A Black Dancer in Pre-Civil War America

Juba!: A Novel, by Walter Dean Myers, (Amistad, HarperCollins), 208 pages, release date 13 October, 2016, recommended by the publisher for grades 8 and up

Juba! is an interesting work of fiction grounded in fact. Yes, there was a Master Juba, an African American dancer who performed in the U.S. and England in the pre-Civil War era. Yes, Charles Dickens saw him perform more than once and wrote about his dancing.

The time in which this novel is set is one of contradictions. Half of America is free; the other half is slave-owning. Minstrel shows featuring white men dressed as caricatures of black men were popular, particularly in the north. On the other hand, skilled African-American performers were under-appreciated, expected to “coon it up” and make themselves objects of demeaning humor.

Juba! covers a period of several years in the life of Master Juba as he struggles to win fame as a “serious” dancer. His mastery of folk dance forms, including the many jigs recently brought to America by Irish immigrants, is exceptional. Nonetheless, he can’t find steady work as a performer. One major triumph in the US leads nowhere. He then travels England with a minstrel show, the one real black man in a troupe of whites performing in blackface.

Meyer’s novel is written in first person, which allows Master Juba to comment on his own experiences. We can spend time seeing the world through his eyes, wrestling with the unfairness and contradictions that shape his world. Middle-school students will find Master Juba an interesting companion who can both inspire and pose questions.

I’d hoped this would be the sort of young adult novel that would transcend its genre, but sadly, this wasn’t the case. As I read Juba! I was conscious of the simplification of its style and narrative. It doesn’t operate on a level of complexity that adult readers will find satisfactory. However, as a text geared at ‘tween or teen readers (which is how the publisher markets it) it offers an interesting read. I’m glad I read it. Now I’m looking for the adult novel that can give me a richer sense of what Master Juba’s life was like.

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