Book Review: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar


Author: Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Title: Never caught : the Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Ona Judge was a woman born into slavery around 1773 at Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.  Mount Vernon is, of course, famous as the home of George Washington, soon to be commander of the Continental Army and later the first President of the United States.  Ona would become lady’s maid to Martha’s Washington in her mid-teens, and in that role would travel with the Washington to the new United States’ capital in New York City, and then to Philadelphia when the capital shifted there in 1790.

Living in Philadelphia provided Judge with new opportunities, including free time while Mrs. Washington was entertaining, and even the opportunity to attend the theatre.  More importantly she became acquainted with Philadelphia’s growing free Black community and abolitionists. Judge’s legal status was in question due to Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act which provided that slaves brought into the state by new residents from out of state would be eligible for emancipation after six months.  It was an open question of whether this law applied to the President, but nevertheless, the Washingtons arranged to rotate their slave staff back to Mount Vernon every six months.

In 1796, Washington announced he would not run for reelection and Martha Washington informed judge she would be given as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis Law.  Faced an uncertain future Judge made the decision to run away.  Abolitionists put Judge on a ship to Portsmouth, NH where she attempted to make a new life for herself as a free person.  Washington had a local customs officer, and later his nephew, attempt to capture Judge but in both cases the growing abolition sentiment meant that she couldn’t be captured without drawing unwanted publicity to Washington.

Washington freed many of his slaves in his will when he died in 1799.  Judge, however, was legally considered still a slave of Martha Washington, and even after Martha’s death in 1802, Judge’s ownership status reverted to the Custis estate.  Judge lived until 1848, enjoying her freedom, but always a fugitive.  Despite freedom, her life was still full of struggle.  She married a free black sailor, Jack Staines, in 1797, but he died in 1803, and Ona Judge Staines would also outlive her three children.

Ona Judge Staines’ story is drawn from interviews she gave to abolitionist newspapers in the 1840s.  But as with many stories of enslaved African Americans, Dunbar has to piece together the history from sources of the white masters, such as the papers of the Washingtons and runaway slave ads.  It’s a compelling narrative, and one that focuses on the often overlooked nature of 18th-century slavery (compared with the 19th-slavery), the emergence of abolitionism, and popular conception of someone like Washington who represents liberty to so many Americans, but held Ona Judge and many others in perpetual bondage.

Recommended books:

  • Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800.
    by Leland Ferguson
  • The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia by Mechal Sobel
  • North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 by Leon F. Litwack
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending September 28


Code Switch :: The Original Blexit

Black Americans have never been fully supported by any political party, but after the Civil War, Black voters typically supported the Party of Lincoln.  Starting in the 1930s, many Black voters began switching their allegiance from Republicans to Democrats, a shift that was thoroughly completed by the 1970s.  Code Switch explains why and how that happened.

1619 Project  

This podcast debuted in August to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what would become the United States.  The 1619 Project, created by the New York Times and hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, explores how the legacy of slavery, segregation, and inequality have shaped American history.  There are 4 episodes so far and they are all excellent.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler


Author: Octavia E. Butler
Title: Kindred
Narrator: Kim Staunton
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 1998 [Originally published in 1979]
Summary/Review:

I’ve only recently become aware of the late science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, whose contributions to the genre have likely been overlooked due to her being an African American woman.  This novel, starting in the bicentennial year of 1976, tells the story of Dana, an African American writer repeatedly torn from her own time in California and sent to antebellum Maryland plantation.  There she has to save the life of a boy, and later a man, named Rufus, the heir of the plantation owner.  Early on, Dana discovers that Rufus is her own ancestor, so her existence depends on his survival.

This book does not shy away from the malignant evils of slavery – beatings, selling off family members, and rape.  But it get’s even more uncomfortable in how on Dana’s increasingly longer visits to the past, she grows to consider the plantation as home, and develop a fondness for Rufus.  Dana’s devotion to protecting Rufus is unsettling considering that Alice, a freed black woman who is reenslaved by Rufus over the course of the novel, is also her ancestor, and Dana never shows the same level of concern for protecting her. It’s something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, or more accurate the way in which its possible for one to look past the most grievous faults of family members and friends.

