Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for September, 2018

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Posted by nliakos on September 20, 2018

by Zora Neale Hurston (Amistad/HarperCollins 2018; manuscript completed in 1931. Edited by Deborah G. Plant)

Zora Neale Hurston trained as an anthropologist under Franz Boas, “the Father of American Anthropology”, but she is known as a novelist for her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, among others. In Barracoon, Hurston steps back and lets her subject, Oluale Kossola/Kossula, aka Cudjo Lewis, tell his own life story in his own dialect, spelling his words to reflect his pronunciation and copying his syntax. The effect is of reading a primary source, although I guess the living Kossola was the primary source, making Hurston’s work a secondary source.

Whether primary or secondary, Kossola’s story is unique in that there are no other similar narratives of capture, slavery, liberation, and persecution quite like his. However, it is also representative of the hundreds and thousands of narratives that we will never know, because the people that lived those lives could not write about them, and no one who could write cared to ask them what they had experienced and to set it down for posterity.

Kossola lived in a village in West Africa called Banté until he was nineteen years old, when Glélé, the king of neighboring Dahomey, sent warriors to destroy the village, capture people they could sell into slavery and massacre the rest, wiping out the village. This was done; and Kossola found himself a captive, marched to Dahomey and from there to Ouidah (Whydah) in present-day Benin, where he was confined in the barracoon, the building used to keep the prisoners until a ship arrived and they could be sold. The ship which Kossola was loaded onto, the Clotilda, was built especially for this purpose by William Foster and the Meaher brothers. Transporting captured Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to sell them into slavery had long been illegal, and the Clotilde would be the last ship to complete its journey from Africa to the United States. It was 1860, and the Civil War was about to begin.

Kossola, now known as Cudjo, was enslaved in Alabama by one of the Meaher brothers, Jim, where he worked on a river boat carrying freight between Mobile and Montgomery, loading wood and freight, pumping bilge, and doing whatever needed to be done. He relates, “Oh, Lor’! Oh Lor’! Five year and de six months I slave. I workee so hard!” Cudjo and his fellows were freed by Union troops in 1865. Emancipation for them also meant homelessness and poverty. They were free, but they had no house, no land, no money. Somehow, they formed a community of mostly African-born freedmen and women, and after some years were able to purchase a piece of land from the Meahers (Cudjo commented, “Dey doan take one five cent from de price for us. But we pay it all and take de lan’.”) This became “Affican Town” (Africatown, now the town of Plateau, AL).

Cudjo met and married Seely (Celia), and they had six children together, most of whom died, some in suspicious circumstances, as Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow in Alabama and the rest of the former Confederacy. Cudjo and Seely bore the grief of losing their children as best they could. Seely passed away in 1908. Their surviving son had married and moved away, so Cudjo spent the rest of his life alone with his memories. As Hurston tells it, he never stopped grieving for his homeland, which he called “de Afficky soil”. African-born people suffered discrimination not only from white people, but also from African-Americans. Though a pillar in his own tiny community, Cudjo never felt accepted in American society, even though he had nothing to return to in Africa, his entire family having been wiped out in the raid on Banté. The reader is saddened by Cudjo’s solitude. When Hurston conducted her interviews, he was in his eighties, already the last surviving person from the Clotilda. Apparently, those who suffered the Middle Passage together formed strong bonds among themselves. Of course, they were separated from each other upon arrival when they were sold to various people, but following the Civil War, Cudjo managed to be reunited with some of the same people he had been with in the barracoon and on the Clotilda, and it was these people who founded Africatown.

The book is 171 pages, of which only 70 are devoted to the narrative of the life of Kossola/Cudjo Lewis. An appendix including descriptions of games and transcriptions of Cudjo’s stories and parables take up another 17 pages. The remaining 84 pages are taken up by a preface by Alice Walker, a lengthy introduction by Hurston, and following the appendix, an afterword, acknowledgments, a list of the founders of Africatown, a glossary, notes and citations, and a bibliography.

