Zora Neale Hurston Helps Ex-Slave Tell His Tale

In 1860, while minding his own business in his native West Africa, 19-year old Cudjo Lewis was snatched, chained and stuffed in the crowded and putrid hull of a ship called Clotilda. When he reemerged he was in  Alabama, where the young man was forced to work on a plantation. This despite the fact that the importation of new slaves to America had been prohibited for nearly 50 years already.

Five years later, once emancipation had been declared and the Civil War over, Lewis and some of his friends from his plantation, many of whom were also on Clotilda*, created their own town, Plateau, where they lived freely for the rest of their days, living witnesses to one of the most horrific experiences in history: the slave passage overseas.

It was to this tale that young author  Zora Neale Hurson was drawn, and in 1927, she traveled to Plateau to interview Cudjo. Four years later she returned for a three-month stay, meticulously noting his every sentence, word and syllable and creating an unprecedented account of his kidnapping, enslavement and new life in freedom, providing an unparalleled and invaluable testimony to one of humanity’s lowest moments. Shockingly, no publisher would touch it, largely because publishers felt his vernacular proved too hard for average readers to grasp. And so, the story went unpublished and forgotten. Years passed.

Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lewis went on living in Alabama. He died in 1935, aged 94, and she followed in 1960, and their collaboration continued sitting on a shelf at Howard University for another six decades— that is, until today. Literally today, because the HarperCollins imprint Amistad today releases Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” which offers readers an unprecedented look at the cruelty experienced by millions whose own stories have been lost and obscured by centuries. Perhaps Lewis’s can be a proxy for all those whose lives were lost and otherwise obscured by the most devastating and indeed terrifying aspect of human history.

You can buy a copy here — and you really, really should.

*Side fact: QuestLove descended from another slave on that ship.

Today is a Good Day for Adventuring

May 14th sure is a great day for launching unprecedented expeditions: it’s on this date that both the Lewis and Clark adventure and SkyLab took off to new frontiers, albeit almost two centuries years apart.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left the St. Louis region on May 14, 1804, for their continental traverse to the west coast, an adventure that riveted the nation in relative real time: readers devoured every update sent back east and inspired no shortage of unofficial “official” maps based on the men’s dispatches. Never before had Americans seen just what lay between them and the pacific and these images, as well as the official reports, expanded the American imagination to its greatest heights, tilling the rhetorical soil for the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny and other political notions that propelled the nation’s sojourn from sea-to-shining sea.

Meanwhile, fast-forward 169 years, to 1973, and there’s NASA launching SkyLab, the nation’s first long-term space station into the stars, creating a floating laboratory in which astronauts could conduct experiments on how bacteria grew in space, dissect various light rays without the pesky atmosphere eroding them and examine long-term space exposure’s impact on the human body.

Unfortunately, the lab was damaged by a micrometeoroid storm in 1974 and deemed too dangerous to house astronauts, and so SkyLab remained unused in space for five years, until 1979, when it came crashing back to earth. But, as with Lewis and Clark, SkyLab’s record-setting mission encouraged the next generation of Americans to push themselves to even greater heights. Pun partially  intended….

 

Links to Recent Stories On Earth, America

I’ve been away from the site for far longer than I intended, for which I apologize. It will be another few days before the regularly scheduled program starts cranking again, as I continue clearing my desk of pesky editorial debris.

In the meantime, I’d like to share links to some recent stories I’ve written elsewhere…

First, “The Congressman Who Warned Us About Climate Change in 1864,” which I wrote for The Daily Beast in honor of Earth Day.

A few days later Mental Floss published my piece “How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol,” which is a great condensed summary of my book, for those of you who are interested in quirky but critically rigorous American histories.

Alright, off to shovel more vowels and consonants. Be back soon….

Happy Bookmobile Day!

The first bookmobiles appeared in England in the 1850s, but made their way over to America by the 1890s. Today, National Bookmobile Day, part of National Library Week, is all about celebrating this four-wheeled reading machines and their ability to spread the written word to far-flung places.

Above, U.S. soldiers picking up some hardbacks from a bookmobile in Texas, 1917 or so.

The Man Who Captured Motion, Eadward Muybridge

“Horse in Motion, 1878”

Eadward Muybridge, who was born on this date in 1830, had quite the life. An Englishman who emigrated to the States in 1850, at the age of 20, he worked as a publisher and bookseller in California, and he likely would have remained as such had it not been for a stage coach accident in Texas in 1860. Flung from the vehicle and hitting his head on a rock, Muybridge was taken to Arkansas for treatment following the accident, and it was there that he was introduced to photographer, a hobby that became his legacy. (Which is good, because otherwise he might be remembered for murdering his wife’s lover in 1874, a crime for which he was acquitted.)

Some of his first images were of the American West, including Yosemite, which caught the attention of California Governor Leland Stanford, who asked Muybridge to photograph his prize-winning horses. Muybridge readily agreed, embarking on a project that he hoped would answer the age-old question: does a running horse ever get completely airborne? (Above)

Taking a rapid succession of shots, Muybridge showed that, yes, horses did indeed remain airborne; he also realized that motion could be captured among humans, too, capturing the images below and inspiring and inventors, most notably Thomas Edison, who used Muybridge’s work as a springboard to develop motion pictures.

Muybridge died in 1904, back in mother England, but his artistic and technical impact remain world-changing even today: without Muybridge we wouldn’t have Black Panther, after all.

After the jump, four more early Muybridge images capturing motion in action.

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