This month I read three great historical works by Zora Neale Hurston, Brenda Wineapple, and Jill Lepore.
Zora Neale Hurston’s posthumous book Barracoon was very good. In it Cudjo Lewis tells his story to Hurston about his life in Africa, being sold into slavery, the Middle Passage, life as a slave, and his life after obtaining his freedom. I found Lewis’ story captivating, I enjoyed reading it in his own words and dialect. His constant “you unnerstand me” made his storytelling more genuine. At times I felt like I was there as he was telling Hurston about his journey.
There were three episodes that spoke the most to me:
1. After he gained his freedom, Cudjo and his friends asked their former master for land: “Cap’n Tim, you bought us from our country where we had lan’. You made us slave. Now dey make us free but we ain’ got no country and we ain’ got no lan’! Why doan you give us piece dis land so we kin buildee ourself a home?” This quote made me think about the debate over reparations then and now.
2. In this episode Cudjo references the challenges his children faced: “All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey.” This quote reminded me of the negative stereotypes Americans still have of immigrants especially from Africa.
3. In this episode Cudjo references one of his son’s interaction with a police officer: “He shootee my boy in de throat. He got no right shootee my boy. He make out he skeered my boy goin’ shoot him and shootee my boy down in de store. Oh, Lor’!” This quote, not surprisingly, reminded me of the current issues between young Black Americans and the police.
I read that this book was never published initially because the publishers at the time did not like Cudjo’s dialect and they wanted Hurston to write it in more refined English. It probably was for the best that she did not change the dialect because the essence of Cudjo’s story would have been removed. Sometimes the best books are those that are newly discovered years after it was written so that we in the current time and get an unaltered view of the past.
First published on Goodreads on October 2, 2019.
I heard Brenda Wineapple give a talk to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in May 2019 about this book. Her talk was fascinating and it prompted me to buy the book, however, I did not decide to read it until the current impeachment inquiry began, I wanted some historical context. Wineapple’s book tells the story of the first presidential impeachment in American history of Andrew Johnson. Wineapple’s writing is great and the book reads like a novel. At times I found myself reading passages that were eerily familiar to our current moment. Johnson was impeached for violating the Tenure of Office Act but Wineapple effectively argues that his impeachment was about more than just the violation of one law it was also about Johnson’s handling of Reconstruction, his racism, his perceived abuse of power, as well as the the preservation of the Union and the institution of slavery. Surprisingly the Senate trial section of the book was the least interesting part to me. However, I think this is the perfect book to read in our current moment not just because of the similarities but because it made me think about how the current impeachment process would be viewed 151 years from now, which is the same number years since the Johnson impeachment occurred.
First published on Goodreads on October 22, 2019.
Nationalism has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years especially with the rise of Donald Trump and far right populist figures in Europe. If you are like me then you probably think the word nationalism brings with it a negative connotation, you and I are partly right. Lepore argues in this little book that there are two nationalisms: the illiberal, ethnic version that we all know too well and the more positive liberal, civic nationalism. She chronicles the history of these two nationalisms and the struggle that historians have in studying it. This is a great follow up to her book These Truths: A History of the United States. Lepore is a great historian because she knows how to place our current moment in the grand timeline of United States’ history.
First published on Goodreads on October 25, 2019.
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Like what you read? Read about my favorite books of 2019 here: