Literary nonfiction about slavery, Africa and ethics

covers of 3 works of literary fiction
Recommended literary nonfiction reading for 2019 third quarter

Each quarter I post brief reviews of a few books of literary nonfiction that I think teachers could use in English Language Arts classes. Some of the works have logical tie-ins with required courses in other disciplines; others would pair nicely with fictional works that tackle some of the same issues.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad: 2018. 171 p. (Note: Some copies have an alternate subtitle, “The story of the last ‘black cargo.'”
Photo of Cudjo Lewis on front coverver of Barraccoon
Barracoon
contains the first-person story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known surviving African from the last American slave ship to bring human cargo to America for sale. The slender volume tells his tale in the man’s own words, as recorded by author Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 and 1928, when Cudjo was 67 years old.

Hurston draws from Cudjo the story of his life in Africa, his enslavement, the Atlantic crossing, his experiences as a slave laborer. She uses spelling that recreates Cudjo’s pronunciation, which takes a little getting used to, but isn’t difficult to decipher.

Cudjo tells of his joy at Emancipation after he’d been enslaved five-and-half years and his grief to realize he couldn’t go back home. He talks about his life and his family in Alabama.

Besides Cudjo’s first-person account, which occupies about 100 pages, the book includes an introduction which provides information about the voyage of the Clotilda, which brought Cudjo to America, stories that Cudjo told Hurston, and a glossary.

Hurston’s first-person narrative could be paired with the author’s 1937 novel Their Eyes We Watching God, which is written from a former female slave’s point of view.  It might also be paired with Thomas Dixon Jr.’s historically significant novel The Clansman.

Blood River by Tim Butcher

Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country by Tim Butcher. Grove Press. 2008. 363 p.Man paddles canoe in photo superinposed on map of the Congo River

Blood River is a work of literary nonfiction that John le Carré described as “a masterpiece.”

It’s author, Tim Butcher, had just been appointed Africa Correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2000 when he read that the Telegraph had sent another reporter, Henry Morton Stanley of “Mr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, to Africa more than a century earlier. That slim personal connection inspired Butcher to retrace Stanley’s more significant but now almost forgotten four-year achievement: mapping the nearly 3000-mile Congo River.

Though warned the journey is suicidal, Butcher persists. He’s arranged for a protector who turns out to be a pygmy, five feet tall and half Butcher’s weight. That’s just the first of many frightening surprises that awaited the author. By his own admission, Butcher is no macho strong guy. He is persistent, however, and quite willing to follow orders from people who know more than he does.

The Congo flows through country that in the year 2000 is far less modern than it was when Stanley was there in the 1870s. During his 44 days of travel, he visits places Stanley visited, compares what he sees to Stanley’s photographs of the same places, and tells what happened to cause the regression.

Butcher obviously did his homework before he went on the trip. There’s a wealth of information in Blood River. He writes knowledgeably about the Congo’s plant and animal life, relates stories about Joseph Conrad’s experience in the Congo, and points out places where events in The African Queen were filmed.

Blood River could be paired with Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness; both are set in the same location just about 100 years apart. Blood River explains that some historical detail that Conrad’s critics thought he made up when he wrote Heart of Darkness were actually true.

Ethical Wisdom by Mark Matousek

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good by Mark Matousek. Doubleday. 2011. 251 p.
a two-faced angel-demon image at center of front cover
Two-faced, two-minded

At age eight, when his mother gave him a blue coat which he knew she stole, Mark Matousek began a life-long quest to discover the ultimate truth: How should we live?

In Ethical Wisdom, Matousek blends research from the fields of the hard sciences and social sciences, with ideas from writers and philosophers to explain why humans do what they do.

The title not withstanding, the volume is less about what people ought to do than it is about what they actually do. Much of what Matousek has to say is directly related to human communication.  For example, he explains that “Self-control depends on language,” but shows that emotions are caught rather than linguistically transmitted.

His focus on communications  is a primary reason to use Matousek’s volume in an ELA classroom. A second reason to use it is that Matousek writes well, with careful attention to words that convey both his literal and emotional meaning. But Matousek is definitely not a typical stuffy, textbookish author: Even his bibliography is set up to be readily accessible.

The first three sections of Matousek’s book have enough hard data to be used as reading for both humanities and social science courses, if, for example, you are in a setting where students are taking courses for dual enrollment credits. The sections four and five have little scientific unpinning. They are primarily Matousek’s personal beliefs, derived largely from Eastern religions traditions. I’d not require students to read those two sections.

Most chapters in the book are under 10 pages. Finding complementary long or short fiction for students to read on topics discussed in the first three sections of  Ethical Wisdom would not be difficult.

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