How Writing Hannah’s Civil Pirate Changed Me

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by Joanna Emerson

Have you ever read those verses in Proverbs about wisdom and understanding, and stopped to ask God for these?

The word “dayclean” will forever be in my vocabulary after writing Hannah’s Civil Pirate. So will “trutemout,” “eish ‘tettuhs,” “buckruh,” and many others. These are Gullah words. The Gullah people live along the southeast coast of the United States and are descended from enslaved Africans who were forced to work the land they now own. One of the most famous of the Gullah people was Robert Smalls.

Even though he was one of the most famous of the Gullah people, and even though his deeds impacted America in major ways, most people I asked didn’t know who Robert Smalls was. So I decided to tell his story.

This man escaped enslavement  during the height of the Civil War. He didn’t just escape by himself, either! He took family and friends with him. All at once.

In order to write the story properly, I had to research. And research I did! I read as many biographies on him as I could, both books and articles. I studied steamboats, gunboats, navy procedures, water mines, and many more intricacies of the Civil War.

One of the things that changed me was the loyalty of both Hannah and Robert Smalls. When her husband, Robert, talked of leaving, and all the perils along the way, Hannah said she would go with him anyway. She borrowed the words of Ruth to say, “Where you die, I die.”

Robert wouldn’t leave his family and friends behind. He was savvy enough to figure out how to get himself out. But getting just himself out wasn’t enough. He wanted his family and friends to be free as well! He worked tirelessly toward that goal!

What changed me most was putting myself in their shoes, so to say, to understand life from their perspective. So many whites at that time treated blacks as if they were not even human, or that they were only partly human, or that they were humans cursed by God. These horrible paradigms were what slavers used to justify their behavior. Every day for months, I imagined in detail what it must have felt like for Hannah and Robert to have people regard them like that. It totally transformed the way I view the modern situation of race relations in the United States.

This taught me to listen more intently to all the dialogue going on. All my research helped me listen more objectively, but writing these characters helped me listen more empathetically.

For years, I asked God for wisdom and understanding about the current state race relations in America. My prayers for wisdom and understanding were answered through writing Hannah’s Civil Pirate.

Have you ever written a story that changed you, or opened your eyes to things you hadn’t seen before?

Here’s the premise of the story!

Based on a true story. 

Hannah Jones knows little more than the evils of slavery. She yearns for freedom for herself and her children. But in Charleston, SC in the 1850s, freedom seems impossible for a black woman. 

Then she meets Robert Smalls, who doesn’t think like anyone else she ever met before. And he may be daring and gallant enough to attempt the impossible—escape. 

If they succeed, they will win freedom for their family and friends. If they fail, the Confederate army would hang Robert as a pirate, and would kill his whole family. Or worse, send them back to slavery.

Hannah's Civil Pirate

About the Author:

Joanna EmersonJoanna Emerson loves the miracle of life and is continually awed that she’s allowed to participate in this wild, beautiful, frightening ride. She lives in Mexico with her husband and two miraculous children.

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