July 1753. Off the Coast of Sierra Leone, West Africa
Muhammad Bilal is traveling on a slave ship from Africa, where he was captured by slave traders. He is trapped with other slaves in close quarters for a voyage of at least a month. Like the others, he suffers from pain and thirst, and longs for the end of the journey.
March 1864. Live Oaks Plantation. Curry Island, South Carolina
Muhammad becomes a slave at Live Oaks, and is one of the first slaves bought by the Lewis family to work their plantation. All the slaves are made to work on a Sunday, harvesting sweet potatoes under the watchful eye of overseer Joey Haynes. This Sunday labor is required in part because Joshua (the brother of elder slave Moses) and Moses’ son Lem have run away, and white patrollers are after them. Lem is found and brought back, then taken off by whites who tie him to a tree overnight so he will reveal where Joshua is. Miss Julia, the Lewis’s daughter, uses an excuse to get Lizzy, a young slave, to the main house. There, Julia fawns over her while trying to get information from her. When Lizzy returns to slave quarters, she does not believe the words of Grandma Dolly (Moses’ mother), who tells her that Julia is using her. Saran, Moses’ wife, believes that Joshua is ‘‘chasing his freedom dream north.’’
Like the other slaves, Lizzy hopes that Lem is not seriously hurt, and in the middle of the night she goes to the tree where he is tied. Grandma Dolly sees her leave and tries to warn her of the dangers of her actions, but Lizzy still goes, taking water with her. As Lizzy walks in the night, she remembers seeing another slave named Bill whipped and does not want to suffer the same fate. At the tree, Lizzy finds Lem beaten and uses the water to clean him up. As she helps him, she feels the pain of the whip wielded by Joe Haynes. Lizzy gets whipped until her clothing is shredded. The whipping only stops when Joshua tackles Joe. While holding Joe down, Joshua tells Lizzy to pick up the rifle. Joshua tells Lizzy that she must leave with him and Lem or they will have to kill Joe. Lizzy is allowed to go back to the quarters and say good-bye.
At the slave cabins, Miss Julia is looking for her. Lizzy gets a change of clothing, and Saran tells her to go with Joshua and Lem. Following Saran’s advice, Lizzy gets rid of Julia. Leaving with Joshua and Lem, Lizzy is excited and fearful about what is ahead. During the first day of their journey, they hide in trees, but they find Joshua is gone when they wake up at night to resume walking. Lem and Lizzy keep going, but they hear patrollers and their hounds looking for them. They finally reach an enclave of Union soldiers (in 1864, the United States Civil War was under way, pitting the Union against the Confederate States of America), both white and black, who feed them and let them sleep. In the morning, Lizzy is given work cleaning the boots of white officers and packing wagons while Lem becomes a soldier. They learn that Joshua is a soldier there, too. Lem and Joshua leave with their unit, and Lizzy is given the option of going North with them. Lizzy accepts.
April 1900. Curry Island, South Carolina
After the Civil War ends, Moses and Saran take the last name Lewis and are given eight acres of land next to Live Oaks. They name their land Glory Field. Lizzy marries Lem’s brother Richard, and they have a son named Elijah who works the land with other members of the family. The African American Lewis family works hard to keep their land. Like many African Americans, they struggle to pay the taxes on their land. To help with expenses, Richard moves to Georgia with Lizzy to work in pulp factories.
On Sunday, Moses consecrates the burial ground behind the church the Lewises and others have built. At the gathering afterward, Elijah flirts with Goldie, a girl he thinks he wants to marry. Saran tells Elijah to tend to the cemetery once a week. Lem, who died in the Civil War, has a grave there, although his body is really buried under Glory Field. Saran has a job watching a little white blind boy named David Turner during the week. David’s mother is dead and his father, Hamlin Turner, has entrusted Mr. Foster, an alcoholic, to watch his son over this weekend. Mr. Turner stops by the gathering and tells Saran that he does not know where his son is. Saran worries because the weather is about to turn bad. She sends Elijah and his male cousin Abby to look for David on the water, as it is believed Mr. Foster took him fishing on a nearby island.
