“Drapetomania: or, the Narrative of Cyrus Tyler and Abednego Tyler, Lovers” by John R. Gordon— Through the Eyes of a Gay Slave

Gordon, John R. “Drapetomania: or, the Narrative of Cyrus Tyler and Abednego Tyler, Lovers”

, Team Angelica Publishing, 2018.

Through the Eyes of a Gay Slave

Amos Lassen

“Drapetomania” is a very important book in that in the past, we have had the opportunity to read many different African-American slave narratives yet this is the first book to look at slavery from how a gay slave experienced it. John R. Gordon brings us a mesmerizing story with all of the pain that was part of slavery. Even more interesting is that this comes to us from a British writer who totally understands how the system worked and shares his knowledge with us.

For those unfamiliar with the term, drapetomania is “the pathological psychological condition wherein a slave feels compelled to escape his master, however well that master treats him. Recommended treatment for this condition: firm discipline.”

Our story begins when house-servant Abednego is sold away to the South, Cyrus, his lover, is a simple field hand who is broken-hearted and flees the only home he has ever known and runs to the North in the hopes of finding freedom. This, as we know, was not an easy thing to do and he was pursued by dogs and others out to find him and bring him back. Suddenly while in a swamp, Cyrus gets a sign that Abednego is his true North Star, and from that moment he becomes determined to find his lover and save him from slavery.

What a beautiful read this is. John Gordon is not only a fine author but a fine historian as well. He reminds us all too well about the horrors of slavery and even with my having been raised in the southern United States, I was amazed at how much I did not know about the institution.

There are three books within the overall “Drapetomania” and our two main characters, Cyrus and Abednego are narrated to us in the third person. We begin in the mid-19th century, when the rumors of a war between the agricultural South and the industrialized North. Cyrus, and Abednego, two slaves on the same plantation know nothing of the rumors. They have been too busy falling in love. It is this love that pulls the reader into the story and propels it forward.

In the first book we meet and follow Cyrus who has run away from the Tyler estate several months after Abednego has been sold. His goal is freedom and he follows the North Star, all the while being hunted. He has never known real freedom and the only freedom he has ever felt were the tiles he spent with Abednego. Once he understands what freedom really is, he becomes driven by it and he knows that total freedom will come when the two men are together again.

The narrative changes a bit in book 2 with the emphasis shifting to Abednego and we see his point of view. It is set in the period of time between his having been sold and Cyrus’ escape. Yet this is a love story and that remains at the center of everything. Cyrus really grows in book 2 but he has to since he is on his own. The relationship between the two men shows the difference in other minor themes of facing war, dependability and morality and of course, race.

As might be expected religion plays an important part in the story. Because the slaves had nowhere to turn, they turned to God and by some internal mechanism, they found resilience and managed to stay alive under the harshest of conditions. (On the other hand I have to wonder what kind of God allows for slavery or something like the Holocaust to exist?).

Cyrus and Abednego worked hard to get to the end of their journey, the subject of book 3. This is quite an emotional read especially for me as a white man and I can only imagine how it would affect a black man. This is a story of perseverance and a look to what is better than the present life. The battle begun in this book has not yet been won and we can only learn from reads like these.

John R Gordon’s has written an “epic and exciting tale of black freedom, uprising, and a radical representation of romantic love between black men in slavery times.” As far as I could ascertain, this is the first novel to explore this experience through the eyes of a gay slave.  Gordon has begun to fill a huge void wit his wonderful book. I must simply quote the next sentences because they say so much: Gordon “tells the compelling story of two men whose love for each other re-imagines the erotic contours of what was possible under the whip and scrutiny of catastrophic bondage.

Here is a story of love so powerful, so achingly present, it dares to consider not just the past but the future, as vital to freedom; and in doing so, defies any notion of the black enslaved body as an ugly, unpalatable thing, unworthy of the sweetness of love. Gordon’s novel enters the company of such classic works as Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. We will be reading and talking about this extraordinary novel for years to come.”

– Alexis De Veaux, (author, Yabo and Sister Outsider: A Biography of Audre Lorde)

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