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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: Celia, A Slave by Melton A. McLaurin

Title: Celia, a Slave 
Author: Melton A. McLaurin 
Genre: Nonfiction- American 
Finished: February 10, 2011 

Rejecting the big man and big event approach many historians adopt when defining any era, Melton A. McLaurin uses the story of a young slave girl accused of murdering her white master in Celia, a Slave to illustrate what he calls the “major issues” of the pre-Civil War period. Melton admits from the start that Celia’s story, in fact, reveals little about slavery as a broad institution. Instead, what he presents is a case study in the “fundamental moral anxiety” produced by slavery, which he feels has been ignored by historians who focus on social or economic aspects of slavery, and therefore need not confront the more intimate moral issues blacks and whites faced daily when participating in an institution that dehumanized one group for the sake of the other. Melton’s task is made all the more difficult by the fact that evidence and sources are scant, and discloses from the start that a lot of his story will be based on assumptions or inferences. Milton states that he will do this with the sensitivity of a storyteller, giving readers a flowing and engaging narrative that avoids what he calls the “dry and dull” history others fall into the trap of (vii, ix-x). That is not to say that McLaurin’s narrative is void any detail of politics and economy. 

Since the book itself, taking place in 1855 Missouri, centers on the continual rape of the slave Celia, then the murder of her master Robert Newsome, and finally Celia’s trial, McLaurin cannot avoid including political facets of slave life and slave status. To inform the reader, McLaurin scatters his book with interesting facts of slave legality such as that slaves were considered property, and as a result masters could not be guilty of rape since a man could hardly “trespass” on his own property (93). In addition, McLaurin very nicely frames the intimate events that make up the focus on the book within a larger national context. Featured very heavily throughout Celia is the tumultuous Nebraska-Kansas Act, which threatened the institution of slavery in bordering Missouri where Celia lived. The political climate of the time, especially one so important to Missouri, demonstrates to the reader just why the murder of a white man by a slave, no matter for what reason, was so intolerable. McLaurin then proceeds to describe ramifications of the Celia case more important to Missouri and the power dynamic of slavery than the more famous Dred Scott case (95). 

McLaurin also finds it essential to illuminate relevant details of the economics of slavery, more specifically the economic value of a slave woman’s reproductive ability, since a judgment in Celia’s favor would have called into question a white master’s sexual control over his slaves (100). It seems McLaurin, despite his intentions, was unable to avoid entirely big names and big events, or politics and economy, but the book is better and more deeply illustrated because he did not avoid including them. McLaurin’s greatest problem is the one he identified in the introduction: the availability of sources. While his sources include a variety of newspapers, census data records, and even Celia’s court case file, what he does not have is the personal documentation that would direct his formulation of some of the more personal thoughts and motivations. Since the intent is to provide an engaging narrative, McLaurin sets for himself the difficult task of providing the emotional depth that his sources cannot provide to him. McLaurin must address questions like: what was Celia thinking, how did she truly feel about her status as concubine, and what really happened the night of the murder? All McLaurin can do to answer these questions is make inferences based on the facts of Celia’s testimony and the cultural setting. In some cases, McLaurin is very successful in providing logical rationales out of minds he has no access to. For example, when the questioning began after the death of Celia’s master, the first person approached was Celia’s secret lover, George. McLaurin supposes that this was so because the inquisiting party already had some knowledge about the secret affair and suspected that George may have been involved. 

McLaurin also makes some unnecessary and weak conjecture. This comes about usually when he is trying to develop some of the deeper emotions involved in the crimes of rape and murder. For instance, McLaurin makes the statement that Celia’s adamant denial of any knowledge about her master’s disappearance points to a lack of remorse (36-38). There are also details missing that would flesh out the trial more. Powell, the man who interrogated Celia, willingly testified that he had to threaten Celia to get her to confess to her crime (84). Therefore, what laws were in place to protect people who confessed under duress? By extension, why were these laws not extended to someone like Celia? Was this too a matter of human rights much like Celia’s right to her own body? In the attempt to create an interesting and novel-like narrative, McLaurin includes many details that are ultimately unimportant to the story itself. An entire paragraph is dedicated to the many ways in which Robert Newsome may have possibly travelled from Virginia into Missouri where he settled his farm, and then later McLaurin discusses the vehicle in which Newsome perhaps travelled in to an adjourning county where he purchased Celia (2, 20). 

The narrative is also broken by McLaurin’s habit of providing multiple guesses and inferences for one instance or action. The story may have flowed better if not for the lengthy paragraphs dotted with multiple usages of words like “maybe” and “perhaps.” It is reasonable that McLaurin must do a great deal of guessing in order to fill in information that he does not have the sources for, but there are times in the book when it is excessive. McLaurin also approaches his featured players from the perspective that each person at some point had to confront their own private “fundamental moral anxiety” over slavery, whether it was Newsome’s daughters turning the other cheek in regards to Celia’s repeated rapes, or the jury that chose to ignore certain parts of Celia’s testimony in order to protect the reputation of a white slave master and friend, and indeed the institution itself. According to McLaurin, as each individual made their choices, each had to face within himself larger questions about the humanity possessed by slaves and the morality of slavery. McLaurin even points out specifically the moment in which some individuals reached this moment of contemplation (28). Certainly not every person involved had a moment of moral questioning, and if they did, not at the moment that McLaurin feels that they did. Nevertheless, McLaurin is correct that the “fundamental moral anxiety” was essential to the institution itself, though perhaps not to every individual, since slavery and slave supporters did have to repeatedly justify themselves to the increasingly louder voice of abolition. Stressed repeatedly in sections on the case backdrop, trial, and verdict that at hand were moral issues of Celia’s basic human rights, and that is why she is an appropriate case study in the morality of slavery. In this way, McLaurin keeps to the purpose of his book.