This is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, the author was a brilliant storyteller and I greatly anticipated the release of this book. But, on the other, maybe this didn’t deserve a full length publication. It feels more suited to a magazine article or a series of them.

Cudjo (Kossula) Lewis arrived in America in 1859 on what is thought to be the last ship to carry enslaved Africans, the Clotilda. As part of her work as a cultural anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston was sent to interview him for Carter G. Woodson’s Journal of Negro History. Through a series of casual visits at his home, Hurston is able to hear a rare first hand account of what it’s like to be sold from everything you’ve known and forced into a whole new way of existence. Slavery is abolished less than 7 years later and now Cudjo and the others who came over on the Clotilda are in the unique position of being free in a country where they’re considered foreigners, even by the African-Americans they worked alongside.

It’s easy to see why Hurston was chosen for this assignment, as she was able to relate to Cudjo in a familiar yet respectful way, allowing him to tell his story in a way that felt comfortable for him. I learned a lot, but I felt like the meat of the story was less than I expected. There’s a lengthy introduction that gives backstory surrounding the history of the area where Cudjo was born, the sailing of the Clotilda, and Hurston’s efforts to get this work published. I would have preferred this as an afterward, because it was a little exhausting to read before actually getting to the book. It made Cudjo’s words seem over too quickly.

As a student of African-American history, I recommend Barracoon because of its importance to the canon of Zora Neale Hurston. But I finished wanting more.

Goodreads Rating: 3 stars

I received a complimentary copy of this e-book from Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Proud or Fortunate?

I make a point to never say that I am proud to be an American.

I believe that pride is something that comes from accomplishment.
You can be proud that you finished college, raised children, ran a marathon, didn’t kill the rude clerk at the drugstore.
Immigrants who risk their lives to get here and become U.S. citizens should be proud to be American, they worked for it and earned it.
I, on the other hand, am fortunate to be an American.
I am fortunate to live somewhere that affords me the freedom to criticize it and hold it’s leaders accountable.
I am fortunate to live in a country that continually re-invents itself and rights itself when it starts to fall.
I am fortunate to have been born in America.

35. The Beautiful Struggle

A Father, Two Sons, and An Unlikely Road to Manhood

by Ta-Nehisi Coates
started 7/28 finished 8/3

I wanted to read this book as soon as it came out in May, but wasn’t able to get to it until now. I’ve mentioned before that I used to manage 2 African-American bookstores here in Atlanta and being in those positions gave me immediate membership in…”The Concious Community”. This is a sub-culture of African-Americans that prides itself on “knowing who we really are”, i.e. our place in history before and after the Maafa. There are no specific leaders or mouthpieces (definitely not Jesse and/or Al). The Community includes members of several different spiritual practices (Nation of Islam, Rastafarians, Black Hebrew Israelites, Ifa, as well as traditional Western religions), so there is no specific place of worship. The members are primarily vegetarian, although there are meat eaters, too (but definitely no pork). There are no structured meetings, except at Kwanzaa. But there is something of a reading list: The Miseducation of the Negro, anything by J.A. Rogers, Ivan Van Sertima, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, and Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan (affectionately known as Dr. Ben) among others. Black Classic Press, started in 1978 by former Black Panther Paul Coates, was fundamental in keeping Black bookstores stocked with the knowledge and history of Africans in America. Coates would find out-of print and forgotten works by Black scholars and re-publish them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir takes place during a time when the Conscious community was really starting to flourish (due in part to the Anti-Apartheid movement and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie), but the crack epidemic is exploding as well. Using the hip-hop lyrics of the time as chapter headings, Coates relates his and his brother Big Bill’s adolescence in inner-city Baltimore as they traverse the many worlds they come across. Ta-Nehisi was more of the dreamer, while Bill was more at home with what the street had to offer. The best part of this book is the role of Paul in his son’s lives and how he steers them toward manhood with input from the family (related and created) that surrounds them.

I think this book will resonate with a lot of people – those in the Conscious community who rarely see ourselves in print; parents of African-American sons; people who came of age during the dawn of hip-hop but not necessarily in New York. Coates’ writing is lyrical and fresh and I look forward to more from him.

Black History Month Reading

I don’t really do much to celebrate Black History Month or Kwanzaa. If I had children I would go all out. We would be reading books, writing reports, visiting museums, watching documentaries…the whole nine. (Ya’ll should be glad I don’t have kids, ’cause I would probably be raising little Black Panthers, but anyway…). Since its just me, I choose to honor this month by educating myself. So, every February I choose a book to read. It is usually a classic like Up From Slavery, Miseducation of the Negro, or The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

This year after watching Prince Among Slaves, a documentary airing on PBS this month, I decided to read the memoirs of another African torn from his home, Olaudah Equiano.
According to the book jacket he was a “sailor, adventurer, entrepreneur, author” who after being enslaved eventually made it to England where he worked in the abololitionist movement.
So, that (along with a couple of other books) is what I’ll be reading for the rest of the month.