Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Like a relic pulled up from the bottom of the ocean floor, Barracoon speaks to us of survival and persistence. It recalls the disremembered and gives and account for the unaccounted.

Barracoon is an experience. It is brief introductions from Zora Neale Hurston followed by pages of dialogue from a former slave who remembers what it means to be African. He tells of the time before his capture, his 5 years and 6 months in slavery, and the whirlwind that was life as a free man. It is mostly uninterrupted, somewhat sporadic storytelling written in a language laden with a severed culture and unmatched resilience.

But it’s really only a glimpse. While Oluale Kossola tells of his village being raided in detail, there are notable holes in other parts of his story. At times it feels like racing through decades of a life, just trying to hang on. There’s no real detailed discussion of life in slavery, just brief mentions of sorrow:

In night time we cry, we say we born and raised to be free people and now we slave. We doan know why we be bring ‘way from our country to work lak dis. It strange to us.

The weight of his children’s deaths barely sink in. They come so quickly, shockingly, one behind the other. His story twists and turns. It feels like I assume it felt to sit, listening to Kossola tell his story, his way.

What’s most intriguing about reading Kossola’s story is the inextricable tie he still had to his African home:

Kossola’s nineteen years of life in Africa were more real to him than a declaration of independence in America. His narrative does not recount a journey forward into the American Dream. It is a kind of slave narrative in reverse, journeying backward to barracoons, betrayal, and barbarity. And then even further back, to a period of tranquility, a time of freedom, and a sense of belonging.

He talked of creating Africatown, of giving his children African and American names. While he and his family accepted their new Christian ideals, the African rituals he learned during his nineteen years on the continent were ever-present memories.

We call our village Affican Town. We say dat ’cause we want to go back in de Africa soil and we see we cain go. Derefo’ we makee de Affica where dey fetch us.

It was a new and thoughtful experience to read of a once enslaved man who still remembered his African home and customs even as he was forced to make a new home in a strange land.

The Musicophilia Hole

I love music. It’s been part of my daily life and identity for as long as I can remember. I have noticed, however, that my ideas about music and even the ways I engage music have changed over time. Now, this is certainly not surprising. I’m older. Let’s hope I’m a little wiser. My life has changed in some wonderful ways. It makes sense that my ideas about music would change. I do often wonder, however, if there’s a little more too it.

I read parts of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia years ago. Lately, I’ve had a strong desire to dig in again. Sometimes a book comes to me long before I’m truly ready to receive it and I definitely think Musicophilia was one of those books. Now, I don’t expect to uncover the secrets to my current level of musical engagement necessarily, but I’m more and more curious about the ways the brain and music interact.

Before I had a chance to open the book, however, I fell down a musicophilia hole. I spent way too much time looking up articles, interviews and talks and I’m pretty sure I’ll be reaching for Musicophilia today. Scouring the internet I found theories about earworms, discussions of the correlation between blindness and perfect pitch, some brief thoughts about music as a cultural construct, and a woman who can’t recognize music:

Don’t mind me. I’ll likely be in this hole for some time.

The Hate U Give: The Movie

I read The Hate U Give in 2017 when it was released. Overall, it was a pleasant read, but I had questions about the author’s approach to her chosen topic—officer involved shootings of unarmed black men. I commented in an earlier post on the difficulty of critiquing fiction that calls itself political. I also noted the glaring absence of Khalil’s story. Unfortunately, the big screen has a way of illuminating a story’s flaws and The Hate U Give was no different.

The Hate U Give is a good movie. It is visually appealing. It isn’t boring in the least. Like the book, the story might be a touch too long, but that’s my only general critique. Overall, just as I did the book, I have no problem recommending the movie.

The movie, however, does raise the same questions the book did. In fact, the treatment of the black male characters overall has a way of obscuring the point of the story. DeVante, a character in the book who offered readers a glimpse into Khalil’s life, is absent from the movie. The remaining black male characters appear flat and almost robotic. By the end, Khalil’s death feels like a distant memory.

