The Importance of Family and Land
One overriding theme of the saga that is The Glory Field is the value of kinship and relations. Myers expresses this idea by emphasizing the importance of the relationships between the generations of the Lewis family and their holding onto the land they own in Curry Island, South Carolina. Before each section of the novel, Myers presents a genealogical tree of where the characters in this segment fit in the Lewis family.
These trees both provide a guide to the readers about the characters in this part of the story and emphasize a link between the generations of the Lewis family. The African American Lewis family began with Muhammad Bilal, who was brought from Africa as a slave as a young child. He was one of the first slaves bought by the white Lewis family to work Live Oaks, which became a viable plantation. Most of Muhammad’s descendants remained in slavery working the land on Live Oaks until they were freed after the American Civil War ended. Then, Moses Lewis and his children gained part of the plantation for their own, and named it Glory Field. In the 1900 segment, Myers emphasizes the lengths to which members of the Lewis family went to keep that land. Over the years, they bought more of the land around Glory Field and kept growing sweet potatoes until 1994, when the Lewis clan, led by Luvenia Lewis, turned the property into a resort owned by the family. Although the segments in 1930, 1964, and 1994 are removed from Glory Field itself, the Lewis’ connection to that piece of land is continually emphasized. The field is the physical reminder of the family and how these various connected family members share a common, loving kinship.
Slavery and Racism
Much of The Glory Field explores ideas about race relations, beginning with slavery. Myers also looks at racial conflicts in various post-slavery generations, and at acts of racism, subjugation, oppression, and repression. The first manifestation of racism is young Muhammad’s journey in shackles after he is forcibly removed from Africa and taken on a ship to America, where he is sold to the Lewis family. He is treated without dignity in the overcrowded quarters; there is little food or water.
In the 1864 segment, the slaves on the Lewis plantation are forced to labor even on Sunday, are prohibited from marrying whomever they want, as in the case of Joshua and Neela, and face whippings or worse for running away. Lem is beaten because he ran away, and so is Lizzy, just for bringing water to Lem after he is tied to a tree so that he will reveal Joshua’s whereabouts. Most of the whites in that segment of The Glory Field do not see blacks as people like themselves, but treat them as property.
This situation does not improve much in the 1900 and 1964 segments, which are also set in Curry. In 1900, the Lewis family may own Glory Field, but the bank in Johnson City will not give them a loan because of their race. When the search party is formed to find blind David Turner and Mr. Foster, his alcoholic caregiver for the weekend, Mr. Turner initially offers $25 to whites but only $10 to blacks to find his son. Elijah negotiates a better deal and eventually gets his money, Sheriff Glover takes credit for finding David although it was Elijah who made the discovery. Elijah is forced to leave town at the end of the 1900 segment because he refuses to lend the boat that he and Abby own to two white men, the Pettys. Elijah goes to Chicago rather than be whipped by the Pettys.
While the 1964 segment features a civil rights march, Tommy and others must deal with the lingering effects of such Jim Crow restrictions as separate drinking fountains, hospitals, and doctors for blacks and whites. Although Leonard Chase wants Tommy, a model student, athlete, and citizen, to integrate Johnson City State, Chase says, ‘‘I’m not sure if integration is good on a grade school level. Nothing to do with race, either.’’ Tommy’s manager and coworker at Clark’s Fiveand-Dime are more virulent in their belief that the races should be separated and blacks kept in their place. Tommy is unsure if he wants to go to Johnson City State because he does believe that blacks and whites should sometimes stick with their own, but he is inspired to create his own act of civil disobedience after observing the Ku Klux Klan demonstration, the African American march, and his white friend Skeeter’s beating after showing his support for the cause.
Although the 1930 and 1994 segments are set in big cities—Chicago and New York City, respectively—the members of the Lewis family experience racism and issues related to race relations there. In 1930, Luvenia finds her employer, Mrs. Deets, unwilling to help her go to college. Luvenia becomes more distressed when Florenz Deets goes beyond telling her father that Luvenia is sick so she can drive her father’s second car around; Florenz adds that Luvenia is pregnant, a lie that appalls and hurts the honorable Luvenia. In 1994, race relations are less overtly tense, but Malcolm and Shep do get left behind by the bus driver in Virginia in part because of their race. As Myers writes, ‘‘They were young and black, and Shep had thrown up on the bus.’’ When they make it to outside Johnson City, no one will stop to give them a ride to the nearest phone or into town. No matter what the era or intensity of the racism, however, the Lewis family perseveres and keeps moving forward.
Captivity vs. Freedom
Another theme central to The Glory Field are the ideas of captivity versus freedom. In the first few segments of the novel, this tension can be seen in race and social-related situations of the characters. Muhammad is literally a captive stuck in a small space with many other Africans shackled on a slave ship. When he arrives in America, he is a slave, as are several generations of his descendants. Joshua, Lem, and Lizzy in the 1864 segment escape slavery and the restrictions that go along with it by serving the Union Army. In 1900, Elijah is a free man and part of a landowning family, but racial restrictions limit his freedom. To escape a whipping by white men— an act of control in itself—he goes to Chicago where he can be more free.
Elijah’s daughter Luvenia demonstrates that even in the North African Americans can be trapped because of their race. Whites do not believe she can become educated or be more than a servant, but she finds freedom by starting her own business. Back in South Carolina in 1964, Tommy experiences a type of captivity because of his race. He must act in an uncontroversial way to get his scholarship; he is not allowed to eat at the lunch counter of the store in which he works. Tommy uses the idea of being held captive in his act of civil disobedience when he uses Muhammad’s shackles on himself and the white sheriff. For that action, Tommy is put in jail and the sheriff tries to intimidate him by having a fellow prisoner hold a gun on him.
By 1994, Malcolm does not experience being trapped until he and his cousin have no choice but to ride in the back of a truck driver’s trailer to Johnson City. Both Malcolm and Shep are challenged by the heat and lack of fresh air, but both feel free they can breathe more easily when they are dropped off outside the city. Shep is the final example of what the struggle between captivity and freedom has come to mean. As a drug addict with a crack cocaine problem, he is trapped by his drug use and its effect on his life, but finds freedom with Malcolm’s help on the trip and with his family’s help in South Carolina. While Shep’s captivity is his own choice, it is also his choice to get up and choose freedom.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010