Monica Edinger

Amistad

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Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad
by Monica Edinger. Illustrated by Robert Byrd.
Candlewick, 2013.

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“… Africa is my home. I long to be there. Although I am in America, yet my heart is there. The people I love and the country I admire…” — (From a December 18, 1847 letter by Sarah while she was at Oberlin)

Sarah Margru Kinson, as she came to be known, was only nine years old when she was taken from her home in Africa and brought to Cuba, where she and fifty-two other captives, including three other children, were sold and taken aboard the Amistad. The slaves revolted and took over the ship, but were later captured and put on trial, a trial that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and was argued in the Africans’ favor by John Quincy Adams, allowing them to return home to Africa. In her Author’s Note at the end of the book Edinger writes:

Children? There were children on the ship? It was the spring of 2000 and I was at an Amistad exhibit, of particular interest to me because the captives were from Sierra Leone where I’d spent two years in the 1970s as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Once learning about those children, I could not stop thinking about them. What must it have been like for them? I wondered. What is their story?

Before long I honed in on Margru (the name by which she is known today) and sought out every reference about her while also broadening my knowledge of the Amistad affair, Sierra Leone at that time, and the slave trade. An early discovery was a collection of her transcribed letters during and after her time at Oberlin. Digging deeper I came across newspaper articles, journals, maps, and engravings as well as more letters and other remembrances from those who had known her and the other captives. Examining original material at Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center was amazing, handling Margru’s letters with their faded yet still elegant handwriting most of all. And when I retraced her steps in New Haven, Farmington, and Oberlin it felt as if she were there too .

Wanting to tell her story as truthfully as possible I tried for years to write it as nonfiction. However, while she did forcefully express her feelings in letters as a young woman, there are no first hand accounts from her as a child and so I had to use phrases such as “Margru probably felt…” and “perhaps she missed her parents….” Finding this unduly awkward I crossed the border to fiction, giving Margru a voice of her own. The story is still true; those instances where I imagine her feelings, invent dialog, or create scenes are based on my research and firsthand experiences in Sierra Leone. For example, John Warner Barber who interviewed her wrote that she was “put in pawn by her father for a debt, which not being paid, she was sold into slavery.” I researched pawning and, learning that it was often done in times of famine, invented that as the reason Margru’s father pawned her. The final scene of Margru meeting emissaries of her father is something she mentioned in a letter. Whether they actually met we don’t know. In fact, she and her husband left the mission not long after this and nothing further about her life is known.

 

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