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January 2019 Booklist

As expected & planned, I’ve slowed down my reading for 2019 as compared to 2018 (82 books last year! Plus 3 semesters online w/ Columbia University! Plus soooo much genealogy reading and research!). But with shorter booklist my reviews are a little longer! My plan is to read at least 4 books a month. These are the four that I read in January:

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – This book was published in 1970 and it squashed any romanticized versions of “how the West was won”. Chiefs Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse and others struggle to save their tribes, culture and identity. The brutality and obliteration is beyond heartbreaking. 

After this past year of studying of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement and New York’s early Dutch history, I can’t say I’m shocked at the heinous behavior of the white man. The Natives wanted to preserve their way of life and raise their families in peace. So simple, so pure and so easy, yet time and again, tribes are betrayed and massacred in the name of westward expansion, greed and the hubristic and absurd belief in Manifest Destiny. Such god awfulness. The greed and arrogance shown by white settlers is one thing, but the savage brutality, the inhumanity…it’s all revolting and shameful. It’s a bit exhaustive but an educational and enlightening read.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (Thriller!) – A great palate cleanser from all the history, feminism and politics I’ve been immersing myself in over the last few months. I enjoyed the story about two extraordinarily bright and ambitious teen girls, bonded by a deep secret who then meet again later in life and drama ensues. It was a fast read and had me pacing and talking to myself saying things out loud like, “I can’t even stand it!” It’s inspired by a true story of Marie Robards profiled in Texas Monthly (Click here for that profile but be WARNED OF MAJOR spoilers!) but is definitely a work of fiction and not a true crime novel. I was bummed to see some of the top reviews on Amazon were negative. I really enjoyed the book and started questioning my taste! But there are plenty of other positive reviews and, hey, I still enjoyed it. It was much needed break from the heady stuff but still smart and engaging. 

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (Memoir) – Vance grew up as a poor hillbilly in Ohio and Kentucky with a lot of drug and alcohol use, raised by some classic characters found in any coming-of-age book about poor white trash. The young marriages, broken marriages, multiple marriages, etc. all added to him bouncing around and making do. While it’s a memoir, Hillbilly Elegy is also a study on class and poverty and a look into the lifelong consequences of adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s). The link is to a Google search result of scholarly articles on ACE’s. The clinical studies and tests are a worthwhile read if you have a few minutes.  

This clinical look into the long-term outcomes of adolescent trauma through the lens of his childhood helped me get through the book a lot easier than had it been a straight memoir. Had it been the latter, it may have wrecked me. It all had a very familiar ring…a really loud clang on a bell that still has my ears ringing. 

I bookmarked this quote:

Kids who go through this lifestyle don’t lose contact with their parents because they don’t care, they lose contact to survive. They don’t stop loving or lose hope that their loved ones will change. Rather they are forced, either by wisdom or by law, to take the path of self-preservation. 

Like the author, I carry around the baggage and wear the scars, both literal and figurative, of a chaotic family life. And, like, Vance, moved up and away to make a change, break the cycle and persevere which is, oh, so similar to preserve.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond – This book covers the eviction process and housing from the view of tenants and landlords in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The author is a sociologist and immersed himself in his study, living in a trailer park and becoming entrenched with his subjects. A lot of government policy and law is covered.

The housing system and laws, welfare, poverty and such might not sound like an interesting read, but it was a gripping tale and, damn, it’s relentless. Damn. The things we humans do to each other. One landlord could be labeled a slumlord the way she works the system in her favor. The laws all work to ensure than once evicted, it’s almost impossible to climb out and rise above. Again, I found myself appreciating all the court scenes, statistics and data to relieve me of the horrible pit of the memory of knowing what it feels like to have your home taken away, immediately and without any forewarning. To be told to pack your things from your childhood home –even if it was just a trailer, it was ours!– and move out in less than 24 hours. 

It was the only book I had left on my list and I *did* want to read it, but on the heels of Hillbilly Elegy…it brought up a lot more painful childhood memories than I feel like I can withstand given all the awfulness in the world right now.  

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston – During my genealogy studies at the NYPL, I found a volume of books of first-person accounts by African-Americans about their experiences as slaves. “My god,” I whispered to Christian who was browsing nearby. “I can only imagine what horrors these books contain.” I made a mental note to go back and read some. There were at least 20 large, hardbound volumes and I haven’t found the name on the NYPLs site online, but I know exactly what shelf they’re on in the Milstein Division at the main branch for the next time I’m there on a rainy day.  UPDATE: A rainy day came and I found the 41-volume set titled The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography edited by George Rawick.

In my quest to find the name of those volumes, I came across this new* book by Zora Neale Hurston in the words of a former slave named Cudjo Kazoola Lewis

All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the “black ivory,” the “coin of Africa,” had no market value. Africa’s ambassadors to the New World have come and worked and died, and left their spoor, but no recorded thought. ― Zora Neale Hurston

In 1927, Hurston tracked down and visited Cudjo at his home in Alabama. Lewis, at around 86 years old, was the only known survivor of the last slave ship, the Clotilda, to arrive in the US. He came to be on the ship after his tribe was attacked and slaughtered by a group of female warriors. After he was captured, they held him captive in “barracoons” before he was auctioned off to a an American slave trader who brought him to America a full fifty years after international slave trading was outlawed. The domestic slave trade still thrived, of course.

Hurston spent a few months drawing stories out of Cudjo. She used his African name Kazoola and brought him gifts of peaches, watermelon, time and patience. Cudjo was very poetic in his telling, but his story is distressing. 

*Her manuscript was never published until last year. There were issues, it seems, with accusations of plagiarism which she remedied and supplied ample supporting documents. Also, this book is written as Cudjoe spoke, in dialect critics said played up black stereotypes. Hurston refused to change it and, apparently, that is why at least one other publisher turned down the manuscript. So, this “new” book is seeing the light now, and at a time when we need it most with an openly racist President fueling a hateful MAGA, white supremacy culture.

Here’s a passage in which Lewis describes having spent several months with other disoriented and traumatized new slaves who had come to lean on each other only to be separated to toil on plantations:

We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.

It’s heart-rending to hear a first-hand account of the traumas he endured. From the attack on his tribe to becoming “cargo” and a slave so traumatized and confused and without a shared language with those around him, I wept and got angry and wept some more.

Cudjo Lewis in later life (Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

After the Civil War, without reparations (he received nothing; no 40 acres and a mule) as payback for being kidnapped, taken from his country, enslaved and used up solely for profit, he and other Clotilda survivors raised and saved money and founded Africatown in Plateau, Alabama, where Ms. Hurston came to meet him. Lewis went on to outlive his children and wife, dying at the age of 94 or 95, a few years after telling his story to Hurston. I’m so glad I read this. I’m so glad his story lives on. I’m going to the library and making sure to get the names of the other volumes of stories and read as many as time allows.