*‘Hope’ may not be not the first thing that comes to mind when discussing slavery, but once we break it down into the definition, “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen”, then we can begin to see how every story told through the lens of slavery is a tale of hope, and a recorded example of a person or family’s single-minded will to survive to see better times.
After the emergence of Alex Haley’s Roots, many Black families dug deep in search of their own lost family trees. Author Jean Perry’s family was no different, and she was all ears to the stories that were unearthed. By sitting and listening to the stories told by her elders, Perry was able to craft a retelling of her grandfather’s history as an enslaved person who ended up serving as a valet to the plantation owner’s son.
“Mozay of Pepperwick” is a quick but fulfilling read, appropriate for middle school students but easily enjoyed by readers of all ages. It is not only a homage to Perry’s family history, but also contains many historically accurate accounts as well as characters who existed in real life. “My grandfather, Mose Perry, was a slave in South Carolina, and was assigned as a valet and companion to the plantation owner’s son. Because he was in that position, he was given seven years of education. During lessons, my grandfather often knew the answer when the planter’s son didn’t, but he was not allowed to raise his hand. Once I heard that story, my imagination just took off,” Perry relates.
Readers will be interested to note that Perry originally created many of the African parables found within the story, which serve as metaphoric and sometimes metaphysical plot points throughout Mozay’s journey. Her original pieces add an additional layer of authenticity to her historical fiction, but her writing remains approachable, making it a classic read that is an easy first pick for instructors looking for books on the topic.
However, based in history he may be, Mozay of Pepperwick nonetheless takes on a life and personality of his own. His desire for a chance to truly shine takes him on a journey full of character growth and hard lessons, but no matter what life throws at him, Mozay perseveres towards his goal of freedom, never wavering in his ability to be kind and think positively.
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Perseverance and staying positive are the two main themes woven throughout Mozay’s story, that author Jean Perry would most like young readers to take away. Perry manages to convey an unwavering belief in better and brighter days, without tempering too many of the true to history facts that form her historical fiction tale.
“You might fail, whether it’s a subject you’re taking in school, or perhaps a lack of parenting at home, or maybe you’re being bullied. You have to figure out how to light that light inside of you.. You have to do that. And that’s something you have to do all throughout school,” says Perry.
Mozay stands as an approachable introduction to the discussion of slavery for young readers new to the subject, and provides many opportunities for broader discussion.
“I do feel children deserve a certain amount of protection, and calmness, especially in childhood,” Perry says, “I felt that the book could be enjoyed by people of all ages, but I purposely took the positive route. If, at 9, you’re introduced to Mozay of Pepperwick, and you’re introduced to things through his eyes… he does suffer. But I didn’t want it to be overwhelmingly horrific. I feel that there is plenty of time for children to be horrified. But when we first introduce slavery, let us introduce it in a way that they can take away perseverance, making connections, finding a way out of a tough situation.”
Mozay certainly stands out as a unique character, one that teaches readers the importance of remaining centered in your personhood and your goals, even in the face of unspeakable difficulties. Despite the many hard challenges he faces, he continues to question his surroundings and commits himself to his ultimate desire: freedom.
In even these modern times, many Black Americans can point to situations in which they feel unseen, or robbed of their ability to rise above their whiter peers. I believe that these stories continue to be written, and their value continues to be felt, due to the nature of the Black American experience being one of very slow forward momentum. A constant state of two steps forward, one step back, in which Black people are rarely, if ever, recognized and protected in the ways in which all people deserve.
The mentality of Black Americans, therefore, is an essentially unchanged one since our first arrival here as enslaved people. Black people learned, and subsequently taught younger generations, the importance of perseverance.
Perry says, “When you think of what we as a people were exposed to in slavery, there was no one. There was no psychologist there to help you, there were no ministers; the church services were held out in the field, at night, or whenever you could. You couldn’t complain, there was no one to take a complaint. There you were, stuck with the frustration of that mistreatment, and it’s just internalized. So, how to stay positive? Learning how to look for positive things, that can keep you moving.”
Comparing today’s climate with the one Perry describes in her novel, you can draw quite a few parallels. Even today, there is rampant medical racism, and a minority of Black healthcare providers; there is ongoing police brutality, with rare ramifications for those who perpetrate the violence; there is, above all, frustration. Perhaps more than any other year, 2020 can be described as one of deep frustration, anger, and pain for many Black Americans. Still, we find joy. Still, we find ways to persevere, and live on to dream another day.
Mozay of Pepperwick stands as a story that asks a question: what is our story, but one of hope?
This story was written by: Michelle Walker