Her Novel Gives Formerly Enslaved People a Voice

Amina Luqman-Dawson's 'Freewater' won both a Coretta Scott King book prize and the 2023 John Newbery Medal for best children’s book.
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Arlington author Amina Luqman-Dawson (Photo by Matt Mendelsohn)

In Homer’s Odyssey, memory serves a twofold purpose. After 20 years of war, hideouts, run-ins with monsters and crafty escapes, Odysseus must remember how to navigate back to Ithaca. More important to the epic, of course, is the yearning remembrance of home and family that drives his homecoming.

In Freewater, the debut middle-grade novel by Arlington author Amina Luqman-Dawson, 12-year-old Homer and his younger sister, Ada, flee the plantation that has enslaved their family to seek safety—and community—in a vast swampland. Inspired by true stories of formerly enslaved people who hid in deeply inaccessible areas of Brazil, Jamaica and the Americas (they’re known as Maroons), Luqman-Dawson creates a journey of danger and enlightenment for her young characters.

Like Odysseus, Freewater’s Homer is propelled by memory, imagining his mother as he traces the route from the Southerland Plantation to Freewater: “Forest, river, vines and brush, watch for the sinkhole, more vines and brush, tree boat, lily pads, secret water door…” he repeats like a mantra. “Got it. Mama would get it, too.”

And therein lies the heart of Freewater. It’s about memory all right—but for Homer, equally important as remembering how to navigate the Great Dismal Swamp is remembering who he is. 

Which raises some important questions: Can a place where one is enslaved be a home worth remembering? And can an oasis of freedom and joy, deep within an overgrown swamp, qualify as a home if your mother is still in bondage elsewhere? 

The constant, tangling underbrush Homer encounters daily is a thorny issue for our young hero. Thornier still is that word “home.”

Can a place where one is enslaved be a home worth remembering?

Luqman-Dawson smiles at the Homer-to-Homer comparison, but says the connection was unintentional. “I wasn’t actually thinking of The Odyssey,” she says of her protagonist. “I picked ‘Homer’ because the name itself was an indication for me. He is constantly trying to create home. Even in freedom, he couldn’t feel completely at home without his mom. He knows that his mother needs to be there in order to feel truly free.”

FreewaterFreewater (Little, Brown and Co.), which won both a Coretta Scott King book prize and the 2023 John Newbery Medal for best children’s book, was a journey itself, some 20 years in the making. “I originally started this book in 2002,” says the author, 46, who lives in Fairlington. “I knew this history in college [she attended Vassar], the history of the Maroons, but then it came back to me like a bolt of lightning. I wrote a few chapters and then I put it down, because, you know, life got in the way.”

She’s speaking, in part, of Zach, her now 14-year-old son.

In a story full of relationships—the book’s characters include Suleman, the wise and protective swamp guide; Two Shoes, a fellow plantation escapee whose motives are potentially suspect; and Sanzi, a rambunctious young inhabitant of Freewater just waiting to use her bow and arrow—Homer’s most important relationship is one that exists only in his memory: his ties to his mother.

“There are certain themes in this book, when it comes to mother and child, that still pull like today’s themes,” Luqman-Dawson says, quoting one of her characters: “My job isn’t to make you happy, my job is to keep you free.” 

The same rings true today, she says. It’s a role she and her husband, Robert Dawson, don’t take lightly. 

“African American parents are still trying to find ways to have [their] child be super free and open to the world, but also understanding the parameters in which, sadly, they are being raised, be that racial justice or ‘The Talk,’ ” she says, referencing the conversation so many Black parents have with their kids about how to de-escalate tense encounters with law enforcement.

With that, she ponders the last words Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died in January after he was beaten by police officers in Memphis. “He called for his mother.”

What’s a parent to do in the face of such horror? For starters, write a book.

“One thing that happens in history,” Luqman-Dawson observes, “is that when you have not been a part of the universe of those who write or publish history, you cannot assume that your life and your history will ever be in a book. Sometimes we take that as a disempowered kind of thing. No. We have a right, a necessity, to restore those voices. And that’s where the power is.” 

“When you have not been a part of the universe of those who write or publish history, you cannot assume that your life and your history will ever be in a book. We have a right, a necessity, to restore those voices.”

Some might call her historic fiction speculative. She asserts that it’s restorative. “This is a restoration of voice. This is a restoration of humanity. So that it doesn’t just end with ‘an enslaved person ran off.’ It matters to have that restorative mechanism.”

Consider Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Published 138 years ago, it’s also about an escaped enslaved person, Jim, but Jim’s story is told through (and is dependent on) Huck’s worldview. The N-word appears more than 200 times in Twain’s classic—a controversy that, to this day, has critics debating whether the book should be revised or pulled from shelves. By contrast, it is nowhere to be found in Luqman-Dawson’s novel. Neither is the word “slave.” 

Aminaluqman Dawson Dianekresh

Local author Amina Luqman-Dawson and Arlington Public Library Director Diane Kresh during a Juneteenth program in June of 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Arlington Public Library)

There’s an important distinction between “slave” and “enslaved,” she says, that comes down to humanity. “You have the person at the heart of it and then you have the system that’s around them. They have been enslaved. They are not defined by that term.”

As for her conscious omission of the N-word? “It wasn’t necessary,” she says. “It can be a distraction from the work. It’s important for children to have the literature and not have that debate right now. I wanted the voices to be heard without distractions.”

And what of the distraction of lawmakers who would reject AP Black history courses and leave school libraries without books about Roberto Clemente and MLK and Sally Hemings? Luqman-Dawson is unafraid.

“I believe that the push for book banning…is really a response to people like me and others who see the importance of this history,” she says. “People who are open to trying to do better… trying to make it right. I live in that world. I live in a world where I walk into a classroom [and students] are extraordinarily engaged and excited about this history.”

Like Homer, it’s critically important to chart that course.

Matt Mendelsohn is a photographer and writer based in Arlington.

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Categories: People