Book Review, – Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston

Foreword

 Barracoon is an enclosure where Black slaves were held for a period until they were transported to the New World.

Barracoon derives from a Spanish word, Barraca/Barracoon which is the same as Barracks in English.

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In my review of Barracoon, one theme that kept resurfacing is the complete or gradual loss of the African identity in the New World. I further consider the role of water in this partial or total death to the African identity and the rebirth of a new creature that is never quite ‘there‘. A creature that is not entirely African nor American, in tastes, in manner, in thinking, for example; a creature that is neither considered fully African nor American, a creature that believes itself one thing and is perceived as something else, a creature that never fully fits here nor there, that creature that constantly possesses memories from both places, and that creature that has strong relationships and bonds formed in both places; – a creature trapped in the third space.

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I considered the Barracoon, a cavern that holds/held people that would eventually go over the water. By extension, the Barracoon or any cavern or space that holds people who are destined to go over the water ( overseas ), including planes and ships, permits the association of the Barracoon with the idea of death and rebirth. A place of temporal hibernation/wait leading to a rebirth and death that happen simultaneously as a result of going over the waterCapture d_écran 2018-07-21 à 9.45.06 PM.

Water as a symbol of Rebirth, Death and a Change in Identity

It is a common thing for a dead person to be sent off to the other world with a gift or two such as a handkerchief or fragrance. In addition to referring to the world of the dead as the world across the water, in Ghanaian culture, crossing this water is something we believe each person would do in order to get to the other side, the world of the ancestors and the dead. Water in this sense may bear certain connotations to death. Similarly, the baptism of a person which is literally total or partial immersion of the individual into the water is a physical and spiritual representation of a change or a death to one part of them ( the carnal parts ) and a rebirth of a new person in Christ. In the same manner, Lepers have been asked to take a dip in the water to receive a complete turn around in their situations. A death to the sickness and a rebirth of a life free of the plague of leprosy.

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Kossola, the protagonist, and narrator of this biographical account written by Hurston is torn abruptly out of modern-day Nigeria. Before he gets into the boat ( the Clotilde ) that is about to transport him and the other captives to the New World, they are stripped of their old clothes and asked to mount the boat in the nude. The stripping away of their clothes is symbolic of a loss. Boarding the boat, which will travel across the water to the other world, is equally symbolic. The water becomes a vehicle that facilitates a breaking away of that which is familiar and known and cherished and a movement toward that which is uncertain and deeply puzzling. The captives’ loss of their clothes is a larger representation of a loss of identity. The slaves are informed that their destination has a lot more clothes and therefore this dumping of their old clothes is a necessary move. The Clotilde journeys for about seventy days and upon arrival, the slaves are given new clothes which go to support the claim of a loss/death and gain/rebirth of different parts of the individuals all with the help of the water and a boat. This thought seamlessly rejoins the claim that water is a larger connotation of a death, in this case, of Kossola and the other slaves’ identities and an attempt to immerse/ adapt/ be reborn in a totally unfamiliar terrain.

The Conflict of Duality, New Names, and the African Identity

‘In de Afficky we gottee one name, but in dis place dey tell us we needee two names.’ (so they give their children two names so that ) ‘one name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crooked to call’ (the other name for the American soil so that people in America will not have a hard time pronouncing the name).

Kossola’s need to satisfy the African and American demands of a suitable enough name that sort of takes both geographical locations into account is a larger representation of the constant fluidity of identity that is shaped by presence, be it spiritual, mental or psychological in these two geographical places. This desire to be here and there or have a life comprising of elements from here and there is the ensemble of the identity of a person dwelling in this third space. Kossola is in America yet gets transported many times over to Africa as he tells Zora his story. Kossola’s sons who are born in America have African and American names, Kossola himself comes to be known as Cudjo Lewis because the Americans are unable to adequately pronounce the name/his name Kossola. Listen to this episode of Jesus and Jollof podcast for a better understanding of New names and the third space.

