TONI MORRISON — MIDDLETON A. HARRIS — THE BLACK BOOK — ORIGINAL EDITION 1974–35TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION 2009 — RANDOM HOUSE HARDCOVER EDITION 2019
The first thing that comes to mind when we open this quasi-mythic if not cultish book is that it is a lot more than a plain “testament to the wisdom, strength, and perseverance of black men and women intent on freedom.” It is a real book of revelation about the future these black people contain in their genes and heritage because they were the original brood from which the whole humanity grew, starting some 300,000 years ago, and now proved to have been in Border Cave in South Africa, at least 200,000 years ago with a fossilized herbal bed showing how far they were already from animalhood, from even their direct ancestors Homo Erectus. They were then, hardly 80–100,000 years after emerging from their Hominin ancestors organizing their life and their living quarters for work and communal existence, but also for the comfort of their sleep. These Homo Sapiens were already vastly engaged on the road to humanity, to a life together for the comfort of all, and nature provided them with the raw materials they needed, be it ochre, silex or flints, grass to make their straw beds, all kinds of shells to make beads for their own decoration or to facilitate their exchanges of goods, and so many other things revealing their vast symbolism which of course was realized in daily life with language and communication.
Black Africans, or African Americans, or Caribbeans, or all of them, Black people, who were captured and transported who knows where to be slaves, some males being castrated flush with the abdomen to become eunuchs in various harems, a fate that was started as soon as agriculture was devised that required a regular workforce that could be obedient and effective, following orders from those who controlled the land and the farm work. We have to keep in mind the fate of the Non-Jewish Arab slave maid Hagar lent to Abraham by his own wife Sarah for him to have a son that was to be Ishmael, and remember how when Sarah gave birth to Isaac, she required from Abraham that he ban both Hagar and Ishmael and force them in the desert with little or no water or food, for them to die there.
That’s what this book is all about. All Black people in this world carry in their genes all our Homo Sapiens genes and the only supplements came from Neanderthals all over the world except Black Africa, and Denisovans in Asia and South East Asia, hence probably, though not checked yet, present in American Indians, Native Americans who came to the Americas via a north route from Siberia to Alaska and North America, and via a south route from South East Asia and Melanesia across the Southern Pacific Ocean to Chile and up to as far as Mesoamerica.
The explanation why as soon as 10,000 BCE Black Africans were made slaves for the Mediterranean world, the Middle East, and all around the Indian Ocean, both from West Africa to the Maghreb and beyond the Middle East, and from Eastern Africa up the Nile Valley and then to the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. That’s what is missing actually. This fact that slavery was invented as a labor-organization answering the emergence of agriculture in the whole world around 12–10,000 BCE. The Americas are concerned by the Transatlantic slave trade from West Africa, particularly the Mali Empire that became Muslim in 1235 and since then enslaved animist Africans from non-Muslim tribes to sell them to North Africa, to the Maghreb and Libya. Has anything changed as for this forced migration?
But you will be surprised by the fact that French merchant from Dieppe and Rouen sent ships at least one century before Christopher Columbus to West Africa and to East Brazil to buy some of the spices and other commodities they sold with a tremendous profit in France and Europe. I can add to this the fact that in Bordeaux Black people were present and asserted as being present as soon as the 12–13th centuries, probably coming from Spain and the Maghreb since Bordeaux continued having links with the Moors in Spain five centuries after Charles Martel stopped the Moors in Poitiers in 732. Bordeaux was at the time controlled by the English with the famous Eleonor of Aquitania, Queen of France first and then England. Two one-hundred-year wars ensued and Bordeaux was finally integrated into the French Kingdom by Louis XIV at the end of the 17th century.
The book concentrates mostly on the positive side of the Blacks in the USA, of African Americans in North America. It is mostly a gathering of documents about this American slavery, and only American slavery, the slavery of systematic lynching, of the one-drop-of-blood theory, White the Anglo-Saxon Protestant slavery of Black African “chattel,” not even as valuable as a horse or a cow, hardly at the same level as a castrated ox (and women are just plain milk cows for the children they give birth to in order for the slaveowner to sell the children as soon as they can stand on their own feet and obey a simple order.
