Book Mini-Reviews: Mouthpieces Of Freedom

 

The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History.
Anne C. Bailey.
208 pp. $24.99.

Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisana.
Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross.
269 pp. $24.95.
Both books published by Cambridge University Press.

 

Cambridge University Press very savvy-ingly sent 2017’s Weeping Time out recently to note that Bailey is a contributor to The New York Times’s 1619 project. The publisher then followed up in the mail with advance copies of  Becoming Free, Becoming Black, which will be published in January. Both books chronicle the struggle of enslaved Africans in the New World: Free from the 16th through the 19th centuries and Weeping in 1859, the year of John Brown’s raid.

Bailey skillfully uses white documents to expose white supremacy and detail Black agency. The 400-plus slaves sold on that one terrifying Georgia auction block in two days belonged to one master, Pierce Mease Butler, and the letters and diaries of his family allow us a tiny, often-racist window into the nearly-destroyed lives of the enslaved Africans. Bailey correctly uses her historical and cultural expertise as a counterpoint to the white racist documents, almost talking back to them. She shows extensive knowledge of the many Africanisms of the enslaved Africans, who are Gullah/Geechee. It is unfortunate, then, to say that she does not conclude her centuries-filled, memory-themed journey into the realm of African-centered scholarship, which has a pointed and clearly-articulated worldview about Africans, colonization/enslavement and memory. Her comparison to European Jewish efforts to remember the Jewish Holocaust is tired and–painfully and ironically, in this particular context–colonized, Eurocentric thinking that needs permanent rest in the form of suffocation and deep burial.

One sub-theme tying Bailey with de La Fuente and Gross is the supreme love enslaved Africans had for family and home. Bailey describes that home-love as so deep, some now-freed Africans would stay on their former plantations, creating new relationships with their former masters on lands they knew well. De La Fuente and Gross–in their comparative legal history comparing the legal structures of Iberian, French and English legal approaches to ensuring that Black equals slave, regardless of Christian conversion–mention a free woman, Ann Riter, who petitions Virginia to be re-enslaved so she can stay with her family after the state demands in 1861 that free Black people leave it. All three territories were, in the authors’ words, “successful, brutal slave societies.” Gross and de la Fuente show how Blacks fought the respective legal systems they were trapped by to establish their rights as human beings, while Bailey shows the fight of the descendants of the Butler clan to stay alive.

These books are among the many that exist and are coming–meticulous, serious international studies of slavery that translate end explain 16th-, 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century documents correctly. With power and grace they excavate and display the many voices of Black resistance.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Obama Embedded Journalist, Wokes :) (Or, How Trump’s Big White Lifesaver Pulled Him Out From Drowning In Kool-Aid)

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy.
Ta-Nehisi Coates.
One World Publishing.
367 pp. $28.

Why waste time knocking another writer’s immensely successful hustle when the target publicly decides to do it (somewhat) to himself? Ta-Nehisi Coates comes thisclose to admitting that he went a little bit Hollywood because Barack Obama’s 2018 campaign and presidency allowed the Howard University dropout to travel the Horatio Alger-Don King trail “from the unemployment office to the Oval Office.” One of his articles collected here, a select compilation of his Obama work for The Atlantic magazine, actually ends with his moving-on-up like George Jefferson and Weezie; that the scene ends a piece arguing that Malcolm X’s legacy lived in President Obama—the president who, in the beginning,  apologized to a white police officer who arrested Harvard Africana Studies professor Henry Louis Gates for breaking into his own house, and, at the end, refused to pardon Marcus Garvey—makes it, in retrospect,  even more puzzling and saddening. (Coates now admits his optimistic idea was “strained.” Really? You don’t say. :)) The honest-as-I-can-be new introductory essays are vitally important to understand the writer’s formulations as he was “swept away” by the Obamas while, not coincidentally, Michelle’s and Barack’s presence on the national stage “opened up” an elite white journalistic market to New Negroes who supposedly had new, innovative things to say. However, what makes this book and the superbly talented writer more than redeemable are its/his final two angry essays, “My President Was Black” and the epilogue, “The First White President.” Coates’ 2016 post-election night analysis of America contains immense socio-historical clarity. The pieces shake up the writer and the reader, allowing all to see the abandonment of Black America’s eight-year experiment with being adjective-less and to introduce in detail the insidious power of whiteness. (Taken together, the Trump-election duo pack a much better punch than his too-much-heralded 2015 single-essay work, “Between the World and Me.”) With The Donald now in charge whether people use his name or not, Coates’ years of literary sharecropping as forgotten as Friendster, and his white readers now fully understanding that they have never been, and are not now, innocent, the book’s end marks the beginning of a golden era of his writing.