Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave

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(Shackle Ring Iron, Andrew Martin, Pixaby)

October is Black History Month, an international celebration of Black contributions to society.  I’m in an online readers’ group with charity Shelterbox where I make a monthly donation and each month receive the Book of the Month, voted on by members of the group. This month it is Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston and as I settled down to read, I found it incredible that, although completed in 1931, it had taken until 2018 to be published. Alice Walker, who writes the Foreword, explains why:

“…one understands immediately the problem many black people, years ago, especially black intellectuals and political leaders had with it. It resolutely records the atrocities African peoples inflicted on each other, long before shackled Africans, traumatized, ill, disoriented, starved, arrived on ships as ‘black cargo’ in the hellish west”

In 1927 anthroplogist Zora Neale Hurston travelled to Mobile, Alabama, to conduct a series of interviews with the last surviving African of the Middle Passage, who travelled on the last American slave ship, Clotilda, fifty years after slavery was outlawed. Over a period of three months she met with Oluale Kossola (renamed Cudjo Lewis by his owner) and carefully listened to his story. Kossola had been enslaved, survived the Civil War, endured the Jim Crow era, lived through WW1 and the Great Depression, been married and had lost his wife and all six children. At ninety years of age he was a lonely man, still grieving for his family and lost homeland. A man who wanted his story told and for it to reach his people.

I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Affricky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say : ‘Yes, I know Kossola.’ ”

Apart from the richness of historical detail, this story is much more than just a study in the African diaspora or the transformation of the African identity. It is a story of a man, brutally taken from his village by a neighbouring tribe, stored in pens at the coast then shipped along with one hundred others in appalling conditions to a foreign country, kept hidden below decks to avoid detection by patrol boats, worked like a dog for over five years  then when Emancipated, was thrown out onto the streets. He asked to be returned to his country but was accused of being ungrateful. Abused by neighbours, hit by a train but received no compensation despite a court ruling, his children killed in horrific and heartbreaking circumstances, he later lost his wife. Yet throughout all his trials Kossola tried to live a good life, didn’t seek revenge against anyone, but struggled to understand why people behaved the way they did and why black people born in America also treated him badly, calling him and other Africans ‘ignorant’.

Told in his own words this is a powerful contribution to history. And also, finally Kossola’s story has been able to reach a wide audience.

Life inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go.”      Alice Walker (March 2018)

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(Slave Cabin Laura Plantation, JamesdeMers, Pixabay)

 

Different Voices

As a writer I like to explore different characters in order to use voices that will differentiate them and be in keeping with the psychology and personal history I have created for them in my novels and short stories. I spend a lot of time listening to people speak, talking to them, asking their views/opinions on issues etc, and I research other countries, cultures and speech patterns. However, one area of life that I’m less familiar with is LGBTQ.

I will be 70 in April and have seen a lot of changes during my life regarding people who don’t fall into the heterosexual binary category. But it was only during a discussion with friends last weekend, about the BBC progamme ‘Seahorse’, that I realised, to my horror, how outdated and ignorant I am. This week I set about trying to educate myself.

I am aware of the cisgender/trans-women issue that raged on Facebook for months but I never engaged with it. My personal feelings at the time were that classifications aren’t necessary and whatever anyone wants to present themselves, whatever pronoun they wish to have, is fine by me and I will do my best to respect their wishes. However, I now realise it’s much, much more complicated than that.

In order to educate myself, I picked up a book originally belonging to my daughter Trans Voices: Becoming Who You Are by Declan Henry (Squirrel Publishing 2016). The blurb on the back says:

“This book gives an important, valuable platform to many divers trans voices. We must listen andlearn from their experiences and concerns; and act in solidarity with their human rights struggle.” (Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation)

Perfect. However, as I read through I began to panic.

As an ex-teacher I’m aware of different kinds of learners and used to employ various strategies to help my students find their most effective methods of learning. I’m a kinesthetic learner; I learn by doing something repeatedly – new technology is a good example. If someone tells me how to do a certain thing on the computer and I don’t have to do that action again for several weeks, I forget how to do it; I have to write it down and refer to it again when I need the information. As I’ve got older, my ability to retain new things is slowly decreasing, and when faced with lots of new words, despite being a writer and words being my ‘thing’, I feel like a poor speller who’s struggling to determine the differences between ‘Their’, ‘There’ and “They’re’.

Back to my panic. I never knew there were so many words, so many categories or terms that explain all the different physiological and psychological experiences, states of mind/identity, and trying to remember them all overwhelmed me. I had to keep flicking back the pages to the various labels in order to understand differences between gender-fluid, gender-queer, gender-non-conforming, and gender-variant, to name a few. To be honest, I’ll still have to look them up as my brain can’t quite accommodate so much information overload. However, labels aside, what I loved about the book were the personal voices of the many people Henry interviewed, and the breadth of their experiences in transition and what it meant to them.