But the best part of the book is centered on Black culture in such conditions. Music and songs, ragtime they call it, is central. Africans were forbidden to speak their own languages and were mixed so that they could not. They could not speak English at first though since in those centuries — and this is still true in Africa — they had to be bilingual if not trilingual to just be able to live in West Africa or Angola or Congo, they probably already spoke or at least understood some English when being disembarked in America, if the crew on the ship was speaking English. Black Africans developed articulated human languages as soon as 300,000 years ago or maybe more, and they were thus born “linguists” and could probably learn any language just by hearing it and imitating it. But the Plantation owners who were the slave owners too, encouraged the slaves to sing, hum, some kind of rhythmic chanting or threnody because it enabled the slaves to keep a working rhythm that was the same for all and thus guaranteed production. For the slaves, it was a way to avoid the fact that some among them might linger behind and be whipped in the evening for lack of productivity. For the planters, it was using the African culture that is based on such rhythmic chanting to reach the level of production that made slavery profitable. It was also a vision of these slaves as being all the same, homogenized, just like a herd of sheep or cows, all running as soon as one does, all cows turning their nose against the wind to smell the water and dangerous intruders, etc. Don’t forget for these planters their African slaves were animals, following instincts, not deserving any religious initiation, christening, or even controlled practice because they had no souls, just like all animals indeed. Can you dream of a vicious scorpion having a divine soul?
The songs are very emotional, from lullabies to working songs, from “ragtime” to any other form in which they integrated some religious surviving tradition from Africa, hence Voodoo or some copycat Christian elements from the very start transferred from white Christian faith to Black African resistance. That’s where maybe the book has aged. The resistance was a lot less and at the same time a lot more than what is said. The main resistance was a whole set of practices, some tolerated, some totally clandestine, for the African slaves to improve their daily lot with some extra food (fishing for example, or trapping some small animals, along a tolerated line, and stealing chickens along a totally clandestine line), some extra protection against the future of being sold afar, children of course since that was an important income for the planter, but also grown-ups to guarantee some turnover that enabled better domination.
Some of the stories are fascinating. I love the story “Gris-Gris on his door-step drove him mad” page 146, which is both the illustration of how Voodoo fear and Voodoo domination can reduce a man to nothing at all, to a slow and systematic alienation and self-destruction, or incite one to escape by moving away, in this case to Peru, and coming back later on rich, and rebuilding his life there, or rather in the next-door city or next state with no consequence at all. Voodoo is not magic that can perform anything, except a mental subjugation that leads to death or abasement or insanity. All that is in the head of the victim and nothing else.
This is what I would call the insistence on a positive vision that keeps the future open for improvement and liberation. This is the positive stance of many Black activists or Black politicians like John Lewis and Barack Obama. Despite the worst possible shortcomings of the American Declaration of Independence and US Constitution, the constant and continuous fight that has to be first of all some mental power building a “Stand up in your soul, Speak up in your secret essence, and Shut up till time is ripe for you to speak” attitude of caution, resistance, and hope. That cannot be reduced to a binary light versus darkness metaphor, nor even a triadic light versus dawn-and/or-dusk versus dark-night pattern or motif. Life is not a quilt, bedspread, coverlet, or rug. Life is the energy that is cultivated and controlled when you make, produce, weave, and sow one of these quilts, bedspreads, coverlets, or rugs. This book is the assertion of what some 34 years later will become the famous Obama’s mantra “Yes I can” or “Yes your can” or “Yes we can.” But think of Sergeant William Carney, heroic flag bearer of the 54th Massachusetts U.S. Colored Troops, since 1776 till victory.
“The old flag never touch’d the ground, boys,
The old flag never touch’d the ground
Though shot and shell fell all around, boys,
The dear old flag was never downed.”
And another song answers this hope for a constitution of freedom, though this freedom will remain a potential vastly covered up for a long time by the words and their interpretation that de facto justified slavery.
“Little Sally Walker
Sitting in the saucer
Weeping and crying for someone to love her.
Rise, Sally, rise!
Wipe ya weepin eyes
Put ya hands on ya hips
Let ya backbone slip
Aww shake it to the east
Aww shake it to the west
Aww shake it to the one you love the best”
And remember that in this life, tomorrow is always the result of this morning’s hope and this afternoon’s march and tonight’s election results that only depend on how powerful our dance shook our backbone to the south where every day, our sun reaches His zenith.
And that is the testament of this book, the something that serves as a sign or evidence of a specified fact, event, or quality. “I am not complete here; there is much more, but there is no time and no more space… And I have journeys to take, ships to name, and crews,” as Toni Morrison wrote in 1973. And all these journeys, ships, and crews have to reach the end we hope will be a new beginning.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU