Sunday, January 2, 2011

Amos Fortune: Free Man

by Elizabeth Yates,
read by Ray Childs

This book won the Newbery Medal in 1951.  Mistakenly classified as nonfiction, it is really a biographical novel or, more accurately, historical fiction.  Amos Fortune (c. 1710 - 1801) was a real person, but very little is known of his life.

Indeed, in an interview in The Writer in March 1998, author Elizabeth Yates said she was inspired "when I was standing by the stone that marked the grave of Amos Fortune in the old cemetery in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Reading the eloquent though brief words about a man whose life spanned from Africa in 1715 to America in 1801, I wanted to know more, to find the story within those lines."

About all that was available was Fortune's homestead (now private property) and some documents at the Jaffrey Public Library, such as his will (written and signed in 1801), some receipts (for loans, medical services, and purchases, including those that bought the freedom of two wives), two letters of apprenticeship of young men to Amos the tanner, and an unsigned letter of manumission for Amos, written by Ichabod Richardson in 1763.  Yates adds another owner and another wife for Amos, as well as a king father and lame sister in Africa, but there is no evidence for any of these.

This book wasn't thrilling, but it wasn't boring either.  It provided insights into life in colonial New England.  Descriptions of the processes of bark tanning and the vendue of the poor were particularly interesting - the latter was something I'd never heard of before.  The audiobook narrator Ray Childs' bass was perfect for Amos Fortune, but not so good for the female voices.

This book has received a lot of criticism, particularly since the early 1970s, for being racist and/or white-supremacist.  In "A Submission Theology for Black Americans: Religion and Social Action in Prize-Winning Children's Books about the Black Experience in America" (Research in the Teaching of English, May, 1990), Ann M. Trousdale states, "The book is clearly an attempt to pay tribute to a historical character whom Yates found admirable. She portrays Amos Fortune as an honest, respectable, even noble man" (p. 124).  But (pages 126-127):
The problems with Yates' book do not lie with her conscious intent, which surely has been to portray Amos as an admirable, even saintly figure. The problems lie with her perspective, which has been shaped by her own cultural heritage, and with the selective tradition which informed it. An underlying assumption of white supremacy permeates the book in spite of its casting Amos as a noble figure.

In keeping with trends in biographies for children at the time, Yates presents an idealized view of Amos. She also presents an idealized view of slavery. Amos' own owners are model slaveholders; his first owner wants to set Amos free before Amos himself wants to be free. Slavery is presented as a practice that was of ultimate benefit to the Africans who were enslaved; it resulted in their being brought to live in a superior land and to practice a superior religion.

It is Amos' Christianity that has caused him to recognize the benefits of slavery. Christianity also informs the model of social action by which he lives in America. This model reflects some values which are non-racist in tone: honesty, industry, generosity, and loyalty. But Christianity also involves for Amos an attitude of racial submission, acceptance of mistreatment at the hands of white people, and forgiveness of white oppressors. In Yates' book, Amos Fortune is, in essence, the stereotypic "good Negro" - submissive, non-threatening, respectful of white people. The implication that it is God who has shaped Amos' character to be so is added leverage for what is basically a white supremacist view of the appropriate role and attitudes for blacks in American society.

In "Challenging the Pluralism of Our Past: Presentism and the Selective Tradition in Historical Fiction Written for Young People (Research in the Teaching of English, May, 2003), Chandra L. Power cites Amos Fortune: Free Man as an example of readerly presentism, "a reader's perception that a book written in or about the past is, for example, racist or sexist" (p. 426).  While she feels books like Amos Fortune are
seriously flawed, I am not suggesting that they are flawed because the main characters do not resist the hegemony of their day. Rather, they are particularly problematic because they are so often advanced as the accurate and authentic representation of their era, yet they do not present the complexity of their respective eras. Instead, they reify a particular perspective (p. 449).

The crucial issue here is in how these titles continue to be advanced and winners of the prestigious Newbery Award, these books are virtually guaranteed a long shelf life and continual selection by libraries and teachers. Therefore, the cumulative effect of what these critics say about the lack of choices or the lack of alternative voices in any given era serves to deny that there were oppositional voices, voices of resistance, or alternative ways of life, belief, and thought within a given time period (p. 450).

I am not advocating censorship in any form; yet as long as these books continue to be presented as exemplary in major textbooks in the field and continue to be reviewed favorably, they should be presented along with titles that offer a competing perspective on those historical eras to prevent the omission of alternative points of view and the continuation of the selective tradition dismissing an inclusive and pluralistic past (p. 456; emphasis mine).
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a good list of suggested titles to present along with Amos Fortune, Free Man.  While I have not yet read these books, I suspect that suggestions by Sandy D in her review of this book of Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton as alternatives are probably good, while Julius Lester's To Be A Slave, a Newbery Honor Book in 1969, would be another possibility.

In the same 1998 interview mentioned above, Yates tells of a question from a group of fourth-graders:
"Have you ever regretted anything you've written?" came the next question. Again, I sent my mind back over the years and their books. The answer was at hand, and it was No, for I have had a rule with myself that nothing ever leaves my desk unless it is the best I can do at the time with the material I have. Then I go back to Amos Fortune as an example.
The idea that took hold of me as I stood by that stone in the old churchyard and that became the book Amos Fortune, Free Man was written in 1949 and published a year later. All the pertinent, reliable material that I could find went into the book and became the story. It could not be a biography but an account of a man's life, with facts assured and some imaginative forays based on the temper of the times. The research, the writing, was done long before the Civil Rights upheavals of the 60's. I might today write a very different story, but that was then.

It would be quite interesting to read a different version of Amos Fortune's story, written to address the concerns of Trousdale, Power, and others.

© Amanda Pape - 2010


Sandy D. said...

Well, I spent a while contemplating how various modern authors would tell Amos' story - pretty entertaining.

Kohler Clan said...

I found it entertaining and shows readers what it was like during that time