Sherley A. Williams’ highly acclaimed historical novel details two women’s fierce strength of will and an unlikely bond despite racial barriers in the pre-civil war south
“Having this treasure of a book available again for new and more readers is not only necessary, it is imperative.”—Toni Morrison
In 1829, in Kentucky, a pregnant black woman helped lead an uprising of a group of slaves headed to the market for sale. She was sentenced to death, but her hanging was delayed until after the birth of her baby. In North Carolina in 1830, a white woman living on an isolated farm was reported to have given sanctuary to runaway slaves. In Dessa Rose, Sherley A. Williams asks the question: “What if these two women met?”
From there the story unfolds: two strong women, one black, one white, form a forbidden and ambivalent alliance; a bold scheme is hatched to win freedom; trust is slowly extended and cautiously accepted as the two women unite and discover greater strength together than alone. United by fate but divided by prejudice, these two women are locked in a thrilling battle for freedom, sisterhood, friendship, and love.
About the Author
Sherley Anne Williams (1944-1999) was a novelist, literary critic, an award-winning poet, and the author of short stories and several works for children. Williams's first collection of poetry, The Peacock Poems, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Her first work for children, Working Cotton, was a Caldecott Honor recipient. Williams was a longtime professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego.
Read an Excerpt
The Hughes Farm
Marengo County, Alabama
June 19, 1847
"Was I white, I might woulda fainted when Emmalina told me Masa done gone upside Kaine head, nelly bout kilt him iff'n he wa'n't dead already. Fainted and not come to myself till it was ova; least ways all of it that could git ova. I guess when you faints, you be out the world. That how Kaine say it be. Say that how Mist's act up at the House when Masa or jes any lil thang don't be goin to suit her. Faint, else cry and have em all, Aunt Lefonia, Childer, and the rest comin, runnin and fannin and car'in on, askin, what wrong? who done it? Kaine hear em from the garden and he say he be laughin fit to split his side and diggin, diggin and laughin to hear how one lil sickly white woman turn a House that big upside down."
The darky had sat on the floor of the root cellar, barely visible in its shadow. Occasionally her head moved toward the block of light from the open door or her chains rattled in the darkness. There had been nothing in the darky's halting speech and hesitant manner to suggest the slave revolt leader she was convicted of being. Held spellbound by that very discrepancy, Adam Nehemiah had leaned forward from his perch on the cellar steps the better to hear the quiet rasp of her voice. He hadn't caught every word; often he had puzzled overlong at some unfamiliar idiom or phrase, now and then losing the tale in the welter of names the darky called. Or he had sat fascinated, forgetting to write. Yet the scene was vivid in his mind as he deciphered the darky's account from his hastily scratched notes and he reconstructed it in his journal as though he remembered it word forword.
"...I work the field and neva goes round the House, neitha House niggas, cept only Aunt Lefonia. Kaine, when me and him git close and see us want be closer, he try to git me up to the House, ask Aunt Lefonia if she see what she can do, talk to Mist's maybe. But Aunt Lefonia say I too light for Mist's and not light enough for Masa. Mist's ascared Masa gon be likin the high-colored gals same as he did fo they was married so she don't 'low nothin but dark uns up to the House, else ones too old for Masa to be beddin. So I stays in the field like I been.
"Kaine don't like it when Aunt Lefonia tell him that and he even ask Mist's please could I change, but Mist's see me and say no. Kaine mad but he finally jes laugh, say what can a nigga do? He been round the House, most a House nigga hisself -- though a House nigga never say a nigga what tend flowas any betta'n one what tend corn. But Kaine laugh when Childer try to come the big nigga over him, tell him, say, 'Childer, jes cause you open do's for the white folks don't make you white.' And Childer puff all up cause he not like it, you don't be treatin him some big -- and he was raised up with Ol Masa, too? 'Humph.' So he say to Kaine, say stedda Kaine talkin back at ones betta'n him, Kaine betta be seem at findin him a mo likely gal'n me. . ."
"He chosed me. Masa ain't had nothin to do wid it. It Kaine what pick me out and ask me for his woman. Masa say you lay wid this'n or that'n and that be the one you lay wid. He tell Carrie Mae she lay wid that studdin nigga and that who she got to be wid. And we all be knowin that it ain't for nothin but to breed and time the chi'ren be up in age, they be sold off to anotha 'tation, maybe deep south. And she jes a lil bitty thang then and how she gon be holdin a big nigga like that, carrying that big nigga chile? And all what mammy say, what Aunt Lefonia and Mamma Hattie say, don't make Masa no ne' mind. 'Tarver known fo makin big babies on Iil gals,' Masa say and laugh. Laugh so hard, he don't be hearin Mamma Hattie say how Tarver studdin days be ova fo he eva touch Carrie. Masa, he don't neva know it; but Tarver, he know it. But he don't tell cause the roots stop his mouth from talkin to Masa same as they stop his seed from touchin Carrie Mae."
