Slaves of New York

A historical novel explores colonial hypocrisy and a slave revolt

New York has forgotten much of its slave-holding past, but recent years have brought the issue back to the forefront. Saved from encroaching office towers, the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan will soon become a memorial to the slaves interred there, while corporations like J.P. Morgan are finally acknowledging just how much they profited from the slave trade.

Mat Johnson's historical novel,The Great Negro Plot, continues the work of remembrance by shedding light on the 1741 slave revolt, during which blacks attempted to burn down the city. The alleged conspirators were caught after setting several fires and tried in a predictably hostile court that also convicted a bevy of innocent whites and blacks. As was the case after September 11, the attack left New Yorkers feeling deeply vulnerable, painfully aware that the illusion of security would take but a moment to shatter.

Focusing largely on the trial of the slaves held responsible, the novel is a paean to "[t]he ones that chose meaningful death over the chattel of life." A brazen act of martyrdom that had little chance of success, the revolt became a pretext for massive repression against an already beleaguered race. The ensuing investigation, fueled by "[f]ire and fear," cast an ever-widening net, coercing evidence in a manner eerily reminiscent of President Bush's tactics at Guantanamo. Johnson closely identifies with the conspirators' cause, deploying firsthand accounts of their trial to reveal the multiple hypocrisies of colonial New York, whose sense of justice recalls the cotton-picking South.

But while Johnson is highly attuned to the suffering of his ancestors, and the desperate measures they would take to alleviate it, The Great Negro Plot reads too much like a historical report instead of the riveting drama it could've been. After the action of the initial chapters, the novel devolves into a lengthy court deposition which, though illuminating in its depiction of a society that cares little for black souls, plods along with the gusto of an uninspired Court TV program. Nor does Johnson help matters with his freewheeling use of cliché, deeming slave owners "crazy white folks" who regard their slaves as "black-skinned blackhearts." This is unfortunate, because the slave revolt of 1741 reminds our country of lessons it hasn't yet fully grasped.

 
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