Posted in Autobiography, History, Memoir | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Two by Simenon

Posted by nliakos on September 17, 2018

Maigret au Picratt’s (English version: Maigret in Montmartre), 1950

Maigret en meublé (English version: Maigret Takes a Room/Maigret Rents a Room), 1951

(in Tout Simenon Vol. 5, Presses de la Cité 1988)

I was recently inspired to re-read Maigret au Picratt’s when I watched it on my local PBS station, starring Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) as Maigret (likable, but not at all how one imagines Maigret while reading). I was pleased to find that it was in one of my four Tout Simenon volumes (it’s a 25-volume set, each of which has about ten novels and whodunits), so I immediately started to read. When I lived in France in the early 1970s,  I used to love reading Maigret mysteries, which for some reason were not difficult for me to understand (compared to the novels), and I read a lot of them. I guess there was a lot of repeated vocabulary from one to another. I don’t remember looking up words as I read, and all these years later, I can still read them without relying on a dictionary, but it was so easy to check a word on my phone (with a choice of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries!) that I sometimes opted to do that (mostly finding that the words meant what I had thought they did, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of Understanding Vocabulary in Context).

Maigret au Picratt’s follows Inspector Maigret as he investigates the murder of Arlette, a young stripper at a bar named Picratt’s. The night before she was killed, Arlette had gone to the neighborhood police station to report that she had overheard two men in Picratt’s talking about murdering a countess. They didn’t believe her until she herself was found strangled in her room. Maigret takes over the investigation from the long-suffering Inspector Lognon (who is used to ceding his authority to Maigret), but he is not fast enough to stop the killer from murdering the Countess von Farnheim in her apartment the following day. Then it’s all hands on deck to catch the killer before he strikes again. The countess was a drug addict, and the investigation takes Maigret into the seedy underground world of addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes,  and petty criminals. Maigret’s signature investigative style of immersing himself in the culture of the killer and victim is in evidence here, as well as in Maigret en meublé, which I also read because it followed immediately after Maigret au Picratt’s (both were written while Simenon was living in Connecticut, 1950-1955).

In this story, Inspector Janvier, one of the detectives who works very closely with Maigret, is shot while staking out a suspect in the Rue Lhomond, and Maigret becomes obsessed with finding the shooter. Since Madame Maigret is away from home, Maigret rents a furnished room in the building in front of which Janvier was shot, and he immerses himself in the life and people of the little street, chatting up the tenants and the young woman (la grosse fille, in the language of the day) who owns the building and knows more than she will reveal, the neighbors, the shopkeepers and the owner of the bar where he goes to eat and drink beer and white wine. (In doing so, Maigret absents himself from his other duties at the Police Judiciaire, other than checking in on the phone from time to time, but as always, his boss (le chef) seems okay with that.) Maigret becomes increasingly frustrated as his investigation turns up nothing, but eventually, he seems to figure out what must have happened, and then he sets about getting those involved to admit their guilt.

Written in the early 50s, these stories were probably set in the 40s. What strikes a modern reader is that in a time before cell phones, investigators on the street were very limited in their ability to communicate with their colleagues; if they were tailing a suspect, they would have to duck into a café or a bar to use a public telephone. To get from one place to another, they took taxis. Of course, there was no DNA evidence. There were no body cameras. But Maigret and his inspectors generally seem to respect the humanity of the people they are investigating and interviewing. I have no idea how accurate this depiction of the Paris police is!

Anyway, when I went to my local library recently, I checked the fiction and mystery shelves for Simenon’s books and was surprised to find only one Maigret mystery (Maigret’s First Case) and no novels. I checked it out, so soon I may be reading about Maigret in English. However, as usual, I borrowed more books than I can possibly read (four), and then I ordered Fear: Trump in the White House on my Kindle, so who knows if I will have a chance to get to it? 🙂

For a review of Pierre Assouline’s 1997 biography of Simenon, visit https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/08/10/reviews/970810.10bairlt.html. Hmmm. . . . not an admirable person. I much prefer Maigret!

For an interesting summary and discussion of Maigret en meublé on the website Maigret of the Month, try https://www.trussel.com/maig/mommeu.htm.

Posted in Fiction, Mystery | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »