Heartbreak Day and Family Separation During American Slavery: Background information when reading Yonder

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A Novel

by Jabari Asim

Yonder by Jabari Asim X
Yonder by Jabari Asim
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2022, 272 pages

    Jan 2023, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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About this Book

Heartbreak Day and Family Separation During American Slavery

This article relates to Yonder

Print Review

For American slaves, January 1 was a day to dread. For on that day, many were hired out to new plantations without warning, and some were sold off. Anxiety was rampant the evening before the new year, which was possibly the last time family members would see each other. It was a tumultuous night for parents wondering if their children would be snatched away come morning to fulfill a contract or create revenue for the plantation owner.

Abolitionist journalist William Cooper Nell coined the name "Heartbreak Day" for New Year's Day. A slave named Lewis Clarke said in 1842, "Of all the days in the year, the slaves dread New Year's Day the worst of any." Israel Campbell, who was born a slave in Kentucky and sold to an Ohio couple when he was four years old, wrote in 1861, "On New Year's Day, we went to the auctioneer's block, to be hired to the highest bidder for one year."

A wrenching story recounted by former slave Harriet Jacobs in her groundbreaking 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl tells of a mother who took her seven children to the auction block on Heartbreak Day. The mother feared that some of her children would be sold. But all seven were sold to a slave trader hunting for the highest bidder — he didn't even know where the children would wind up. The mother cried out, "Gone! All gone! Why don't God kill me!"

Heather Andrea Williams, author of Help Me to Find My People, a book about family separation during slavery, describes a similar scene in an interview with NPR: "…a mother just throws herself on the ground. She's begging an owner or a trader to keep her with her children, or, 'Just let me keep even one of my children.'"

In Jabari Asim's novel Yonder, Silent Mary had her newborn snatched out of her arms. She collapsed to the ground, never to speak again. In the opening pages, Asim recounts a deplorable scene of dead babies and toddlers in a log pen, nearly 20 of them. A slave trader had taken their mothers to be sold but was detained and the babies died a catastrophic death. Another character, the slave Margaret, had her mother whisked away after a fierce embrace and was left with her own sobs.

These are cruel and gut-wrenching stories that encapsulate the horrors of American slavery. After family separation, some slaves attempted to fight back, refusing their new residency. They were whipped and put into jail until a promise was exacted that they wouldn't run away at their new location.

The slaves who had their families taken from them lived in trauma their entire lives. Henry Box Brown was separated from his siblings and parents when he was sent to work in a tobacco factory. Later, Brown's wife was sold and a buyer offered him a deal. He would keep her close if Brown helped him pay her price. But the buyer, astutely aware of Brown's desire to keep his family close, kept demanding more money and eventually sold his wife and children. Before she was taken away his wife was put in chains and dragged through town. Brown wrote of the experience in his memoir Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown:

My eye soon caught her precious face, but, gracious heavens! that glance of agony may God spare me from ever again enduring!...I seized hold of her hand while my mind felt unutterable things…I went with her for about four miles hand in hand, but both our hearts were so overpowered with feeling that we could say nothing, and when at last we were obliged to part, the look of mutual love which we exchanged was all the token which we would give each other that we should yet meet in Heaven.

While slaves understood they could be separated from their families, when it happened, when their children or other loved ones were forcibly taken, it was a catastrophic experience that affected every other area of their lives. Many found it difficult to eat, sleep, survive. According to the Washington Post, one witness to a slave auction said, "Night and day, you could hear men and women screaming…ma, pa, sister or brother, taken without any warning. People was always dying from a broken heart."

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Valerie Morales

This "beyond the book article" relates to Yonder. It originally ran in January 2022 and has been updated for the January 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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