Portraying Enslaved Characters

When Annabelle Manning’s voice arrived in my head to tell her story, like any living person she had a history. It came with her, part and parcel, impossible to separate, alter, or wish away. In the days when I could not fathom how to write this history, I despaired it as much as I despaired the dark days of slavery in America. Why, oh why, did anyone have to live through that? Its realities of harm and degradation baffle the mind and spirit, regardless of the era into which you were born. 

In history, I like to believe that for every privileged person who enslaved others, there was another who abhorred the practice. An important tension in stories is how a character fits, or clashes against, their situation and environment. With this fascination alive in my mind, I guess it’s no wonder that Annabelle’s circumstances straddle the extremes of the divide on slavery. With her time divided between her father’s plantation in the South and her mother’s family in the North, I have been able to explore the tension between what we believe in and how culture can force us to live. 

In other words, even in her earliest years, Annabelle is aware that something is wrong about her relationship to the household slaves who tend to her physical, and even emotional, needs. But they have been in her life from its beginning: especially with Lucey cooking daily sustenance and Cecie doing all the tasks of raising her, entertaining her, soothing her. Annabelle loves them dearly. All this I knew from the outset of writing this series, but it wasn’t enough to propel me through the story of the first book, Our Sealed Letters. 

So I set about getting to know the enslaved people who worked in the household: Lucey, Cecie, Lou, Clarence, Jenny, and Monty. I identified their likes, dislikes, roles, hopes, fears, and inner and outer conflicts, to find they could come alive in scenes. As I wrote, they started saying and doing things that surprised me and contributed to the development of the plot. While their circumstances were limited, and their roles determined by virtue of being owned, I was encouraged to see that they were lifting off the page—beyond tropes and stereotypes. They earned my affection just as a real person might, just as I hoped they would earn affection from readers. But this was only the beginning of the effort to portray enslaved characters.

What got really interesting was when I started to see how the imbalance of power was showing up in the story. It is omnipresent and abides in almost every interaction between the household slaves and Annabelle or her mother, Evelyn. Sometimes it’s subtle, like when Cecie can’t forgive Annabelle because it’s not her place to hold a grudge. Other times, it’s so overt it’s infuriating, like Annabelle’s assumption that Cecie would always “be there for her”—as if Cecie was choosing that role? Yet, at the same time, their affection for each other is real. Sigh. It’s complicated, but that tension really intrigued me and engrossed me in deeper layers of the story. 

Yes, the influences of activism and abolitionism that the white women characters absorb during summers in Rochester, New York remain on their minds, in their hearts, and shape their choices as they winter on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. But Evelyn and Annabelle are legally entitled to treat the enslaved characters any way they wish, they are not legally entitled to teach them to read, write, or educate them in any way. Doing so comes at the risk of expensive fines and long imprisonment. But to Evelyn, this is worth the risk. Given this dynamic, I began wondering just what the Black characters would do with their educations, what social forces (including Annabelle’s assumptions and biases) might seek to alter their course, and how their individual personalities would respond. This provided me with terrific plot inspirations.   

What is perhaps the most important aspect of portraying the enslaved characters came to me relatively late in the writing process. Black culture and arts are more and more boosted into national attention, but sadly still not nearly enough. In all my research into Hilton Head Island in the mid 1800s, the absolutely vibrant and still-living Black culture there eluded me. I had no idea that enslaved people on plantations had created unique expressive arts like basket weaving, quilting, music, language, and worship until I hired a sensitivity reader who is from South Carolina. In her manuscript comments, Savannah Frierson wrote one word that revealed a new level to Lucey, Cecie, Lou, Clarence, Jenny, and Monty: “Gullah.” This opened up everything to me; at last the characters could express who they were in ways that transcended, incorporated, resisted, and coped with slavery. Gullah culture was a key to unlocking the enslaved characters in my own privileged, white mind—and it also helps unlock the futures of all the enslaved characters along with Annabelle’s future too. 

It turns out that in order to do justice to enslaved characters, I needed to embrace the complexity that originally overwhelmed me. One bit of research leads to the next, one revision pass leads to another, and curiosity meets resources like Savannah Frierson who open doors. I am excited to continue exploring their personalities, development, and growth as the series progresses. I hope you will be too.

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