’t a first rate dancer but better than the fool I saw on the floor.  He came out reeling and staggering around like he was drunk.  He looked over where Mr. Reeves was sitting and began rolling his eyes.  John Diamond started laughing, and so did Mr. Reeves. The more they laughed, the more Fred clowned it up, even falling to his knees and shaking his shoulders as if her were having a fit or something.
“I felt myself getting madder and madder.”
[Then Juba starts his audition.]
“’Coon it up!  We want to see some minstrels!’ John Diamond yelled out.  I ignored him and kept dancing, but the clapping began to slow down.
“’Coon it up, boy!  This is a colored dance!’ John Diamond again.”

The dramatization of Juba’s resistance is satisfying to read.*

Myers does another interesting thing with his narrative.  He catches Juba exhibiting some reverse racism of his own.  Margaret Moran, a middle-aged Irish American dance instructor, is Juba’s go-to person when he needs help organizing his dance.  The two have several colorful interactions (“’Glory, no!’ Margaret looked at me sidewise.  ‘You already have a mouthful of sour lemons–how could you fit any more in there?’”) before Juba makes his big pitch.  He tells her that the show is going to be “a colored dance performance with some white dancers and singers just around to show it was a mixed group.”  Margaret calls him on his superiority.  Juba protests.  Margaret rebuts: “You were spitting some of the words and swallowing some of them, but you got your teeth together enough to say that [the white dancers] didn’t have to be that good, didn’t you?”  Juba concedes her point.

Ultimately, Juba learns to value the contributions of the white dancers–and be less cocksure of himself.  Myers leaves open the possibility that the real Juba was influenced by Irish dancing as much as African American dancing in the decades to come.  The story’s end catches one by surprise, but, again, Myers just imagines the details in what he knows to have actually happened.


(* I have been watching Will Rogers movies of late.  Sadly, this same tendency is evident in the 1930s, eighty years later.  Black performers are given roles where they are mostly not to be taken seriously.)

Source: Juba! by Walter Dean Myers (2015)

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