In addition, Kossola regards his family with love and pride, yet the society he finds himself in views him and his family as  ‘ig’nant’ savages. Kossola and modern-day Black Americans constantly deal with the plague of being doubly conscious; that is, the belief in the worthiness of oneself and conversely living under the imposed and sometimes invisible obligation to perpetually prove this worth or deny all the perceived and imposed negatives of who you are.

‘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.

Derefo’, you unnerstand me, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time.’

Different Spaces and the Difference in Values, Beliefs, and Practices

Marriage 

‘Derefo’, you unnerstand me, after me and my wife ‘gree ‘tween ourselves, we seekee religion and got converted. Den in de church dey tell us dat ain’ right. We got to marry by license. In de Afficky soil, you unnerstand me, we ain’t got no license. De man and de woman dey ‘gree ‘tween deyselves, den dey married and live together’

Kossola gets married after he gains his freedom from slavery. He lives with his wife for a bit and then converts to Christianity and is told in church that living with a woman without a license or without having gone to church to make the marriage ‘legitimate’ is wrong. Ghanaian marriages, once traditionally done are considered legitimate yet it is interesting that over time, church weddings or white weddings, aka western influenced weddings have become more popular than or more positively viewed than traditional marriages.

Hierarchy and Age 

When Zora visits Kossola, she presses for information and is in a great hurry to hear all the details surrounding Kossola’s transition from the Bight of Benin to Alabama. She attempts to rush him through his narration concerning his past life and takes his story about his family lightly. When Zora tries again to rush him through the story of his fathers and to the juicy details surrounding Kossola’s own life as the last slave to have journeyed from Africa to America, he tells her that in Africa, we have a regard for older people and are unable to speak of ourselves without acknowledging our elders.

‘Where is de house where de mouse is de leader? In de Affica soil, I cain tellee you ’bout de son before I tellee you ’bout de father ; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, now, dass right ain’it?

Religion

‘Yeah in Afficky we always know dere was a God; // we doan know God got a son. We ain’t ig’nant – we jes doan know. Nobody doan tell us ’bout Adam eatee de apple, we didn’t know de seven seals was sealee ‘gainst us.’

Kossola’s mention of these lines is powerful and a constant reminder of the differences in perception of many things including the ever-delicate topic of religion.

Sense of Community 

At many points in the narration, Kossola’s words illustrate the communal nature and the mentality of concern and brotherliness of the African. On two occassions, he mentions that the community comes together and builds a house for individuals. Also, the community converges and builds a school and church for its use.

 

Conclusion

Though I loved this book for the power of its addition of a detailed and human account to the whirlwind of blurry abstract and impersonal historical information there is, a few statements caught my attention that opened up questions for consideration.

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  1. Why does Zora state that people who live outside the influence of machinery are primitive?

2. why is  Christianity equal to civilization and paganism directly implied, also as primitive?

Credits for word definitions, Google.

Book Review – Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

 

Capture d_écran 2017-08-23 à 1.40.14 PMYaa Gyasi’s Homegoing assures me more than ever of the importance of storytelling! Outside being Fante and being more than able to relate to a lot of occurrences in the book including the refreshing use of Fante diction, I am happy that through this story a lot more people will be exposed to the immensely rich aspects of Ghanaian culture. The story is set in southern Ghana, Gold Coast in the narrative, and highlights not only the peculiarities of the group of people called Akan, (Fante and Asante encompassed) but also thoroughly educates readers on the dynamics of the slave trade and other equally important historical events that happened concurrently in the West and Africa, specifically the Gold Coast at the time of the slave trade. This post’s main aim is to highlight parts of the narrative that unravel the parts of Ghanaian culture that lie subtle yet remain pivotal aspects of who we are as a people and how these parts add to the wealth of cultural information this novel holds.

Proverbs

Each page in the book somehow reminds me of my childhood and events witnessed as a child such as eating with one’s fingers, lounging in the courtyard making small talk and listening to inconsequential neighborhood or family gossip or using terms of endearment such as ‘odo’. In the opening of the novel is a proverb that basically talks about the difference between the stark truth and impressions, facades or appearances. The fact that every family looks like a dense united front (forest) yet a close exploration of this ‘forest’ shows the reality of separation since each ‘tree’ (family member) is literally standing alone and apart from the other trees. So, in essence, each family has its own problems that divide them no matter how good or unified they look in the public eye. I dare say this reality of family differences gets more chaotic with extended families. What makes these family troubles more dramatic is the fact that the more traditional the setup, the more the fire is stoked since the partakers in the snags live literally next door to each other usually in a huge enclosed compound. Therefore, this pettiness continues until someone decides to begin thinking differently. I have witnessed my extended family go through these valleys and some of the occasions have been funny and others not so funny.

