The true story of the final group of people who were forcibly brought to the United States and enslaved is rendered powerfully and poetically in African Town, a novel in verse by Irene Latham and Charles Waters.
The poets (co-authors of two previous books, Can I Touch Your Hair? and Dictionary for a Better World) offer a tangible and memorable way for readers to bear witness to the lives of the 110 Africans brought to the U.S. in 1860 by Captain William Foster aboard a ship called the Clotilda. They were pawns in a cruelly casual bet made by a wealthy Mobile, Alabama, landowner named Timothy Meaher. Meaher bet $1,000 that, despite a decadeslong ban on the importation of enslaved people, he could pay Foster to smuggle people into the U.S. without getting caught.
Throughout the book, the poets move between voices and poetic forms as they imagine the long and terrible journey. They embody the despair of a religious man named Kupollee down below (“We are inside a / terrible story. When will it end?”); the denial of Foster, above (“I can’t think of them as humans. I won’t.”); and the anguish of the Clotilda herself (“If I’d been built with a heart, it would be broken”).
Among the 14 voices that narrate this history is Kossola, a young man eager to learn from his Yoruba elders at home and who, once in America, encourages fellow survivors to find home within each other. Teens Abilè̩ and Kêhounco forge a sisterhood that unites them in grief and love. And Meaher, well, he holds fast to his beliefs, repugnant as they are.
Readers will feel heartened to learn that, after the Civil War ended and the Clotilda survivors were freed, they worked together to create a community that was theirs alone, and that the African Town (now Africatown) of the book’s title still exists today in Alabama. In fact, Joycelyn M. Davis, an Africatown resident descended from Oluale, one of the survivors, wrote the book’s introduction.
Plentiful back matter includes a glossary, timeline and bibliography, news about Africatown’s present and future plans and more. A section called “Poetry Forms/Styles” offers fascinating insight into the authors’ creative process; their descriptions of the poetic forms employed in the book are little poems in and of themselves.
African Town is a book that should be both taught and treasured.