Day of Tears Summary & Study Guide

Julius Lester

Day of Tears

  • 48-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 13 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with an MFA in Creative Writing
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Day of Tears Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 48-page guide for “Day of Tears” by Julius Lester includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 13 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Vulnerability of Blacks and Black Slaves and The Significance of Location in the United States prior to the 13th Amendment.

Plot Summary

Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue is a young adult book of historical fiction written by Julius Lester and published in 2005. It was the 2006 winner of the Coretta Scott King Award as well as numerous other YA awards. The book concerns the largest slave auction in American history, which took place on March 2 and 3, 1859, in Savannah, Georgia. Plantation owner Pierce Butler sells more than 400 persons to repay his gambling debt. In a blend of fiction and history, the book deals with this event and the repercussions of the slave auction, mostly concerning the sale of Emma, a slave on the Butler and later the Henfield plantations. Prior to her sale, Emma is the primary caretaker of the Butler children. The book, written entirely in dialogue, alternates between the perspectives of slaves, abolitionists, and slave owners alike. All characters take part in the narration, although Emma receives the most time and narrative space as the main character.

The book begins on the second day of the auction during which Emma’s family attempts to make sense of the dislocation that is happening while reflecting on the heavy rains that resemble divine tears. Her parents consider themselves lucky that they have such an intertwined history with their master, Pierce Butler, because they believe that this will protect them from being sold. Similarly, Emma acts as the surrogate mother for Pierce’s two daughters, Sarah and Frances, as their abolitionist mother, Fanny Kemble, has divorced their slave owner father. Emma’s subsequent sale to a woman several states away comes as a shock not only to herself, but also to her parents, Will and Mattie. Emma’s parents curse Pierce, although they are helpless to prevent the separation from their daughter. Pierce’s own daughter, Sarah, who resembles her mother, never forgives her father for this action.

Once Emma is sold, she falls in love with another Butler slave sold to Mrs. Henfield, Joe. With the help of a white abolitionist, Emma, Joe, and two other slaves escape the Henfield plantation, accidentally setting the barn on fire. They successfully reach Philadelphia, where Emma and Joe reunite with Pierce’s ex-wife, who cautions them that they are still not safe, as they can be caught and returned to slavery. Fanny helps them escape to Canada, although Joe eventually returns to fight and die in the Civil War. The novel concludes with Emma reflecting upon her life to help her granddaughter with a history project for school.

Lester divides the book into 13 chapters, each of which revolves around a location as dictated by the title of the chapter. However, the last chapter does not follow this pattern, instead concerning the character of Emma. Most of the book’s chapters precede a corresponding interlude, in which one of the characters looks back upon the events that happened in the previous chapter or in the time that has elapsed since. Chapter 9 does not have an interlude directing following it, as the author presumably does not want to give away the fact that Joe and Emma successfully escape the Henfield Plantation, nor does he want any break in the narrative tension. It is only after Joe and Emma escape in Chapter 10 that the author offers two more interludes from the points of view of Mrs. Henfield and the slave Sampson to make up for the lacking interlude in Chapter 9. Similarly, the last chapter does not have a corresponding interlude, as the dialogue of the chapter itself takes place many years after the auction, when Emma is an old woman.

The book brings to light many themes common throughout slave narratives. The book’s multiple perspectives examine the nature of slavery—and by extension, of freedom—including those of slaves who wish for freedom, slave owners and sellers, abolitionists, and even one slave, Sampson, who believes slavery to be beneficial for black people. Racism remains prevalent throughout the novel, both in the overtly derogatory remarks of slave owners and in the more subtle beliefs of white abolitionists, whose speech reflects notions of white superiority. As such, language itself is key throughout the novel, especially as it determines and reflects one’s social positionality.

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