I read more books than usual last month. Today’s post is about the four books I read that were not historical fiction. If you missed my blog last Monday about the five historical novels I read in April, here’s the link to it: 5 Historical Novels I Read in April 2021.
Let’s jump right in!
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” by Zora Neale Hurston
I’m not sure how this 2018 book escaped my attention for three years. I’m just glad I stumbled upon it recently.
Edited by Deborah G. Plant with a foreword by Alice Walker, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” is author and cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s account of her numerous conversations with a man who was on the last slave ship from Africa to the United States.
Bringing slaves into the United States was made illegal in 1808; however, the trade was not completely stopped just by making a law. In 1859, two brothers originally from Maine and their business partner originally from Nova Scotia, illegally transported 130 African slaves from the coast of Nigeria to Mobile, Alabama on board a ship named Clotilde. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” is the story of a 19-year-old man who was on that last slave ship to come to the United States.
The man’s name was Kossola, but his American name was Cudgo Lewis. Zora Neale Hurston found out about him, and a benefactor made it financially possible for her to go to Alabama for an extended time in order to meet Kossola and form a relationship of trust with him in order to hear and record his life story.
Kossola’s story of life in Africa, his capture, and his Middle Passage transport to Alabama is bone chilling. The details of how he was captured by the army of the king of Dahomey aligns with the historical record of that ruthless African king and his blood thirsty army of women and men.
What an amazing gift Ms. Hurston left for us! We are fortunate that Kossola lived long enough that Ms. Hurston was able to visit him a number of times over a three-month period in 1927 and put his words on paper. Publishers wanted Ms. Hurston to “correct” Kossola’s words to proper English, but she stood her ground and insisted that his words by pronunciation be preserved in the book.
I couldn’t help but think about the blog post I wrote two weeks ago (Censorship and Reader Sensitivities) and how appropriate I think it was for history’s sake for Kossola’s words to be recorded exactly how he said them.
There is an extensive appendix in the book. Included in it are a couple of children’s games from Africa, parables that are original with Kossola (from his own life experience), and various Bible stories told in Kossola’s own words.
There is also an extensive Afterword in the book about Ms. Hurston’s research and some debate about her motives and accuracy. It seems that Kossola had become known as the last surviving slave from the last slave ship to America and there were others who wished to interview him. It was Zora Neale Hurston who was most successful in gaining his trust and recording his story. Ms. Hurston is remembered for his illustrious career as a social scientist, but she was just getting started in 1927.
Just As I Am, by Cicely Tyson
I got on the waitlist for Cicely Tyson’s memoir the minute I heard about it. The book was on order by the public library, so I had to wait a while for it. In the meantime, Ms. Tyson died at the age of 96. I’d been a fan of hers since her performance in the movie, Sounder, in 1972. I was blown away by her portrayal of Miss Janie Pittman in the TV film, The Autobiography of Miss Janie Pittman.
Just As I Am was an interesting read. I learned about Ms. Tyson’s childhood in East Harlem, New York, and how her parents doted on her. She was their middle child, but she was born with a heart murmur that caused the doctor to predict she wouldn’t live more than three months. No wonder they treated her like a princess.
But there was a dark side to Ms. Tyson’s childhood. Her father was a womanizer. Her mother was a strict disciplinarian. Her parents had violent fights and Ms. Tyson was often caught in the middle.
Ms. Tyson had a sixth sense. Even as a child, she knew some events that were going to happen in the future because she could smell it (as was the case of a fire) or sense it in another way. Her mother was also blessed with a sixth sense, so the fact that Cicely had the gift was no big deal.
Early in the book, Ms. Tyson wrote about racial discrimination and our common humanity. It really struck a chord with me because I was reading that chapter the morning after the Zoom meeting of a group I’m in during which we had discussed racial prejudice and our common humanity. I couldn’t wait to tell the others in the group about the first chapter in Just As I Am.
She writes about what a rude awakening it was for her one day when she witnessed her mother and a group of other Black women on the street in New York City being looked up and down and evaluated by white people seeking a domestic laborer. It hit her as being no different from the way slaves were treated on the auction block a century earlier, and it made an impact on her life that she never forgot.
