Before I read John Bowe’s book Nobodies: and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy (2007), I had been kicking around the idea that I would someday write a novel that explored the legacy of slavery and its connections to discrimination and racism in the United States. It often had seemed to me that whenever people got into a deep discussion about race, the language and shorthand of antebellum chattel slavery days was always at hand, as if those days were still with us. I had just done an MFA at the Michener Center for Writers’ at the University of Texas, and I was heavily under the influence of the mid-Century modernist novelists who had a populist streak, Ellison, Faulkner, Steinbeck, blues poet Sterling A. Brown.
While at Michener, I had taken an English grad class called “Cultural Tourism, Slavery Museums, and the Modern Neo-Slavery Novel,” in which we read some really terrific books of the latter heretofore unsung genre: Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, Shirley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, among others. From my reading of these books, I gleaned that one of the problems of writing fiction about slavery always seemed to be the difficulty of demonstrating convincingly and artistically that the attitudes and prejudices of our slave past had not disappeared, but merely dressed themselves differently. How could I prove, with a story that the issues raised by slavery were still urgent, still timely? Little did I know.
In Bowe’s book, I read the story of Joyce Grant, a woman who found herself enslaved in Florida in 1992. My eyes practically fell out of my head. I had held the belief, like so many other people, that slavery was dead and gone, certainly in the deep south, and certainly among black people. I intuited a few things about this dangerous knowledge: 1.) Nobody wanted to face this, so I could probably have the subject matter to myself for at least as long as it would take to write a novel; 2 ) People ought to face it; 3.) The parallels between antebellum chattel slavery and modern slavery could not have been more obvious than a black woman enslaved in Florida in 1992. Here was my way to bridge the gap between the present day and slavery of the past that had before seemed elusive.
While I found a lot of nonfiction that dealt with modern slavery in my research, I never came across a novel set in the U.S. that described the debt slavery that had captured Joyce Grant. What a dramatic story it promised to be, though. It had a certain upsettingly human yet operatic quality to it. By 2008, when I started working on my second novel, Delicious Foods, I had all of this in mind when I constructed the story of Darlene Hardison, a community organizer and shopkeeper who falls into a spiral of drug addiction and despair that leads her to the door of Delicious Foods, a shady outfit that indulges in many of the tactics of modern slavers. Except for one or two details from Bowe’s book, I decided I didn’t want to try to tell Joyce Grant’s story, but to construct my own tale, especially once I’d done more research and realized how widespread the problem of modern slavery is. I was only writing about “crackhead crews,” in the agricultural sector in the USA, not international sex trafficking, nor entrapment of Eastern European women in the hotel industry, nor coyotes smuggling Mexican nationals into California. But I wouldn’t have known about the extent of things had it not been for how many of the materials published by Free the Slaves Co-founder Kevin Bales I read: Disposable People, The Slave Next Door, and To Plead Our Own Cause.
Even before I read these books, and the various accounts of people who have been exploited in such terrible ways, I knew that part of the book’s mission should be to raise awareness about these illegal practices. How could no one know? How could I not have known? It began to seem to me that the whole of consumerism was based on people’s desire not to know and companies’ desire to keep a whole range of questionable activities under wraps. When Delicious Foods came out, I knew I would have to support Free the Slaves. I made the decision partially on the recommendation of John Bowe, with whom I’ve had many conversations about slavery. John convinced me that the work Free the Slaves does is important not just because it’s fighting slavery but because of the organization’s comprehensive approach, their mission goes from making actual rescues to lobbying for legislation against slavery.
I don’t think I have the gumption to rescue actual slaves, but I am 100 percent behind anyone who does.
Editor’s Note: Delicious Foods is receiving great reviews, and the official book launch last week in New York–a benefit for Free the Slaves–was a tremendous success. We’re grateful that James has chosen to support our work!