When Elijah and Abby reach the riverbank, a group has gathered. There is a $25 reward for any white person finding David; the reward is only $10 for blacks. Nevertheless, Elijah negotiates a $35 reward with Mr. Turner, but must deal with the resentful attitude from the whites present. As the storm picks up, Elijah and Abby use their boat to search, and Sheriff Glover comes with them. When they encounter difficulties, the sheriff pulls a gun on them and tells them to go back. There is a stare-down, and the search party continues.
They make it to Key Island despite the worsening weather. After dropping anchor offshore, Abby stays with the boat while Elijah and Sheriff Glover go ashore. They split up, and in the driving rain Elijah finds David and the injured Mr. Foster. Elijah carries David to the boat, then comes back to help the sheriff with Foster. Everyone is happy when they return, but the sheriff takes credit for finding David and Mr. Foster. The sheriff tells Elijah and Abby they will only get half of the reward money. They are upset but leave the issue alone.
When Elijah is in town a few days later, he visits Mr. Turner, who gives him the $35 he promised. Later, two white men—Frank Petty and his uncle J. D. Petty—want to borrow the boat that Elijah and Abby own. Elijah turns them down, and the tense situation ends only when others on the beach, both black and white, come over. Elijah returns home, gives the reward money to Moses and Saran for taxes, and happily works the fields. As he labors, Sheriff Glover warns Elijah’s family that some men, including Petty, are coming that night to whip Elijah. Elijah does not want to be whipped, so Saran suggests that he should leave. They give Elijah $17 of the reward money and he gets on a train headed to Chicago, where Joshua and his wife, Neela, live. Before he leaves, Goldie promises not to marry anyone else.
May 1930. Chicago, Illinois
Elijah marries Goldie in Chicago, where they have two children, Richard and Luvenia. The sixteen-year-old Luvenia does not want to move back to Curry Island and work Glory Field the way her father did. Elijah has gone back to South Carolina with Goldie and Richard while Luvenia stays in the city. Elijah spent the past three decades in Chicago working and sending money to help keep Glory Field, but he grew nostalgic for the land when he went back to South Carolina for Moses’ funeral. Luvenia likes the city and wants to go to the University of Chicago using the money from her job as a live-in servant for the Deets family and from hairdressing. She also tries to get a bank loan so she can cover college expenses. Luvenia dreams of being a teacher and knows she is intelligent enough to go to college. Luvenia enlists the help of her best friend and godmother, Miss Etta, who promises to help write a letter to her father so she can stay and achieve her goals.
On Sunday, Luvenia and Miss Etta go to church together at Bethel Tabernacle. Luvenia sings in the choir and performs an impressive solo. After going home and stopping at Miss Etta’s, Luvenia returns to the Deets’s home that night. While cleaning, she suggests to Mrs. Deets that perhaps the Deets could help her obtain her loan for school. The bank has told Luvenia that if she has guaranteed employment, she will be approved. Mrs. Deets dismisses her desire to go to school.
The next day, Luvenia plans on asking for the help of Florenz Deets, a seventeen-year-old who attends the University of Chicago. Instead, Florenz and her friend Katie catch Luvenia up in a scheme so that Florenz can begin to drive her father’s second car. Florenz promises to talk to her father about the loan for Luvenia in return. With Luvenia’s help, Florenz lies to her father about Luvenia being sick and pregnant. Because of Luvenia’s alleged illness, Florenz is given permission to drive Luvenia to a hospital. Instead, Florenz, Katie, and Luvenia take a joy ride around town. Luvenia is unhappy and upset about the deceit, especially about the lie added by Florenz about Luvenia being pregnant and what it implies about her. Florenz and Katie let Luvenia out when they see a boy from school, and Luvenia walks home, uncomfortable with her role in the scheme.
At home, Luvenia gets a telegram from Mr. Deets telling her that she is fired. Distraught, she goes to Miss Etta’s place. Miss Etta tells her losing a job is not a bad thing and distracts Luvenia by sending her to a funeral. Thinking over her situation while helping to deal with a broken coffin, Luvenia comes to believe Florenz will tell the truth and she will get her job back. Calling Mr. Deets from Miss Etta’s boyfriend’s phone later that night, Luvenia learns Florenz did tell the truth, but Mr. Deets will only give Luvenia a reference, not her job back. Luvenia decides to make her living as a hairdresser, and understands that her destiny is different from, but still a part of, her family’s tradition. Even her father understands, and he admits in a letter that he might have to again live in Chicago part-time to pay for the support of Glory Field. Miss Etta throws a rent party (house party in which guests give money to help pay the host’s rent, or pay some other expense) for her, and Luvenia plans to use the proceeds to start her business venture.