In these disturbing times we live in I am always greatly encouraged to hear stories of not only survival and courage in adversity,  but also of compassion and empathy. I have never before lived through such hatred and divisiveness in society, bombarded by the media and encouraged by politicians. It is therefore a breath of fresh air to read about and hear the voices of so many people who, despite the difficulties of health systems, familial rejections and public prejudices, have emerged to become the person they really believe they are. I feel humbled.

I set out to read the book in order to educate myself, but in the process found out about myself, the extent of my ignorance, and a whole new world of experiences I have never really considered in any depth. Thank you.

The Ethic of Belonging

We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.

Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty. “(David George Haskell,  The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors)

I’ve always loved the majesty of trees. I think I inherited it from my great aunt Ida, who was disabled and lived alone in an upstairs flat. Few people visited, despite her coming from a huge family. As a child she was locked away in her bedroom if any visitors called and she never got to go to parties, church, or anywhere else outside the house, such was the shame of having a disabled member of the family in those days. She had no sticks, no wheelchair, and to get around inside the house she swivelled on a ‘crackit’ (stool). And in the rare event anyone did call, she had to bump up and downstairs on her bum to open the door. In her eyes, the outside world was a frightening alien environment. Until my dad bought a car.

He was the only son of one of her sisters and the only member of the family that I know of who visited regularly. The car was bought in 1956 and Dad used to bring Aunt Ida to our house for Sunday dinner then take us all out for a ‘run’ in the car afterwards. She was terrified of the traffic and yelled at cars, ‘Get away home!’ but the things that really blew her away were the trees.

We lived in a mining community of back-to-backs, cobbled stone streets, back yards and outhouses, so trees were a luxury only seen in parks, or further afield in the countryside. In the car Ida used to repeat, over and over, ‘Oh, the trees. The trees!’ lost in her own little world of reverence. Trees connected her to a nature that was not part of her home environment nor seen from any of her windows. And in these living networks of trees, birds, insects, squirrels and sky she melted into a relationship with the divine.

It is no coincidence that I live in a forest park, that I walk in the woods for inspiration for my writing or that I feel a spiritual connection to the life evolving around me. There is harshness in predatory killings, in sudden frosts and flash floods, but there is also gentleness in whispering breezes, the unfurling of ferns, the song of a blackbird. The cycles of life and death are unsentimental dances, their beauty cast in webs of environmental responsibility. And we each have our part to play in the music and the dance.

 

 

Discomfort is relative

Last month I went to Crete. The return flight didn’t get into Edinburgh till 1.30am and the first train out to Lockerbie, where I’d left my car, wasn’t till 8.30am so I made the decision to sleep in the airport rather than try to find accommodation for a few hours. It was cold, uncomfortable and I wasn’t able to sleep at all, despite my fatigue. But it was interesting, on quite a few levels.

I used to run a Duke of Edinburgh Award when I was working and had to do some of my mountian leadership training in winter. So I’ve slept in tents up mountains in all weathers, waded through waist-high icy-cold streams, belayed people off hills when my hands could barely move with the cold, but lying on a draughty bench in the arrivals part of an airport dressed only in a coat, jeans and jumper, was way more difficult. I take my hat off to rough sleepers who do this all year round.

As a writer I like to have experiences that stretch me a bit out of my comfort zone so that I can empathise with characters whose lives I’ve created different from mine. In my next novel one of my characters ends up on the streets, but actually living on the streets to experience this might be a step too far for me. I’m 67 with a long-term illness that is exacerbated by stress and requires daily medication, so in practical terms, that is a non-starter. However, there are lots of blogs and accounts written by homeless people about their lives that provide real insights into their thinking, fears and dreams, how they are treated by authorities and the general public, that makes for sobering reading.

One blog I came across is by gabfrab, a guy who lives in his car in Austin, Texas. Whilst some of his descriptions of eating out of bins, attempting to get laid, personal hygiene issues and living in car lots where crack and other addicts congregate make disturbing reading, he offers great insights into his way of life:

“I wish the world were more forgiving of the homeless, felt no need to interfere in someone’s life for no reason. I’m one of the lucky few. I have shelter. Good sleep. Money. I barely feel homeless. I  only remember that I am when it’s bedtime or I’m trying to find a woman to be in my life. Other than being alone I have it good. I walk the paths along the river, sit in my car outside the library and write. I swim the creek and hike the greenbelt trail through its rocky, weedy paths. Sometimes I’ll do fifteen miles in a day, others just a couple before I sit to sunbathe. These things are my routine but also the building blocks of a solitary life. I do everything alone. I don’t always like it but that’s the way it is. It’s hard to keep people in your life when you’re always drifting.” (https://gabfrab.com/2017/03/26/jizz-coffin)

He supports himself by being a lab rat in pharmaceutical trials. Despite having money he has chosen a life lived in his car, without emotional entaglements or responsibilities. Reading his blog is unsettling; I sit in the warmth and comfort of my own home, vicariously experiencing this young man’s ups and downs through his brutal honesty. My discomfort arises from my perceived notions of  ‘acceptable’ norms bumping against the reality of his situation. And it pales into insignificance compared to the actual discomfort experienced by homeless people everywhere.