So, my thoughts are the same. It has to be difficult to use fiction to address an issue that for some is a constant fear. I imagine telling a story like this one through the publishing and film industries has its limitations. I do wonder, however, what good this book and movie might have done if along with insight into Starr’s traumatic experience as an eyewitness readers and viewers also had the chance to learn a little about Khalil’s life before it was taken.

Here is my earlier review of The Hate U Give:

I finished reading The Hate U Give a few months ago. I’ll be honest and say I had initially decided not to read the book. But somehow I had evidently put myself on a waiting list for the audiobook at my local library. When the hold became available, I decided to give it a chance and I’m glad I did. The Hate U Give, especially in its audiobook format, is a treat. The story is very well written and is a very pleasant experience. Everything, from the characters and the use of language, is unmistakably situated in the context of black culture and makes for an enjoyable experience. Overall, I think the book is great and I have recommended it several times since reading it. However, I must admit that I left the book feeling a little bit of a void. I wanted more of something. I wanted more Khalil.

For those who don’t know, The Hate U Give follows sixteen-year-old Starr Carter in the aftermath of witnessing her childhood friend Khalil’s death at the hands of a police officer. In some ways, the book deals with Starr’s struggle to grapple with her friend’s death on both a personal and political level. However, Khalil’s death instead serves as a catalyst for Starr’s exploration of her place in her two worlds: the predominantly black and poor community she lives in and the predominantly white school she attends. Throughout the book we see her begin to question the sincerity of her friendships with her non-black friends as well as her ability to continue her romantic relationship with Chris, a white boy who attends her school. We also see her consider how her identity ultimately affects how she sees the incident she witnessed and how she chooses to deal with it publicly. And even with all of these artful entanglements and the author’s masterful exploration of complex ideas, something was missing. I needed more Khalil.

Now, let me get this out of the way: while I believe art can be political, I never infer a political purpose onto a piece of art. Why? Because I also believe that there is value in creating art for art’s sake. The freedom to simply enjoy a product of a human creativity is as much a gift as art that chooses to be explicit about its political values. The difference between this book and most of the books I choose to read, is its explicit political positioning. Before reading the book, you are told clearly what this book is about. The inner flap of the book describes the book as one that will speak to issues of racism and police violence. At the end of the story, the author confirms the political position of this book by listing actual victims of police violence. So in a book that goes this far, why am I left wondering about Khalil?

In the book, Khalil is Starr’s childhood friend, but also a distant one. When he is killed, it had been a moment since they hung out or even spoken. And we, the readers, are offered only a brief encounter with Khalil as he dies within the first 24 pages. The book spans 444 pages. As I continued past those first few pages, I found myself craving more of Khalil’s story, a little more of his personality, and more insight into his fears, desires, and hopes. And there was very little of that. Starr’s memories of her childhood and Khalil’s friend DeVante’s recollections humanize Khalil to some extent, but there’s so much more I wanted to know. And in some ways, I feel there is so much more we needed to know.

The question that plagues me when I think about this book is a simple one: Why couldn’t we have had more time with Khalil? Maybe it was an attempt to make the readers feel the void of his absence. The problem is, he wasn’t around long enough for his life to be significant to the reader. Maybe it made more sense for the author to focus on Starr because in some ways there is a little bit of author Angie Thomas in the character. Maybe this book was just not really about Starr witnessing Khalil’s death, but actually about her exploring her identity in a politically charged environment. There might be many reasons why Khalil didn’t have much of a living presence in this book. These reasons may be both creative and even practical. And I am in no way implying that the author maliciously marginalized Khalil in her story. But, in a world where the killed are often reduced to bodies lying covered in the street or even hashtags, I believe that there is much value in giving voice to the person facing the end of his life at the hands of one who has sworn to protect and serve.