Review: Juba! by Walter Dean Myers

Juba! by Walter Dean Myers

In New York Times bestselling author Walter Dean Myers’s last novel, he delivers a gripping story based on the life of a real dancer known as Master Juba, who lived in the nineteenth century.

This engaging historical novel is based on the true story of the meteoric rise of an immensely talented young black dancer, William Henry Lane, who influenced today’s tap, jazz, and step dancing. With meticulous and intensive research, Walter Dean Myers has brought to life Juba’s story. — [X]

I came across  Juba! by Walter Dean Myers completely by accident and by the time I came to a decision, someone had already snatched up the last copy. Still, it stayed in my head, I knew I had to read this one, so I bought myself an e-copy, and raced through it. As the Goodreads synopsis says, this is Walter Dean Myers’ last book and the first of his books I’ve ever read. I’m not convinced that this was the best starting point for Myers’ work, but it does give me a taste for his writing, and it certainly makes me want to pick up more books by him.

Juba! is the semi-historical, semi-fictional account of a young black dancer in the nineteenth century. Walter Dean Myers modelled his character Juba after the real Master Juba–or William Henry Lane off-stage–as closely as he could, but he also enriched the life of his character with a very interesting and complex cast of supporting characters. As if to balance out these creative liberties, we also have photographs and maps weaved into the narrative. The result is a very convincing, nearly tactile tapestry of what New York City and London were like in the early to mid-1800s, especially for a black boy who is free in one American state but could easily be sold into slavery in another.

Of course, when being free is more or less defined as “not being a slave”, Lane realizes that his skin dictates a lot of what he is not, in fact, free to do i.e. be himself:

It was as if a lot of white people had a place in their heads for black people, and you had to fit in that place in a certain manner or they didn’t want you. They wanted black performers to talk bad, say stupid things, and be like pets. Jack said a lot of white people were afraid of real black people. — (122-3)

He is not free to interact with Irish immigrants should they be startled by his appearance, he is not free to sell smoked oysters with his landlord and guardian because his skin isn’t as light as his friend Stubby’s, he isn’t free to dance without being forced to fit hideously offensive African stereotypes, and he isn’t free to dance unless he has the support and/or meets the approval of a variety of white people–be it his guardian, his unofficial teacher, his agent, the man who leads the dance/minstrel troop that Lane eventually joins, and perhaps, most strikingly, Charles Dickens who wrote about Juba and his dancing. It seems like even when Lane leaves America to follow his dreams to London, he belongs to a white culture that keeps him from himself; he is introduced as Boz*’s Juba.

In a way, not much has changed–even today, black bodies are acceptable entertainment if they cater to a white audience**. I almost imagine Myers smiling bitterly as he writes the words:

I don’t know why people in New York City have to give so many speeches about how they want to change things. This is 1842, and if things haven’t changed by now, they’re not going to change. — (2)

Aside from Lane’s own struggles, however, we get glimpses of the kind of strife that black men and women face, the harsh realities they must face with every choice they make or every choice that is made for them. The hardest parts to read weren’t the bits that revealed these realities, but understanding how easily they are are ignored by some, how difficult it is to turn your eyes away (and yet how crucial it is to do so for the sake of your own survival), and how it simply isn’t possible to save everyone–no matter how deserving they may be. In this way, the story is unrelentingly about Master Juba. Which, perhaps, is as hopeful a narrative as Myers can offer for us for this tragic but talented historical figure. It is no spoiler to say that Juba dies young and there Myers’ story ends, but Juba’s influence on dance and rhythm is undeniably immortal. The fact that this is a side of history that people do not discuss much, that–like in all avenues of history–non-white people are erased away, makes Myers’ Juba! an important read. Recommended.

*Dickens’ pseudonym.

**Which only makes me love Beyoncé’s latest album even more. It certainly makes me love her super-bowl performance more, and um, excuse me while I weep over her performance of “Freedom” at the BET awards. She is the real-life Mockingjay, fight me.

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