Dana is married to a white man named Kevin, and one occasion she brings him back in time with him, stranding him there for several years when she bops back to the future.  Although Kevin is a progressive white man, he is still not capable of understanding the power dynamics that privilege him in the past over Dana.  Nevertheless, Dana’s knowledge of the future and seemingly magical power to appear and disappear over time gives her something of a an advantage over Rufus in their ongoing relationship.

This is a powerful and well-constructed novel that feels very contemporary despite being over forty years old.  Much like reading Ursula Leguin, I had to remind myself that Octavia E. Butler actually inspired and informed many of the conventions of later time-travel fiction.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston


Author:  Zora Neale Hurston
TitleBarracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo
Publication Info: Amistad (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 208 pages
Previously read by the same author:

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography
  • Mules and Men
  • Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston

Summary/Review:

This recently published biography/ethnography is by the great author, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, based on interviews she conducted in 1927.  Her subject is Kossola, also known as Cudjoe Lewis and by other names, who was the last known survivor of the African slave trade.  The Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, but slave traders were able to smuggle in enslaved people from Africa without consequences right up to the Civil War.

Kossola was born in West Africa in what is Benin in the present day around 1840. In 1860, he was captured by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey and sold to American slavers on the ship Clotilda.  Hurston expresses Kossola’s story in his dialect, allowing him to tell his story.  He talks of his childhood in Africa, capture, passage across the Atlantic, and enslavement in Mobile, Alabama.  After Emancipation, Kossola and other former captives of Clotilda pooled together money to buy land near Mobile from their former captors and created a self-contained community called Africatown.  There he tells stories of his marriage, children, his unsuccessful lawsuit after a train crashed into his buggy, and the death of his son, also in a train crash.  Kossola became known as a storyteller, and the appendix includes a sample of his stories.

The book is an interesting piece of overlooked American history.  It’s also a glimpse into the ethnographic practices of the time, good and bad, as Hurston relates her visits to Kossola and the negotiations that went into planning their interviews. More than once Hurston uses terms like “primitive” to describe Kossola, a shocking judgement for an anthropologist and African American. Critics of the work suggest that parts of Kossola’s narrative are fictionalized – either by himself or by Hurston – and note that she plagiarized and earlier interviewer’s work in an article she wrote about Kossola.  Nevertheless, this is a valuable historic document to read both for Kossola’s story and as an addition to Hurston’s work.

Favorite Passages:

Here is the medicine: That though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going. It may be true, and often is, that every person we hold dear is taken from us. Still. From moment to moment, we watch our beans and our watermelons grow. We plant. We hoe. We harvest. We share with neighbors. If a young anthropologist appears with two hams and gives us one, we look forward to enjoying it. Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go. Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears. – Alice Walker March 2018

From 1801 to 1866, an estimated 3,873,600 Africans were exchanged for gold, guns, and other European and American merchandise. During the period from 1851 to 1860, approximately 22,500 Africans were exported. And of that number, 110 were taken aboard the Clotilda at Ouidah. Kossola was among them—a transaction.

Hurston’s manuscript is an invaluable historical document, as Diouf points out, and an extraordinary literary achievement as well, despite the fact that it found no takers during her lifetime. In it, Zora Neale Hurston found a way to produce a written text that maintains the orality of the spoken word. And she did so without imposing herself in the narrative, creating what some scholars classify as orature. Contrary to the literary biographer Robert Hemenway’s dismissal of Barracoon as Hurston’s re-creation of Kossola’s experience, the scholar Lynda Hill writes that “through a deliberate act of suppression, she resists presenting her own point of view in a natural, or naturalistic, way and allows Kossula ‘to tell his story in his own way.’”

Kossula was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He had forgotten that I was there. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke.

