By Denise Clay
ABOVE PHOTO: FULLER (c) with sons David Ira (l) and Charles Jr. (r)
(Photo by Bill Z. Foster)
Imagine that you are a Black kid in the Five Points neighborhood in Old New York prior to the Civil War, a Black kid in a free state.
You’re hanging out and playing with your brother, watching people bet on rat fights and other shenanigans, when the two of you find out that there’s this band of slavecatchers preying on free black kids like you and that a dude named Snatch, himself a former slave, is helping the slavecatchers take them back to a life of harsh enforced servitude in the South.
The story of how these two brothers, David and Charles, handle this news and try to help a runaway slave named Freddie (and themselves) avoid the slavecatchers is the premise of the new book by Charles Fuller, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Soldier’s Play” and its Academy Award-nominated cousin A Soldier’s Story.
The book is the fulfillment of a promise Fuller made to his sons, David and Charles, 40 years ago and provides a kid-friendly look into a part of history that goes largely unnoticed when talking about the Civil War era: how Blacks lived in the antebellum North.
In this interview, I talk with Fuller about his new book, why he thinks it’ll sell without the help of Amazon.com, and what freedom really means in 2010.
(And before you ask, I’m not going to tell you what African American historical figure Freddie, the runaway slave that David and Charles save in “Snatch,” turns out to be. You’ll just have to go out and buy it yourself.)
SUN: Tell us a little bit about this book. I understand that it’s the fulfillment of a promise to your sons.
CF: I had the idea 40 years ago of doing a story that would put two kids in the middle of history. I wanted it to take place in the time that it does, but I had to figure out where this African American hero was during that time, what he was doing and where to put kids in that story. I think that “Snatch” was the perfect way to do that.
SUN: I noticed the bibliography attached to the book. Did you have to do a lot of research for “Snatch” or was it based on research you had already done?
CF: I had been reading about the antebellum North. But not a lot of scholars have been examining history in that way. There’s more attention paid to the slave states. But the study of the Northern states is beginning to grow. People don’t connect the North to slavery except by extension through the abolitionist movement, which was designed to break the back of slavery. I wanted to show just how terrible slavery was.
SUN: Don’t most people know just how terrible it was?
CF: I don’t think that people really know. Kids were being kidnapped on the streets and taken to the South to be slaves. The idea of slavery is important to us. You can’t imagine how terrible it must be to know that your child has been kidnapped and taken away. The closest thing that we have to relate to it is when an Amber Alert is issued because a child is missing.
SUN: This book seems like something that you might see in a school library. Is that where you’re hoping it ends up?
CF: I’ve geared this book toward young readers. It gives them something that they don’t normally get and they can use the bibliography and footnotes to learn a lot of things that they may not have known. There is a teacher’s guide that is connected to the book . It meets all of the core state standards and once the students read the book, the guide can be used to help teach the students a variety of things.
This is not a fairy tale. This is real and it is a way of teaching students history. History used to be about remembering dates and not about anything else. Over time, what difference does this make? With this book, young readers can see the world of these kids. They can see Old New York. We’re trying to get into every school district nationally and in Philadelphia.
SUN: Your book is about kids in a free state. In fact, most of your work seems to feature people who are living lives that would indicate they understand the concept of true freedom.
CF: Free people act in certain ways. Anybody that talks about freedom in a way that means you can kill someone or hurt someone isn’t making any sense. If you’re a free person, you’re allowed to be what you want to be.
SUN: Was writing this book more of a challenge than writing a play?
CF: It took 40 years to write this so yes, it was more of a challenge. I have always liked prose and have always wanted to be a novelist, but circumstances changed my direction.
SUN: What did the two young readers you wrote this for, your sons David and Charles, think of “Snatch?”
CF: They liked it. They also said, ‘Well, it took you long enough!”
SUN: What’s next for you?
CF: I’m going to write two more volumes. We have to unmask Snatch and let people know who he is.
If you would like to get a copy of Snatch: The Adventures of David and Me in Old New York, go to www.davidandmeinNYC.com.