January 1964. Johnson City, South Carolina
Although Abby is dead, his grandson Tommy Lewis is alive and living on Curry Island. A basketball star with good grades at Curry High School, Tommy impresses all those present at the All-City Tournament. Curry wins the tournament because of Tommy’s play at the end of the game. After the game, Coach Smith introduces Tommy to Leonard Chase, a white man who once played at Johnson City State. Tommy and his love interest, Mandy, go to the Chase home. There, Chase asks if Tommy would like to skip his last year of high school to attend State as one of the first African Americans at the university. Tommy would have a scholarship and have a chance to make the basketball team. Chase warns him that it will be hard. At home, Tommy’s mother, Virginia, is unsure about his skipping his senior year of high school for college, while his father, Robert, trusts Chase more.
The next morning, Tommy’s mother wakes him and tells him that Skeeter Jackson was bitten by a snake and Tommy’s father is driving him to the hospital. Skeeter is a fifteen-year-old white friend whose parents are at a revival in North Carolina. Skeeter was bitten by a rattlesnake while shooting hoops after the game. Because Robert takes him to a ‘‘white’’ hospital, he and Tommy must wait outside while Skeeter receives treatment. While waiting, Tommy tells his father that he thinks he can handle college, and his father sees his attendance there as progress for blacks in the community. The doctor eventually comes out and tells them that Skeeter will recover, but must stay in the hospital overnight.
At the Lewis home, Jennie Epps, a schoolmate of Tommy’s, is looking at the Lewis family Bible while she, Tommy, and Mrs. Lewis talk about a racist teacher at Curry High School. Reverend McKinnon comes over with his daughter Mandy. The reverend is concerned that the Ku Klux Klan, also known as the White Citizens’ Council, has announced they are having a demonstration in Johnson City on the same day as the previously announced march planned by local black citizens. Sheriff Moser wants the black march called off, but organizers refuse because they believe things will not change if they do not march. McKinnon wants Robert to be a leader of the march and the whole Lewis family in attendance because they are landowners.
That night, Tommy goes to work at the Clark’s Five-and-Dime. He works on fixing a burst water pipe while listening to his manager, Miss Robbins, and fellow employee Jed Sasser lament the march, the attendance of Martin Luther King Jr., and people like him who ‘‘stir up the coloreds.’’ Tommy points out that blacks cannot eat at the store, but Miss Robbins argues that they just cannot eat at the counter. Jed and Miss Robbins emphasize that the races should stay separate, not mix, and remain in their own place. As Tommy sweeps, he thinks about how he does not like to have to look for a water fountain labeled ‘‘colored.’’ Later, Chase calls Tommy and tells him that the school’s trustees have agreed to look at the applications of four black students, including his. Chase tells him that if he does not demonstrate or get into any trouble, the governor should approve his application.
Later that night, Jennie comes into Tommy’s room and tells him that she has been offered a scholarship to attend Meharry Medical College and she will become a doctor. She also informs him that King cannot come to the march, so there will be little press coverage. Tommy realizes that he does not want to attend State but would rather march to show he does not like the way blacks are treated. He also believes that Miss Robbins is right in that people should stick with their own.
Early the next morning, Tommy rides his bike to Johnson City and watches the White Citizens’ Council set up their demonstration. The sheriff gets them to tone it down, but they still make their statement in front of television crews. Tommy then watches the African Americans march from a distance, and observes other people throwing things at them. Jennie finds him after the march and yells at him for not taking part. He allows her to ride on the back of his bike back to his house where there is a social gathering. There, Skeeter has been brought after being beaten badly by some whites for participating in the black march. Later, Tommy wonders what he would have done in Skeeter’s place.
