#childsafety | In ‘Yonder,’ Escape From Slavery Comes With a Magical Twist

The final third of “Yonder” is about what happens on the group’s escape attempt. Here, the story morphs, the struggles of daily life replaced with the thrill of the chase, the fear of getting caught, the untangling of who can be trusted and the questions of whether their directions will help the Stolen successfully avoid slave catchers. In this journey, the unexpected happens, promises are broken and hearts are shattered, but the determination to get yonder, and the belief that they are running to a better place, never wavers. And the Stolen are not completely on their own. Whether it’s the sudden gentling of a spooked horse, the appearance of advice-giving apparitions, tales of the mythic hero Swing Low or the revelation of a magical people hidden in plain sight, mysterious and otherworldly interventions seem to give the disadvantaged Stolen unexpected help in their quest for freedom.

Jabari Asim is an artist and a professor who has written across a wide range of genres: poetry, nonfiction, fiction and children’s literature. “Yonder” sits within a rich oeuvre of historical fiction that centers the lives of enslaved people, situating their experience in the context of American history. The novel’s explorations of love and survival, blended with its examination of violence and servitude, call to mind Alex Haley’s “Roots” and, more recently, Robert Jones Jr.’sThe Prophets.” The book’s depiction of the myriad ways enslaved people sought to cope with their harsh treatment on the plantation is evocative of Sadeqa Johnson’s “Yellow Wife.” And the novel’s use of magical realism is similar to Rita Woods’s “Remembrance” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Water Dancer.”

What sets Asim’s book apart is the way “Yonder” portrays the spiritual resilience of enslaved people. A central question of the novel is: What level of hope can one attain in Black skin, in a Black body, when Black people are deprived of the right to determine their own lives? William, for instance, is reluctant to have children because his seed, his person and the work of his hands are all property of a Thief. There’s no guarantee that he will be able to protect any of his offspring. Pandora also notes the lack of agency for the Stolen. “What moved Thieves most was the cold fact of our vulnerability: Our men couldn’t protect us. Nor could we protect ourselves.”

Still, the Stolen hold onto their humanity. Asim showcases their capacity to dream and seek out faithful commitments in a system of constant change. Black love existed in defiance of massa’s thoughts on Black sexuality and in opposition to the daily horrors of slavery, which included the stealing of limbs, lives and children. Though I was at times unsure of the sexually aggressive stance many of the Stolen women in the novel exhibit while selecting their partners, initiating or demanding satisfaction, Asim never strays to the horrid trope of the hypersexualized Black woman. I believe his portrayal offers agency to these enslaved women, giving them the often-denied ability to choose when and with whom to be intimate. With his handling of Black love, showing how it existed amid the worst circumstances, tender and memorable, Asim delivers a fresh, sweeping, must-read tale.

None of us — Black or white or young or old — know what’s over yonder or if we’ll make the journey to reach it. In all those years, my mother never let my brothers travel with my uncle on his watermelon hauls. Today, I realize her reluctance was because of her unstated fears about what her young might face. Dread consumed her, this mother of three boys who, by luck, were not Emmett Till, Michael Griffith or Yusuf Hawkins. It didn’t matter that my uncles were savvy men, that my family was middle class — we were still Black and therefore considered a danger by those who never saw us as free. Safety was not certain. But “Yonder” shows that dreams and Black love have always been tools of survival in the quest to reach that better place just out of reach.

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