Tracing one’s lineage starts off with wonder, fueled by intellectual curiosity and the overwhelming desire to belong. But it can result in frustration and grief when the search stops suddenly, as the record of lives dries up. Vacancies exist where generations should be; the only evidence of their existence is you. This is the struggle of the descendants of enslaved people in America.
In the novel “Yonder,” Jabari Asim brilliantly takes horrific details of the Black American experience of slavery and breathes life into them. He adds depth to the nameless monochrome images, offering vivid strokes of color and encouraging readers to commit to a deeper understanding of the lasting impact of being a person held in captivity.
Set on a Southern plantation called, perhaps with a wink, Placid Hall, in 1852, “Yonder” explores the intertwined lives of four enslaved people: William, Cato, Margaret and Pandora. Known as the Stolen, they measure time by harvests rather than ticks of a clock. The chapters alternate between the points of view of each character, allowing readers to hear their voices and understand their thoughts, hopes and fears. It renders them human as they navigate the abuse at the hand of their owner, Randolph “Cannonball” Greene, known as a Thief.
Asim, the author of eight books for adults, including “We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival,” and 11 books for children, among other works, delves into the nuances and complexities of slavery. He explores the emotional and psychological acrobatics the Stolen must go through to transcend the many layers of their subjugation: First as human cargo, then as property — purchased, traded and discarded like spoiled goods, if they are lucky to survive. “It was part of our daily labors to anticipate the moods of the Thieves who oppressed us,” Pandora says. “Often we had but seconds to determine whether they were lonely or sad enough to engage a Stolen in civil conversation, whether we should lend an ear or be as stiff and insensitive as furniture. Whether to step left or right to avoid collision, whether to move past them quickly or remain still so their hands could roam.”
Asim juxtaposes violent savagery with familiar nuisances — pestering flies, smothering heat, the putrid smell of death — emphasizing how the Stolen cope. “The flies landed on the backs of necks, alighted on knuckles, even crawled across eyelids — and still my people worked, either oblivious or amazingly disciplined,” Pandora says.
The characters often wrestle with loving deeply, struggling to fight the feelings of attachment, fearing that if those emotions are revealed, they will be exploited and then forcibly extinguished. Some of them come to believe that human connection is futile because at any moment those alliances can be severed, leaving a profound emptiness that makes them question their very existence: “As soon as we learned to toddle on our own two feet and feel the heaviness of the world, we began to ask ourselves why. Not why we were born but why we were born there,” Cato says.
Amid the bleakness, though, there is resilience, tenderness and community among the Stolen, a thread of spirituality and an upholding of traditions. “Our elders taught us that words were mighty enough to change our condition,” William says. “They whispered seven words into the ears of every Stolen newborn before the child was given a name, seven words carefully chosen for that child alone. After the child learned them he was expected to recite them faithfully each morning and night … unsteady as they seemed, they were often all we had.....Our language, our secret tongue, was our last defense.”
Freedom — life in the yonder — is something the Stolen can barely imagine. “I saw such flights of fancy as a form of weakness,” William says. But eventually William, Cato, Margaret, Pandora and Zander decide to try to escape. Their destination: Canada, a place that Milton imagines as within reach, with Africa just beyond its borders. The final section of the book follows their exodus, a bold and dangerous journey whose outcome remains uncertain until the very last page.
The history of the American enslaved person is customarily presented with little depth, reducing their presence to one of kidnapping, auction, toil and death but rarely touching on the life-shaping moments in between. “Yonder” is a great departure from the typical story of the captured who solely pick cotton while dodging the master’s whip. Asim, a professor at Emerson College and a former editor at The Washington Post, articulates the full humanity of the enslaved, adding dimensions that further reinforce the value of storytelling. His novel is not simply a voyeuristic glimpse into grisly incidences, but rather a nuanced assessment of the psyche, emotional fortitude and physical strength of its characters.
Given the current cultural climate, with people challenging the importance of teaching about slavery within the broader scope of American history, “Yonder” is a well-timed resource. It is not depressing, just beautifully honest — offering hope and empowerment. It is the origin story that many have been deprived of and in some cases didn’t know they needed. It spotlights the voids in their realities by exposing holes and chasms where family and evocations of life experience should be. Despite the agonizing details, learning about them is critical to developing compassion and a deeper understanding of the Black American experience. “Yonder” provides readers with a picture of what it took for an entire population of people to exist here, right now.
Evangeline Lawson is a writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, V-Day and The Progressive.
Originally published in Washington Post Februrary 2022