In this debut YA novel, a young black rapper finds himself transported back to the age of slavery.
Three new slaves arrive at the Deauville Plantation, the home of the elderly Sean Deauville, known throughout South Carolina as a man who can break even the most rebellious worker. But one of the new acquisitions is no ordinary slave. Donald “Hip Hop” Berry is an irreverent, teenage rapper from modern-day New York. After getting admonished by a group of his female peers for using derogatory language in his lyrics, Hip Hop is struck by a car, knocked into a coma, and wakes up as a slave in 1855. At the plantation, Hip Hop enters a hell on Earth he could never have imagined. A freshly tortured slave hangs from a tree by a hook; malnourished children fight one another for food; and an overseer with a whip enforces Sean’s brutal law: “In that instant, Hip Hop experiences more pain than he has ever felt before. He screams in agony when the blood-clotted cowskin slices his flesh apart. Immediately, blood starts to gush from his wounds, and he falls to the ground, crying like never before.” Forced into cruel servitude, Hip Hop begins to learn the real meanings behind some of the slurs he’s employed in his raps, coming to terms with the true violence that intolerance can wreak on human beings. He also finds, in the company of the other slaves, a sense of community—and even a leadership role—that he never had in New York. Hip Hop might not know how to get back to his own time, but after a woman named Moses tells him how to reach freedom, he understands he has to help his people get there.
Sears writes in an expressive, conversational prose that never shies away from the ruthless details of slavery. But his lack of subtlety sometimes leads to clumsy moments, as when a physician explains to Hip Hop’s parents what has happened to their son: “ ‘This is very unusual, but he appears to be dreaming,’ says the doctor. ‘Apparently the blow to the head knocked him out and sent him on a terrible journey. By that, I mean he is unconscious in our world, but he might be wide-awake somewhere within a vivid dream he is having.’ ” There is a broad, homespun quality to both the writing and the plot. The author’s project is overt, and the characters generally say exactly what they mean. Even the images by debut illustrator Cephas that accompany the story have a frank, folk-art quality that sometimes works beautifully and sometimes falls flat. That said, the novel’s heart is in the right place, and its rough-hewn earnestness quickly becomes charming. Yes, the plot is predictable, and yes, Hip Hop makes a speech at the end saying what he’s learned, but some issues are Manichaean enough that subtlety is not particularly needed. Slavery was awful. Intolerance is wrong. Sears, Cephas, and Hip Hop are happy to remind readers of these facts.
An idiosyncratic but ultimately engaging tale about a contemporary teen forced to live as a slave in the 1850s.