When I began writing The Freedom Maze, back in 1987, I didn’t intend to write a book about race. I intended to write a book about time travel and a shy, bookish girl who learned that adventures are very different to read about than to live. I set it in Louisiana because I like Louisiana and have spent a certain amount of time down there when I was a child, visiting my mother’s family. I sent my heroine back to 1860 because I’m interested in societies on the edge of war, and not so much in war itself.
Of course, that meant that I had to deal with slavery, which is an even bigger can of worms than the Civil War, but writing a novel is like that sometimes. One decision about setting or plot can lead you into places you never thought you’d go. Political places. Dangerous places. Places that make you face things that are hard to tackle. Like the history of race in America, and how the ghost of slavery still haunts our laws and customs and daily lives. Like how otherwise kind and thoughtful men and women can believe that certain classes and kinds of human beings are not as sensitive, intelligent, hardworking, worthy, human as they are themselves. Like what it must have been like to live every day knowing that you were property, barred by law from resting when you were tired, going where you wanted to go, complaining when you were unfairly treated—in some cases, from living with your own family.
Ideally, I would have liked to talk to people who had experienced both sides of this issue, but there is no one left alive who remembers at first hand what it was like to be a slave (or a slave-owner) in the old South. There are, however, plenty of records and lists and letters and memoirs and reminiscences written by both slave-holders and slaves, many of them published in easily-accessible books, many more lurking in libraries and manuscripts and files of yellowing newsprint. In one of these files, among a handful of advertisements for runaway slaves, I found a notice about a young woman. “Blond and blue-eyed,” it read. “Could pass as white.”
Could pass as white.
Because, of course, she was, to look at. Because slavery had as much to do with money and class and fear of difference as it did with skin color.
I have long believed that racism, prejudice and oppression have their roots in class, in history, and most poisonously, in fear of difference. What I tried to do in The Freedom Maze was to demystify that difference, to make the experiences of one group emotionally accessible to everybody, to show what happens when human beings are focused on “us” and “them” rather than on everybody—not to erase differences, but to look beneath them to our common humanity.
Oh, and tell a good and exciting story.
[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/120811deliasherman.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Delia Sherman writes stories and novels for younger readers and adults. Her most recent short stories have appeared in the young adult anthology Steampunk! and in Ellen Datlow’s Naked City. Two novels for younger readers, Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, are set in the magical world of New York Between. The Freedom Maze is a time-travel historical about ante-bellum Louisiana. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching, editing, knitting, and cooking. When not on the road (one of her favorite places to be), she lives in a rambling apartment in New York City with partner Ellen Kushner and far too many pieces of paper.[/author_info] [/author]