Turn the Page: Barracoon Story of the Last 'Black Cargo'
For this 3rd Friday’s Turn the Page, I have decided to challenge myself and read the book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston. I am calling this journey challenging because as some of you know, this book was meant to be published a long time ago, but was not because no one wanted to read about the slave experience of a man who would implicate the people in Africa. It was thought to be a book which could tarnish the integrity of the movement. Which, even now, I would understand. To tell this story aloud, is to have some who were directly involved, or their ancestors, or white people who feel resentful of the history of slavery--mostly as it relates to talking about white privilege and such, to feel vindicated in what occurred because African people were complicit.
At the time of this writing, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have completed suicide. Now we are a nation of people asking “why.” Why would two such successful, rich people, with many things going well in their lives kill themselves? Some people are no doubt labeling them god-less people, saying they are selfish, stupid, or something else altogether. Imagine, some of these are the same people, who in watching the Black Panther gave praise to Killmonger for saying that death was better than bondage, while not acknowledging that this can still be the case for others. Just because you cannot see the chains, doesn't mean they aren’t there. Even with “everything” at your fingertips, it doesn’t mean that you don’t still suffer*. And surely it doesn't mean that you have balance. Cudjo said “When you hungry it is painful but when de belly too full it painful too.” In my reflection on this book and on mental health it makes me think about the need for balance and how it is often lacking and leads to pain.
This story brought up a great deal for me. As a Nigerian American, as a therapist, as a person who loves books, as a person who loves the land from which her family and ancestors hail and as a person who loves the land she is on. Both of which have more than their fair share of problems. Both of which have such a lacking in balance that it is almost painful to even think about. In reading this book, there were many feelings. What makes this story challenging for me is that I am Nigerian American. I am both and nothing in the eyes of many. I belong both to the sellers and the sold. And I belong to no one at all. A Nigerian born on American soil can be considered to be as lost to home as those born here with no indication from whence they came. Anyway, at the beginning, of course I am getting used to the style of writing. When you generally read contemporary writings, it can be hard to make the shift. Hurston states that the style of writing she employed was to basically use Kossola (Cudjo’s) own words and style of speaking. I thought that brought a certain level of integrity to the work. It also made it a lot easier to know where his thoughts were and where hers were interwoven. Balance.
It has been decided by many that there can be no fairness when telling the stories of slavery. Kanye, referred to slavery as a choice. Now, while I don’t agree with what he had to say about it in the context that he was speaking, I do believe there was a choice involved. There was the choice of some white people to dehumanize Africans for the sake of financial gain (and to lessen cognitive dissonance for themselves). And there was also the choice of some of the kings, or chiefs to also gain wealth (and notoriety?) through the selling of those captured from other tribes. For me, if there is choice, that is where the choice lies. It lies in the decision to be wealthy or comfortable at the expense of others. When we have decided the world will be based on those who have and those who don’t, when we create systems that allow some people to feel inferior to others while some of those needs, basic and beyond, don’t get met, we have suffered people to have some level of ill will in their hearts. But really, more than just the money aspects are out of sync. Nature, many people’s work and home lives, and the way people are (mis)treated according to their race, sex, or so-called “legal” status is out of balance.
But at least this book had balance. Aside from the obvious, of giving life to the African prior to them being slaves (and using that as the starting point of Black life within textbooks and the like), there is also balance with Hurston’s interactions with Cudjo, how often she uses his African name versus the American one. Even in the report of how Zora Neale Hurston got this story from Cudjo is with some level of balance. Were there stumbling blocks, yes, of course, but she corrected and moved forward with the knowledge. Her need/want for the story was not so great that she wanted to tramp on Cudjo to get it. Cudjo’s want and need to tell the story was not so great that he would trample on the past and elevate himself or others in the process. He explained what he knew and what he remembered in an honest way. Here in America, we (Black folks) like to go with the narrative that in Africa we were all kings and queens. We want to claim all that was on the continent of Africa while denying our Africanness at the same time. Wanting to be closer to an identification of roots while denying the very humanity of those on African soil. We speak of Africa, the country and loose sight that Africa, the continent is many varied. Even more than variety being on the continent, this story lets us know that even within the same regions that there are different tribes with various traditions. I already told y'all I’m Nigerian American. More specifically though, I am Yoruba. Anyone that knows something about Naija people, know that historically, Yorubas, Igbos, and Hausa people don’t get along well. There are long histories of hurt and “stealing of traditions.” So, all of us are the descendants of kings, queens, and chiefs? Das Cute. Some people were kings and queens and chiefs, etc. Many were not. Cudjo told this story with balance and truth, even though it is colored with hurt.
Cudjo’s life, to me was unbalanced (not from his own doing) with death and tragedy. From seeing the massacre of his people while at home, to being a slave, to then being freed had having to watch the building and then destruction of his family, one member at a time. Tragedy struck over and over. However, he managed to have balance and voice, just the same. Some semblance of balance to me is being able to speak plainly about what you need in any moment and not be apologetic for it. Cudjo, throughout the book, can be read telling Hurston to leave, with no preamble. Because in a world where respect for self and others is that which holds balance, saying No is a complete sentence that requires nothing else, is balance.
Imbalance in Practice
Balance dictates that “as above, so below,” sort of mentality. But many of us are out of balance. Being out of balance is almost seen as a natural thing. We work ourselves to the bone. We don’t know how to take rest. We are so caught up in living for others, we often forget to evaluate what we want for ourselves. We are people who have become used to being out of balance. The more the scale tips, the less we notice. We don’t notice until another tragedy strikes. The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain woke up a lot of people to the idea that there may be something toxic about the American culture. Trying to re-achieve balance will also be important to reaching a certain level of peace. For us the imbalance in daily life is a combination of dead bodies, imprisoned children, wealth disparities, unfair treatment, redlining, sexism, racism, etc. Debt, despair, and death is on a constant loop. Then there are those who would shame others for seeking out laughter through entertainment. Because you can’t be woke and enjoy something? Because your lot in life is to ONLY be inundated with the daily tragedies of life? That is not balance. What is amazing to me about this story is how a man whose life has been rife with sorrow and tragedy managed to have some semblance of balance.
At this point, you and I both know that I am going to say this book is worth reading. But, allow me to add in the caveat that this book may be difficult for some because of its very nature. This is a book that may require planning before reading and levels of self-care.
Getting Balanced: The point of this writing for me is to offer at least a few tips on how to get balanced. To even start that process, you would need to know if your life is currently out of balance and in what ways. How do you attempt to achieve balance in your life in a world without balance? Are those attempts usually successful? How do you take care of yourself in the face of tragedy? Do you find yourself feelings guilt of shame when you take time to watch or take something in that has nothing to do with what’s going on in the world. Have you examined where that shame comes from?
Some ways you can practice being more balanced like Cudjo include:
Knowing what your priorities are--this gives you a leg up in making sure that the things important to you are the things that get done
Telling people NO- This can work well with knowing your priorities because it ensures that you won’t stretch yourself too thin. And sometimes the NO is more like a “not right now”
Experience your emotions without shame- bottling up emotions is one surefire way to make sure they come through at inappropriate times. Any of my clients will know that I always suggest scheduling some time to be all in your feelings.
Reflect-- take the time to take stock of where you’ve been and where you are. Note your journey. Note if you have lost your balance and adjust accordingly.
What are some of the ways you reach balance? If you’ve read the book, what do you think? If you haven’t, would you?
Need help living your best balanced life? Get on my schedule!
*Please note that Annodright does not advocate suicide as an option. If you or a loved on is thinking about suicide and would like help call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255