Nehemiah paused, the pen poised above his journal. He couldn't bring himself to believe that negroes actually had some means of preventing conception, yet he could not keep himself from speculating. The recipe for such a potion would be worth a small fortune -- provided, of course, that one could hit upon some discreet means of selling it. A contraception root would be very like slave trading, he thought with a low chuckle, something from which every gentleman would profit but which no gentleman would admit knowledge of. Probably he gave the negroes too much credit, but it would do no harm to question the darky further about this, he thought; he continued writing.
"Masa do wonder, but it's more'n one stud and Tarver is good fo drivin otha niggas inna field; good for to beat the ones what try for to be bad. Carrie Mae bedded wid David then and gots a baby comin. . .
"Kaine chosed me. He chosed me and when Emmalina meet me that day, tell me Kaine done took a hoe at Masa and Masa done laid into him wid a shovel, bout bus in his head, I jes run and when the hoe gits in my way, I let it fall; the dress git in my way and I holds that up. Kaine jes layin there on us's pallet, head seeping blood, one eye closed, one bout gone. Mamma Hattie sittin side him wipin at the blood. 'He be dead o' sold. Dead o' sold.' I guess that what she say then. She say it so many times afta that I guess she say it then, too, 'Dead o' sold.' Kaine jes groan when I call his name. I say all the names I know bout, thought bout, Lawd, Legba, Jesus, Conqueroo -- anybody. Jes so's Kaine could speak. 'Nigga,' Kaine say, nigga and my name. He say em ova and ova and I hold his hand cause I know that can't be all he wanna say. Nigga and my name; my name and nigga."
"And what has that to do with you and the other slaves rising up against the trader and trying to kill white men?"
His tone had been a bit sharp, Nehemiah thought reading the question now, but he had been startled by that casual revelation of violence against a master.Perhaps he had made some overt sign of his excitement -- after all he was actually tracing the darky's career back, perhaps to her first mutinous act -- for she had opened her eyes and looked at him.Nehemiah still marveled at how wide and black her eyes had appeared in the half-light of the cellar, the whites unmarred by that rheumy color characteristic of so many darkies.He had understood then something of what the slave dealer, Wilson, might have meant when he talked of the darky's "devil eyes" her "devil's stare."
"I kill white mens," her voice overrode mine, as though she had not heard me speak."I kill white mens cause the same reason Masa kill Kaine.Cause I can."
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“Having this treasure of a book available again for new and more readers is not only necessary, it is imperative.”
“A deep, rich, compelling work. . . . I am astonished, moved, and delighted with the language, the thought, the obvious collaboration of the ancestors and the love I read on these pages.”
Reading Group Guide
In the antebellum deep South, the paths of two extraordinary women cross: Dessa, a fugitive slave, condemned to die for her role in a slave uprising; and Rufel, a white slave owner. Dessa Rose is the story of Dessa and Rufel as they cautiously overcome their own prejudices about one another. The growing bond between them forces Rufel to confront her deepest feelings about slavery, while Dessa must decide whether to trust a white woman, with her own life and freedom in the balance.
Topics for Discussion
About the Author: Sherley Anne Williams is the award-winning author of numerous poetry collections, plays, and short stories. She was a NationalBook Award nominee for her first book of poetry, The Peacock Poems, and received a Caldecott Honor for Working Cotton, her first work for children. A professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego, she frequently lectures and speaks nationwide. She lives in San Diego.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book will be an uncomfortable read for many. It deals with issues of power, control and cruelty. It also speaks to the spirits of survival and hope within Dessa Rose. Anyone who reads this book should rekindle a spark of compassion within themselves. I felt it was a very descriptive and visual book. The images projected will stay with me a long time. If you are brave enough, immerse yourself in this story and visualize the events. Travel Dessa's road with her.
One of the most artful contemporary narratives about slavery I've come across, this novel is all but impossible to put down once begun. Williams' carefully orchestrated descriptions and emphasis on physical realities makes each page both visual and powerful. The characters are engaging and believable, and the narrative itself is perfectly paced. Even as someone who's read many slave narratives and become very familiar with African American lit. as a whole, I found this full work a refreshing and wrenching page turner that holds up to literary standards and scrutiny. I'd absolutely recommend it to any readers---Williams' writing makes the story come alive, and her descriptions and dialect are perfect.
Dessa Rose opens with a dream, told in poetic language that draws the reader immediately and deeply into Dessa's world, the world of an American slave in 1847. Williams' genius is that she makes the reader experience that world in a way that few other novelists have. The story ends rather abruptly, with an equally abrupt change in point of view at the end, but in the total context of an incredibly beautiful, moving work, it hardly matters.
A must read.