Thursday, September 10, 2009

Susan Straight: A Million Nightingales

I'm not sure if Susan Straight intentionally channeled Toni Morrison, or if all books about slavery in the first person are destined to recall Morrison. Straight's main character, Moinette, has a moving voice, especially as she ages and becomes more self-aware, though she sometimes seems a little too self-aware and poised, and educated, given her personal history. This reading of Moinette makes me question my biases- who says slaves can't know themselves, and be aware of the crazy ritual of slavery? Was Moinette, the character, just an omniscient narrator? Or was she a portrait of a possible real person- an observant "mulatresse" slave, who really grew to understood what was happening? And why not? This is not a common character in fiction- the slave who "gets it" about the evil system- and I'm guessing I'm not alone in my biases, because we all read the same books. Moinette started to understand that her light skin was a pro and a con- she was desirable for her "passages." She knew that her understanding of life could be used for her benefit and that she often had to hide it- sometimes she needed to work in the cane. She branded herself, because she wanted to "belong to no one."

In most fiction about slavery, only the paternalistic white Northerners could have the "sense" to need to free the slaves, along with a few fiery blacks. There aren't many characters to look at that are "in the system" but also see it for what it is. This is a powerful part of Straight's book. Moinette and co. are romantic, romanticized figures, but they also force the reader to look further, and a slave who played along, while playing against. Moinette buys and sells slaves but explains the system to them. I'm sure this fictitious, complicated, knowledgable character wasn't alone.