The 1920s and 1930s were her childhood and youth decades. What an interesting era! Although the Roaring 20s became the Great Depression in the 1930s, most people of color in the United States didn’t enjoy the abundance of the Wall Street in the 20s. And they had always been at an economic disadvantage, so the Great Depression wasn’t too much worse than what they were already experiencing.
It was in 1934 that the Federal Housing Administration instituted the practice of redlining to prohibit people of color from purchasing homes in middle class and wealthy neighborhoods. On the other hand, that era produced Black writers like W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. It was the age of jazz and the Harlem Renaissance.
On the flipside were the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment from which the United States is stilling feeling ramifications and probably always will. That horrible experiment on Blacks today makes many people of color afraid to take the Covid-19 vaccine.
As you see, I could go on and on with examples of the backdrop of Ms. Tyson’s childhood, but perhaps you’d rather read the book for yourself.
Throughout the book, Ms. Tyson gives God credit for leading her. She speaks of an unflinching faith in God that sustained her from childhood until her last days. Events that others might have called coincidences, Ms. Tyson recognized as the hand of God working out her life’s journey. That’s how her modeling career came about, and that’s how her acting career fell into place without her even knowing that’s what she was meant to do.
This was an entertaining and enlightening read about a woman I have long appreciated as an actress without knowing anything about her background.
The Endless Sunset, by Laleh Chini
This most recent novel by Laleh Chini is about war and one young woman’s experience in Poland during World War II. It is written in person from that woman’s point-of-view. Hanna Przybylski reminisces about the lovely and peaceful city squares and bustling marketplaces in Warsaw of her growing-up years in the 1920s. Her mother was an artist. When her mother has a second child, a girl named Lena, when Hanna is 11 years old, they think their family and their lives are complete. The Great War was over and life is good.
Everything starts to unravel when Lena is a toddler and their mother dies. When the father remarries just three months after the mother’s death, Hanna’s life spirals downward. When Hanna is 16 years old, Germany started bombing Warsaw. World War II is beginning and will further disrupt Hanna’s life. What I’ve shared just covers the first 17% of the book.
What will become of Hanna and Lena? Will Hanna become responsible for more children than Lena? Will they flee Poland for a safer place? Will there be people to help them along the way? Will their father care what his daughters do? Did he and his second wife have children? Will Hanna survive World War II?
You’ll have to read The Endless Sunset to find out. The book is enriched by illustrations by Nihuel Navarro, whose website can be found at nihu.artstation.com.
Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), by John Russell Bartlett
I was expecting this book to take the form of a dictionary; however, the majority of it is narrative.
Near the end of this book there is a short section about some words that were “charged upon us as Americanism” but they are actually derived from English provinces. Examples are expect for suspect, reckon for think, and guess for suppose. These “Americanisms” come from Kent and Derbyshire in England.
The book continues with some words that were apparently Americanisms when the book was written in 1848, but they don’t make sense to me today. Among them are clever for good natured; desk for pulpit; and improve for occupy, or employ.
The book pays its respects to the clergy for starting and continuing to use solemnize for to make serious. Other Americanisms the writer didn’t appreciate at all included transpire for happen, and temper in the sense of passion or irritation.
Jumping on “educated men, and particularly … the clergy,” the writer bemoans the evolution of some nouns into verbs such as to fellowship, to eventuate, to doxologize, to happify, and to donate.
The author would, no doubt, be horrified at the evolution of American English since 1848. This book is proof that American English is forever changing. The words in common usage in 1848 that grated on the nerves of the dictionary author, have for the most part fallen by the wayside today.
By far, my favorite “new” word after reading this dictionary is happify!
Since my last blog post
I continue to have good books to read – in fact, more than I have time to read. I’m also doing some scrapbooking.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have at least one good book to read. Try to get caught reading, since May is Get Caught Reading Month!
If you don’t have a hobby, find one. It will enrich your life.
Note: In addition to being “Get Caught Reading Month,” May is Short Story Month.
Note: This is Reading is Fun Week.