Scorched Earth

Every once in a while you suddenly discover in your search through secondhand books an absolute gem, a book that stands out from the rest with its sparkling prose and hidden depths. Scorched Earth by David L Robins (Orion 2002) is one such gem.

The basic storyline is of a white woman, Clare, and her black husband, Elijah, whose mixed race baby, Nora Carol, dies shortly after birth. The white woman’s grandmother, Rosy Epps,  arranges with Pastor Thomas Derby for the child to be buried in her family plot in the graveyard of Victory Baptist Church where Epps is a deacon. The burial takes place, but when the other deacons find out they hold a meeting and refuse permission for the burial on the grounds of the child being mixed race. The child is then disinterred the following morning and transferred to the black cemetery up the road. That night the white church is burnt down and the man arrested for the arson is the baby’s father, Elijah, who declares his innocence.  What follows  is an intricately plotted, insightful and moving story, a legal case that reveals hosts of hidden prejudices and secrets that ignite rage and hatred.

What I love about the novel is that it spoke to me about identity and classification, about where and to whom people belong. I am a white grandmother of a blended family with a mixed race grandson so the issue is quite close to my heart, particularly in these troubling times. The novel raises issues about what it is to be ‘family’ or ‘community’, what part history, tradition and inheritance play in our psyche, and gets us to question, who are ‘our people’? And all this it does  in exquisite prose that delights me, captivating me right from  the opening chapter:

The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers, tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark: the tree is a gentle old presence.

If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for harvest machinery resting now after church this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.

He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.

Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.

A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible at the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.

When Clare falls for Elijah, colour is no longer an issue:

She will remember this moment when Elijah’s blackness became not something missing from what she was but a remarkable presence not bound or described by color. She opens her mouth in a moment of shame, fleeting like a pinprick, fast and sharp, for ever having felt whatever ugliness it was she had just said goodbye to.

The couple are asked to sit on a Diversity committee at the paper mill where they both work but as Elijah says ‘This is y’all’s problem’ and Clare refuses to be used – ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not your damn role models’. However, in the aftermath of the tragedy of Nora Carol tensions escalate and soon both Clare and Elijah feel the effects of the problems others have with their relationship.

At the meeting of church deacons the Pastor is urging them to exercise compassion and leave the dead child where she is, but the response he gets is:

I like Elijah, by God I do, and I feel awful for what’s happened to him. But that don’t mean I want to buried with him or his kin. That poor baby ought to be laid to rest in a place surrounded by her own people, and that place isn’t here, it’s up the road.

And so begins a course of actions that divide a community, entrench latent prejudices where nothing and no-one will ever be the same, not even the reader.

As it says in the epigram for the novel:

The line separating good and evil 

passes not through states,

nor between classes,

nor between parties either,

But right through the human heart.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Silent Spring

It’s spring. Snowdrops have been out for a while, their pristine white heads bobbing in the winds, the green of their stalks rising up out of the crustiness of frost and snow. Spring is the time for hope, the start of a new cycle of re-birth, yet it has been another depressing week.

Listening to the news, watching the Trump machine bulldozing its way over human rights and decency and Theresa May toadying up to him hasn’t helped my mood. Nor has the recognition that 27 Jan was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and today is the 70th anniversary of Ghandi’s assassination. Life is always moving, is in a state of perpetual change, but some of these changes I can do without. They indicate that we have learnt nothing despite the murder of millions of people who happened to believe or worship differently to others, and we seem to be turning full circle to those times again.

It’s easy to get depressed and give up watching the news, of getting media overload and want to withdraw into a cave somewhere. But as Toni Morrison wrote in her essay entitled ‘No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,’ included in the 150th anniversary issue of The Nation “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” And so I blog.

For the last 3 days there has been ‘The Big Bang Weekend’ in Wigtown, (near where I live) a series of lectures and readings celebrating women in science. Then coincidentally this morning  I read about Rachel Carson, a scientist/writer whose book Silent Spring was responsible for persuading the JFK administration to introduce federal laws to regulate the use of pesticides. As a woman she was up against tremendous prejudice and her critics in big business were keen to have her discredited. Yet nothing, not even dying of cancer, prevented her from doing what she believed to be right.