The next morning, Tommy attends Sheriff Moser’s news conference instead of going to school. There, the sheriff announces a meeting between blacks, business leaders, and White Citizens’ Council leaders. Tommy brings the shackles and chains that his ancestor, Muhammad, wore when brought from Africa. When the sheriff says that there were no injuries as a result of yesterday’s march, Tommy shackles himself to the sheriff with the chains. He is sent to jail for the day. Tommy is later released and his family and friends praise his actions.
August 1994. Harlem, New York
Malcolm Lewis, the fifteen-year-old grandson of Richard Lewis and great-grandson of Elijah and Goldie Lewis, is a young, talented musician living in New York City with his parents. His dream about playing with his band, String Theory, is interrupted by a call from his great-aunt Luvenia, who has become a successful businesswoman selling cosmetics and beauty supplies for African Americans and Hispanics. His great-aunt is coming over shortly, as is Jenn Che Po, who is trying out for the band. Malcolm’s parents and sister have already gone to Curry Island for a family reunion, butMalcolm has stayed behind for now to work for Luvenia’s cosmetics factory loading trucks.
Jenn shows up first, then Luvenia, who is patient while Malcolm plays a String Theory song for Jenn. When Malcolm plays it a second time, Jenn starts playing along with her cello. After Jenn leaves, Luvenia gives Malcolm money for two plane tickets to South Carolina—one for Malcolm, and one for his cousin Shep—so that they can attend the family reunion. Luvenia wants Malcolm to find Shep, who she believes has a drinking problem. However, Malcolm knows that he is using crack cocaine. Luvenia says they must show up by Monday night for the reunion.
Malcolm first looks in the last place he saw Shep, a park in Harlem. Not finding Shep there, Malcolm reflects on the reunion, which will be the last that focuses on Glory Field as a farm, since the land will soon be turned into a resort. A child nicknamed Mr. Brooks gives Malcolm a tip on where he can find Shep: he is selling tapes in front of the Apollo Theater. Malcolm finds Shep there, but Shep is not interested in going to the reunion. Shep finally agrees, but wants his half of the money and says he will meet Malcolm at the airport. Malcolm believes he will use the cash for drugs, but after Shep shows him where he is staying—the East Harlem Restoration Center, a homeless shelter—and agrees to go with him the next day, Malcolm gives him the money.
The next morning, Jenn calls to tell him that she wants to be in the band and Malcolm agrees. As he packs for the trip, he reflects on how his aunt’s company and some Johnson City Lewises are putting up money to turn the Lewis land on Curry Island into a resort. Later, Malcolm learns that his great-aunt made reservations for them to take a plane at 2:30 PM out of LaGuardia Airport. When he goes to pick up Shep at the shelter, Shep says his part of the money has been stolen and he cannot go. Malcolm convinces him that they can take a bus.
Shep gets sick on the bus, and the driver leaves them behind after a stop in Virginia. A waitress at the diner helps them get a ride with a trucker. Malcolm and Shep both find the journey difficult and hate the feeling of being trapped. During the ride, Shep admits to using the ticket money for crack. The trucker drops them outside Johnson City and the pair feel better in fresh air. They make it to the city, then ride another bus to Curry Island. At the main house, Jennie—who married Tommy and had a daughter with him before he died fighting in Vietnam—gets them settled.
In the morning, Malcolm learns that everyone will be helping to harvest the last sweet potato crop on the Lewis land. He is working with Tommy’s father, who now calls himself Planter. They harvest sweet potatoes in Glory Field for several back-breaking days. Planter tells Tommy stories, including how he bought back the slave chains Tommy used at the press conference from a sheriff’s department auction for $209. On the third day, Shep gets sick and Jennie, who is a doctor, helps take care of him. The day after they finish the harvest, Luvenia and a representative of the bank tell the family that the resort will be organized into shares that the family will hold.
Malcolm and String Theory are playing their first major concert at Brown University. Jenn adds a new dimension to the group, although the group members are unsure of their future because they are going to different colleges. During the gig, Malcolm remembers Planter, who recently died. Malcolm attended his funeral in Curry. After his death, the shackles were sent to Malcolm as Planter arranged. Malcolm plays his music with Planter in his heart.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010