Being a teenager can pretty tough, between dealing with a changing body, the demands of family, and planning for the future. The mild stresses of growing older and more independent pale in comparison for 15-year-old Amari when she loses her independence and autonomy altogether and is sold into slavery. Amari is born free, in the gregarious, bustling community in Ziavi, but her life is shattered when the very White men whom her village welcomes with open arms slaughter most of the villagers and take the rest hostage, including Amari.
Copper Sun is not your average slave narrative. For one thing, it’s fictional, and told in the third person. What also make this novel unique is that it is young adult fiction; our protagonist is a teen, but so is Draper’s target audience. This alone makes the book vital, now more than ever, when American teens are being taught a distorted, White supremacist re-imagining of the Trans-Atlantic slave (or complete erasure altogether). When Amari’s village is betrayed by their guests, the young woman is taken by them onto a ship across the ocean, where a perilous new life awaits.
Though Amari is lucky to be spared the trauma of rape aboard the slave ship, when she arrives in the United States, Amari is quickly sold off to Mr. Derby, a vicious plantation owner, as a birthday gift for his 16-year-old son, Clay. Though she doesn’t understand the country or the customs, Amari very quickly learns what her role on the Derby Plantation will be as she is subjected to backbreaking work by day and brutal rapes at the hands of Clay Derby by night. Re-named “Mina” by her new master, Amari finds herself on the brink of losing her identity, just as she has lost her family, and her fiance.
In addition to dealing with the ruthless Derby men, Amari also has to deal with Polly, a 17-year-old orphan with a double indenture of 14 years and a disdain for slaves, whom (in her white privileged mind) she believes to be responsible for the mass unemployment of poor White people such as herself. At first, Polly does little to hide her loathing for Amari and the slave cook, Teenie, but when she realizes that “being employed” and “having a place to live” doesn’t diminish the horror and inhumanity of slavery, Polly starts to see the humanity in Black people, as well as the vulnerability of her own position.
In Copper Sun, we don’t just get a vivid account of how slavery affected slaves, but also indentured servants, who both suffered from and contributed to the persistence of slave culture via their own racism. Every single person on the Derby Plantation suffers in some way as a consequence of either owning or being owned. As Dr. Joy DeGruy states in her Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome lecture, just as the culture of being enslaved has embedded itself into the Black psyche, so has the brutality and narcissism of enslaving others embedded itself into the White psyche. Even those who never owned were taught from the cradle to believe that their Whiteness made them inherently superior to the slaves. And Polly is no exception. Copper Sun, in an impressively age-appropriate fashion, covers everything about the plight of the enslaved: from the beatings, to the rapes, to unwanted pregnancies, and the never-ending worry of being the mother of an enslaved child. It also allows for the discussion of sexual consent, and how, under absolutely no circumstance, can consent possibly exist in a relationship where one person is being held hostage and the other is holding the key to their freedom.
Amari is thousands of miles from home, with no hope of going back, and with their lives on the line and no family to turn to, she and Polly develop and unlikely friendship as the two are forced to fend for themselves and come together to stay alive. As readers delve into the intersections of Amari and Polly’s oppression, as well as the stark privileges that Polly has, it is bittersweet, because it is painfully clear to anyone paying attention that Amari, despite her only experiences with White people being entirely negative, sees Polly as a person, whilst Polly, merely sees her as a tool. In this way, Copper Sun also highlights the glaring privilege of White women and the hand they play in White supremacy and the continued oppression of Black women.
Copper Sun doesn’t shy away from the horror of Amari’s situation, but it gives just enough hope, love, and perseverance that readers want the best for Amari and believe that she’ll pull through. Though Amari is ripped from her family and her homeland, she finds a new family in the other slaves she meets, and makes a family of those who know intimately what it mean to suffer as she has. As her past makes a reappearance, and her future is uncertain, we see her growth from a frightened girl into a strong young woman, and it’s that strength which stays with readers long after the last page has been read.
I give this one 4.5 stars.