Anecdotes

In some Ghanaian homes, certain didactic anecdotes are told and passed on to children to serve as deterrents mostly with the general aim of preventing accidents or discouraging some actions. The moral of these stories help us understand why those actions need not be done hence these stories have a cause and effect structure which is meant to directly influence the listeners’ choices. In the novel, there is a brief story of a woman that carried hot oil around her home and ended up scalding her husband who lay in the woman’s path; the woman was banished as a result and later became known as a witch etc. Growing up, I heard stories of losing good luck if one swept at night. This anecdote and Yaa’s anecdote of the hot oil form part of the culture of telling didactic stories with the aim of keeping children safe. The truth behind the discouragement of carrying hot oil around over distances in your home is to avoid accidents. Sweeping at night, on the other hand, is also discouraged to avoid the sweeping away of precious possessions because the logic is that at night visibility is low as compared to the day.

Belief systems

I didn’t even know that the Fante and Twi languages and tribes are branches from one and the same Akan tree! It only made sense then to me in a huge eureka moment that this is the reason behind both languages sounding so similar with only vocabulary variations. How shameful that as Ghanaian, I thought I was very informed about my culture and pride. Happens there’s only so much I  know. I also liked the way a whole page of writing was dedicated to explaining the essence of matrilineal dominance in both Asante and Fante lines. A man is more interested in his sister’s children and considers them more his priority than his own children because his sister is born of his mother but his wife is not; so interest in nieces and nephews guarantee the maintenance of property in the ‘mother’s house’ versus wealth being lost to ‘outsiders’.

Adulterated expressions

Obroni is a term anyone who grew up Ghanaian would know otherwise you probably grew up under a rock . However, this word which originally read as ‘Abro ni’ has gone through stages that have finally brought it to the way we say it now. ‘Abro’ translates to wickedness or malice or the act of knowingly doing what is wrong. ‘Abro ni’ then goes directly to mean a wicked person. This two-word expression gradually becomes the one word we use today; ‘Obroni’.

In addition, I never really understood the full meaning of the pronounced gesticulations of the Adowa dance, I mean we definitely can’t understand everything right? sometimes you just gotta appreciate and leave everything at that but then Aunty Yaa Gyasi gives that insight into one of the meanings of the hand gestures in the Adowa dance. In the novel, a character did the Adowa and hands were brought up and over ‘as though ready to receive and give back to the earth.’ In that particular scenario in the story, the people had gone through a long phase of famine and the ground/Asaase Yaa had finally been able to bless them with abundant food and harvest, therefore, the little hand movement repeated severally in the dance became a direct symbol of appreciation or acknowledgment of everything they owned as a people having come from Asaase Yaa. In the Adowa dance, every dancer has a unique message they use their body to communicate,  one of which is this special hand movement which is a gesture of thanksgiving.

Reinforcement of traditional Practices

The story ends with two people who are attracted to each other. The interesting twist to this is that the two are related. Yaa ends the story with their returning to Ghana and taking a dip in the deep blue sea. Yet the reality of these two people being related hangs on the reader’s neck and we itch to see how this knot will be unwound. Like the proverbial two halves of one fruit, these two characters are from the same family, lost over years and decades and reunited by some random working of fate. Though Yaa leaves us in need of a sequel to satisfy our curiosity about what would happen between these two characters, the part of the book where we are left shows us the potential for love between these two characters.

The reinforcement of traditional practices is highlighted at this point and gives us food for thought because up until this point, Yaa’s character’s have married with no background checks whatsoever. One of the things that make Ghanaian marriages different is the exhaustive background checks done to ensure that incestuous relationships are not allowed to happen. The novel’s end forces a particular line of thought which encourages a renewed appreciation of some of our traditional practices.