“Poe-lee very mad ’cause de railroad kill his brother. He want me to sue de company. I astee him, ‘Whut for? We doan know de white folks law. Dey say dey doan pay you when dey hurtee you. De court say dey got to pay you de money. But dey ain’ done it.’ I very sad. Poe-lee very mad. He say de deputy kill his baby brother. Den de train kill David. He want to do something. But I ain’ hold no malice. De Bible say not. Poe-lee say in Afficky soil it ain’ lak in de Americky. He ain’ been in de Afficky, you unnerstand me, but he hear what we tellee him and he think dat better dan where he at. Me and his mama try to talk to him and make him satisfy, but he doan want hear nothin. He say when he a boy, dey (the American Negro children) fight him and say he a savage. When he gittee a man dey cheat him. De train hurtee his papa and doan pay him. His brothers gittee kill. He doan laugh no mo’.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: 13th (2016) #atozchallenge


This is a bonus post for the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  Movies are frequently alphabetized with films titled with numbers separate from the letters A to Z.  So this review represents all the documentaries that have numbers for a title. Technically this movie’s title starts with “T,” but I also really wanted to to watch Tower, so this is a good way to get them both in.

Title: 13th
Release Date: September 13, 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Kandoo Films
Summary/Review:

The 13th of the title refers to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which freed slaves in the United States and is celebrated as a major act of emancipation.  But it didn’t end slavery because one clause allows slavery of criminals.  This movie explores the many ways in which people, mainly black people, have been denied their freedom by being criminalized over the past 150 years.

After the Civil War, many black people were immediately enslaved again in convict leasing programs.  By the turn of the 20th century, strict systems of segregation were put in place with brutal violence and lynching to keep it enforced, both of which were justified by claims that blacks were dangerous criminals.  Once the Civil Rights Movement seemingly brought a measure of equality to black Americans, politicians used coded phrases like “law and order” to once again criminalize black Americans through things like the “war on drugs.”  The film depicts the procession of US Presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton each upping the ante in the activities criminalized, the severity of punishments, and the resources to enlarge and militarize the police and create a massive system of incarceration.

The film also takes time to focus on the organization ALEC, a conservative coalition of corporations and politicians, that drafts laws that help their members profit from new laws that help them sell firearms, operate private prisons, or profit from lucrative vendor contracts with prisons, among other things.  The film concludes with numerous familiar, but powerful, stories of black people suffering the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment – many of them in prison because of a system that encourages them to take plea deals even if they’re innocent.  And then there are the images of some of the many black men, women, and children killed by police – something clearly not new as this film illustrates, but something easier to document with modern day technology.

DuVernay features a large cast of experts who speak in this film, basically offering the narration over a wealth of archival footage.  Participants include Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, and Charles Rangel.  Some participants from the “other side of the aisle” include Newt Gingrich (who surprisingly speaks of how he now realizes what was done in the name of law and order was wrong) and Grover Norquist (whose attempts to frame the understanding of the history of mass incarceration as a liberal conspiracy pale against the evidence presented in this film).

DuVernay also makes some interesting choices stylistically, with the participants filmed casually dressed in relaxed poses in some unusual locations, including what looks like an abandoned railroad station.  I’m not sure if there’s any significance to these choices I’m missing, but does add a layer of beauty and mystery to the film.  Another element frequently used is animated text on screen spelling out words spoken or sung in the film, including the word “CRIMINAL” which appears each and every time someone says “criminal.”

This is a powerful film and really a must-see for all Americans.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

There’s so much in this movie that it’s difficult to take it all in.  I’m fortunate in that I’ve read about most of the issues discussed in this movie, but it’s still something to see all tied together in one dense package.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

If you’ve been reading along my A to Z, you’ve seen my posts about several other films that tie into the themes discussed in 13th, especially The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and I Am Not Your Negro.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander – a prominent person in this movie – is the key text for understanding mass incarceration in the United States. Some other important books on the experience of black Americans denied freedom and criminalized include When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 7


The Memory Palace :: Junk Room

An examination of the the National Statuary Hall in the US Capitol: who is there and why?

Hub History :: Original Sin: The Roots of Slavery in Boston

The reality of unfree labor in 17th and 18th century Massachusetts.

Code Switch :: The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later

The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. 50 years after his assassination.

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 17


A bumper crop of erudition for your ears this week.

The Memory Palace :: Hercules

With Washington’s Birthday coming up, a reminder that our first President held people in bondage because he enjoyed what their labor provided without having to pay for them.  The story of Hercules, a talented chef, who successfully escaped slavery.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Killer Viruses and One Man’s Mission to Stop Them

The story of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and the efforts of Dr. Maurice Hilleman to create vaccines to prevent later outbreaks.