“She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960, which had metastasized due to her doctor’s negligence. In 1963, when Silent Spring stirred President Kennedy’s attention and he summoned a Congressional hearing to investigate and regulate the use of pesticides, Carson didn’t hesitate to testify even as her body was giving out from the debilitating pain of the disease and the wearying radiation treatments. With her testimony as a pillar, JFK and his Science Advisory Committee invalidated her critics’ arguments, heeded Carson’s cautionary call to reason, and created the first federal policies designed to protect the planet. “(The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings Weekly Newsletter 30 Jan 2017)

What she achieved is amazing in itself, but that she did so during a period of extreme pain in the knowledge that she was dying, is astonishing. If only other people followed through with the same commitment. I find this quote from James Comey, Head of FBI, particularly ironic.

“The need for reflection and restraint of power is what led Louis Freeh to order that all new agent classes visit the Holocaust Museum here in Washington so they could see and feel and hear in a palpable way the consequences of abuse of power on a massive, almost unimaginable scale.”

I wonder if he’s mentioned this to his new Commander-in-Chief? Hmmmm.

However, it is spring, so let’s end on a positive note with this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

The happiness of life is made up of little charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look, a heartfelt compliment.”

The big picture can look bleak at the moment, but let’s not forget the little things that can make a difference to someone, and remember the strength, determination and sacrifice of those who have gone before.

 

 

 

 

 

The Holocaust illustrates the consequences of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on a society. It forces us to examine the responsibilities of citizenship and confront the powerful ramifications of indifference and inaction. Tim Holden

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

I certainly think that another Holocaust can happen again. It did already occur; think of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Miep Gies

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

We in the United States should be all the more thankful for the freedom and religious tolerance we enjoy. And we should always remember the lessons learned from the Holocaust, in hopes we stay vigilant against such inhumanity now and in the future. Charlie Dent

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Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

“Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine….”

This traditional song was recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. My first encounter with it was back in 1967, sung by John Renbourne, but in 1969 it was recorded by Nina Simone and her version became the definitive one for me. The song tells of a spiritual struggle, with reading the Bible as the path to salvation, or, rather, the failure to read it leading to damnation.

“Blind Willie Johnson recorded the song in a time when illiteracy was common in the rural South. Blinded as a young child, Johnson was singing this song as a warning to those who had learned to read, but concerned themselves too much with earthly matters, but Johnson tries to point the way to salvation. He admits to having fault, and he blames himself for not taking advantage of the skill he has, reading, and saving himself. The context of this song is strictly religious. It is a melancholy expression of his spirit, as the blues style echoes the depths of his guilt and his struggle.” Wikipedia

The context of this song may be strictly religious, but my interpretation is: ‘Appreciate your gifts and take responsibility for your actions’. Something that seems to get blurred in today’s blame culture. Being a lover of words I know the difference between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ but recently had to examine those differences in the context of domestic abuse when reading ‘A Suitable Lie’ by Michael Malone.

This novel reverses the traditional view and places the man on the receiving end of an abusive relationship. It charts the escalation of abuse and explores the emotions involved, the attitudes of the victim, police, family and friends of the victim, questioning what it is to be a man and what it means to stay.

Domestic abuse will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime. It leads to, on average, two women being murdered each week and 30 men per year. It accounts for 16% of all violent crime, but it is still the violent crime least likely to be reported to the police,  has more repeat victims than any other and leaving the relationship does not automatically mean that the abuse will stop and the victims will then be safe. People experiencing abuse don’t accept what is happening to them but they may try to cope with it, avoid it, understand it or try to fix it. They may minimise what is happening, blame themselves, feeling ashamed, embarrassed and alone. (Source: http://www.lwa.org)

I found reading the novel very disturbing. I have stayed in relationships far longer than was healthy and whilst I’ve never experienced the level of violence portrayed in the novel, I’ve experienced the same gamut of feelings the victim does. In no way did I ‘blame’ the victim, thinking he brought it on himself, but like an ex-smoker who has an evangelical purge on smokers, I wanted to shout at him.

Emotional entanglements are difficult to cope with, especially if we use love as an excuse for fear. Fear of retaliations, of being alone, seeming a failure, letting people down, abandoning someone with mental health problems etc. We are not to blame for the first act of violence perpetrated upon us but we do have to take some responsibility for staying, for our fears, for seeking help.

Staying is a choice, just as leaving is. What informs those choices has so much to do with life experience, levels of self-worth, support available and awareness. There is much needed to be done with societal attitudes, law enforcement, funding for refuges (the novel raises the issue – where do male victims go?), availability of counselling etc. But if the purpose of art is to reflect Truth, then this novel goes a long way to raise questions about the truth of domestic violence in today’s society.