Final thoughts

Yaa Gyasi’s book is a wealth of information about slavery and the aspects of history that are not too easy to talk about today. It is insightful material for anyone who wishes to learn more about slavery, Africa, Ghana and an intimate narrative that brings the reader into the story, allowing for active participation and not a dormant reception of information.  We are on a journey with the characters, feel their pain and relive moments from the slave trade.

Most importantly, the story removes readers from the impersonal and mostly detached and factitious way that our schools teach slavery. Slavery is reduced to a narration of facts and dates and fails to show the cultural-emotional extent to which this bit of history meant to many groups of people over long periods of time and even until today.

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As a lover of the literary arts, I keep piling up reasons that ground my deep interest in this art. Below are a number of reasons;

Literature becomes a vehicle through which many topics can be discussed in a not too rigid way helping for the flexible accumulation of knowledge outside technical material

Literature exposes a people, their thought processes/social consciousness/belief systems, and culture….. this thought aligns with the first point…

We learn about own selves through literature, some works can emphasize what we already know and enhance our understanding of self.

Also, check out the post on Willie Lynch’s How to make a Slave as it aligns with several aspects of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

 

 

Willie Lynch’s Letter on ‘How to Make a Slave’ and Personal Musings

Capture d_écran 2017-08-23 à 1.46.53 PMA friend and I had an extensive conversation in which I literally forced him to agree that racism had a hand in the original plan of slavery. We had time on our hands, and we were high from shoving down what would later turn into poop. We were bursting with a raw desire to toss around ideas. His main argument was that slavery had economic and political backing. Yes, but racism too, a desire to portray the superiority of one race over the other….That too! I screamed!

Who cares?!

So, when he mentioned this book, I was drawn immediately to its title. Among many things, How To Make a Slave. Okay, let’s go see what this literature held!

This material is simply a letter from Willie Lynch (whose last name is asserted to probably be the source of the word lynching ) to slave owners on how to keep their slaves from rebelling for a long time, (He promises them that if used well, this method could work for 300 years from the 18th century in which it was shared) Though I think this material aligns perfectly with some happenings in our world today, it is believed to be a hoax. Yet, it is written in such logical detail that it makes me believe it is ‘real’. The more I think about it, the more my conviction of an existence of what I like to call ‘workings behind happenings’. The fact that there’s always some twisted plot behind occurrences. Ebola, shootings of young black males in America,….Whether true or not, it is striking material that deserves attention.

This piece would highlight striking portions of the document while briefly discussing opinion on how it aligns with modern social happenings (largely in my Ghanaian society).

‘Use of fear, envy, and distrust for control’ (As a method to control slaves)

Excerpt

 ‘You must use the dark skin slaves vs. the light skin slaves, and the light skin slaves vs. the dark skin slaves. You must use the female vs. the male. And the male vs. the female. You must also have your white servants and overseers distrust all Blacks.’

Opinion

The social consciousness of pride associated with our black skin is growing, at least online, because of posts that demonstrate this, particularly on an online social space such as Instagram; however, how and why has there generally been a subtle preference for lighter skinned people women? Without any research, a cursory glance at my Ghanaian society, for example, presents anyone with a huge prevalence of lightening products. Lighter skin girls seem to be preferred by ‘society’ and playful accolades such as ‘Akosombo Kaniya’ (Ghana’s electric power source) is thrown around playfully hinting at the underlying thought of the lighter skin girl being preferable to the darker skinned one. Why would such a metaphor exist if it doesn’t hint at the superiority of a lighter skin tone? To compare a source of electricity of a whole country to a person renders that person quite powerful. Moving on, terms like ‘mi broni’ my ‘white babe’ (if you like) are terms of endearment some Ghanaian men use on their women. What does the use of ‘broni’ allude to? or bring to mind?

Excerpt

‘You must also have your white servants and overseers distrust all Blacks. It is necessary that your slaves trust and depend on us. They must love, respect and trust only us. Gentlemen, these kits are your keys to control. Use them. Have your wives and children use them, never miss an opportunity. If used intensely for one year, the slaves themselves will remain perpetually distrustful of each other’. 