The Nation Start Making Sense :: Elizabeth Warren on Monopoly Power

Elizabeth Warren wants to make fighting monopolies part of the Democrats agenda again. Also, the truth behind Warren Buffett, and white working class Trump voter.

The Truth :: Nuclear Winter

 A spooky story set in an outdated nuclear missile silo.  Don’t worry, it’s fictional!

Afropop Worldwide :: Africa and the Blues

A fascinating look into musicologist Gerhard Kubik’s research into the traits of blues music that connect with the music of different regions of Africa.  Read more here: http://afropop.org/articles/africa-and-the-blues-an-interview-with-gerhard-kubik

StoryCorps :: In the Neighborhood

The story of the multi-talented François Clemmons, most famous for playing Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, his friendship with Fred Rogers, and their quietly bold statement for civil rights and equality.

 

 

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson


AuthorLaurie Halse Anderson
Title: Chains 
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2008.
Summary/Review:

This historical novel set during the early days of the American Revolution focuses on 13-year-old Isabel, an enslaved girl promised freedom on the death of her master, but finds she has no recourse when she and her sister Ruth are sold to cruel new masters in New York.  Working a Loyalist household she finds herself drawn into spying for the revolutionaries, but soon learns that despite promises from Loyalists and Patriots alike, that neither side is concerned with freeing Africans from the bonds of slavery.  Anderson captures the anger of Isabel, but doesn’t neglect to also characterize her as having many concerns typical to a young teenager as well.  The author also really captures the uncertainty of the Revolution, the people of New York taking different sides in 1776, with some among them willing to shift loyalties to whomever has the upper hand.  She also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war on the civilian community from a brutal fire to depictions of captured Americans cruelly held in cold, overcrowded, and disease-ridden prisons.  The book is the first of a trilogy of books called The Seeds of America and ends on a cliffhanger at a momentous occasion in the narrative so I will be sure to read the rest of the series.

Favorite Passages:

“Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither. They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.” – p. 25

The woman in the yellow head cloth worked the pump for Grandfather. “The British promise freedom to slaves but won’t give it to the white rebels,” she said as she pushed the handle up and down. “The rebels want to take freedom, but they won’t share it with us.” She set down the first bucket and picked up the second. “Both sides say one thing and do the other.” – p. 166

Recommended booksThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


Author: Colson Whitehead
TitleThe Underground Railroad
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info:  New York : Random House Audio, [2016]
Read by the Same AuthorApex Hides the Hurt
Summary/Review:

This novel is fiction, but it peels back the wounds of slavery in the United States.  In this universe, the Underground Railroad is a literal train carrying escaped trains north to a tenuous freedom.  Cora escapes the cruelty of life on a Georgia plantation to the railroad making several stops along the way.  South Carolina appears to be a haven where African Americans live in a company town, but as Cora ends up working as a living exhibit in an anthropology museum, she learns that the whole town is a front for eugenics experiments.  North Carolina is a place where slavery is ended by attempting genocide, and Cora has to hide in a sympathetic white man’s attic where she witnesses the regular pageants accompanying the lynching of blacks and white helpers. A slave catcher brings Cora to a wild west version of Tennessee, and she escapes again to a community of freed blacks in Indiana.  Even here she can’t find any peace.

The magical and mythical elements frame a novel that contains the full brutality of slavery and racism in the United States.  It’s a brilliant construct that brings home the reality of America’s grim secrets.

Recommended booksIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Rating: ****

Book Review: American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan


Author: Edmund S. Morgan
TitleAmerican Slavery, American Freedom
Narrator: Sean Pratt
Publication Info: Gildan Media, LLC (2013)
Summary/Review:
This book is not so much a history of slavery as it is an economic history of Colonial Virginia.  In a sense, understanding the conditions of Colonial Virginia is important to understanding how this English community came to adopt chattel slavery based on race.  But reading the book the topics vary far and wide from the concepts of slavery and their contrasts with the American ideals of freedom.  In short, it’s an interesting book albeit not necessarily the one I expected.
Recommended booksThe World They Made Together by Mechal Sobel and Colonial Virginia : a history by Warren M. Billings
Rating: ***1/2