Opinion

 Why do we seem to prefer doing business with Obroni versus another black man? In Chimamanda’s Americanah, she alludes briefly to one of the characters’ prosperity in business if only the face of his business is a person of Caucasian descent. This mentality is demonstrated further by the general preference of western products on our markets. Which is why the West (including people who trace their heritage back to Africa) can get the Shea butter, Cocoa, Angelina/Dashiki and Ghana- must-go and recently our Ahenema slippers repackage it for us, and we still buy…..

The Dashiki/Angelina cloth being a whole new conversation because do we own them technically if we don’t make them? We can argue that we do own them because they’ve been adapted to our tastes over the years and also because we have embraced and use them….


The other interpretation of distrust can be the encouragement of the use of the colonizer’s language versus our own languages. Slaves were beaten forced to speak English and not their languages so that in doing that, plots and attempts to escape would be eliminated. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a great novel that features several examples to back this example. Check out the post here

The rest of the post features other parts of the letter that struck me. Yet, my commentary ends at these two points. I made a concluding remark at the base of this post and added a video I think sits well with the theme of this post….enjoy…

Other excerpts

‘Let us make a slave. What do we need? First of all, we need a black nigger man, a pregnant nigger woman, and her baby nigger boy. Second, we will use the same basic principle that we use in breaking a horse, combined with some more sustaining factors.’ What we do with horses is that we break them from one form of life to another that is we reduce them from their natural state in nature. Whereas nature provides them with the natural capacity to take care of their offspring, we break that natural string of independence from them and thereby create a dependency status, so that we may be able to get from them useful production for our business and pleasure

‘Hence both the horse and the nigger must be broken; that is breaking them from one form of mental life to another. Keep the body take the mind!’

You must keep your eye and thoughts on the female and the offspring of the horse and the nigger. A brief discourse in offspring development will shed light on the key to sound economic principles. Pay little attention to the generation of original breaking, but concentrate on future generations.

The Breaking Process of the African Woman

‘Take the female and run a series of tests on her to see if she will submit to your desires willingly. Test her in every way, because she is the most important factor for good economics. If she shows any sign of resistance in submitting completely to your will, do not hesitate to use the bull whip on her to extract that last bit of resistance out of her. Take care not to kill her, for in doing so, you spoil good economic. When in complete submission, she will train her off springs in the early years to submit to labor when they become of age. Understanding is the best thing. Therefore, we shall go deeper into this area of the subject matter concerning what we have produced here in this breaking process of the female nigger. We have reversed the relationship in her natural uncivilized state she would have a strong dependency on the uncivilized nigger male, and she would have a limited protective tendency toward her independent male offspring and would raise male offsprings to be dependent like her. Nature had provided for this type of balance. We reversed nature by burning and pulling a civilized nigger apart and bull whipping the other to the point of death, all in her presence. By her being left alone, unprotected, with the male image destroyed, the ordeal caused her to move from her psychological dependent state to a frozen independent state. In this frozen psychological state of independence, she will raise her male and female offspring in reversed roles. For fear of the young males life, she will psychologically train him to be mentally weak and dependent, but physically strong. Because she has become psychologically independent, she will train her female off springs to be psychological independent. What have you got? You’ve got the nigger women out front and the nigger man behind and scared.’ …….

Conclusion

‘Keep the body take the mind!’ 

The slavery that took the body and human effort ended long ago yet mental slavery continues to exist. Though the term ‘mental slavery’ sounds so overused and bloated,  it still very much exists and is a term that should be revisited often and put in perspective. Ignoring the elephant in the room because we are more concerned with our individual lives instead of going to war for the greater good of the race or mankind is expected, however, talking about issues at the barest minimum will provoke thought, trigger conversation and gradually bring change. as seen on our social media pages …

Lynch, Willie. ‘How to make a slave’

http://www.itsabouttimebpp.com/BPP_Books/pdf/The_Willie_Lynch_Letter_The_Making_Of_A_Slave!.pdf

Also, watch this video! It’s worth the watch!