Dirty Boots: Reading: Sylviane Diouf’s “Dreams of Africa in Alabama”

Next week, I’m taking two-dozen students to Troy to hear Sylviane Diouf at the university’s annual Mitchell-McPherson Lecture. Diouf is a scholar whose 2007 book Dreams of Africa in Alabama tells the story of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to enter the United States, at Mobile Bay, long after the international slave trade had been outlawed. In preparation for the visit, I’ve been reading her book and sharing some of it with students who’ll hear her speak.

For me, what has been compelling to learn from reading Dreams of Africa in Alabama is how much I didn’t understand, or rather had never considered about slavery. There is the simple mainstream conception: black people were owned as property by white people and were forced to work very hard under threat of violence, and that was wrong. Though my understanding is more developed than that, reading this book opened my eyes to how complex every aspect was: legal, economic, governmental, social, local, tribal, racial, emotional, social, personal, geographic, hygienic— from the enforcement of international laws on the high seas to how clothes were worn on the body and how hair was cut. The complexity is staggering when the realities of the slave trade and slavery are brought into fuller focus.

In her book, Diouf describes how the more than one-hundred African people who were brought to Alabama from the west-African port of Ouidah experienced American slavery as few other people did. They endured the Middle Passage right before the Civil War, were assimilated as the “peculiar institution” was crumbling, then were emancipated along with millions of African Americans, all within a fairly short period of time. After the Civil War, as other freed slaves struck out in search of lost family members, they tried first to return to African. When that was impossible, they made the best of their circumstances, being stuck in a place that was undesirable, unpredictable, and frightening to them by forging their own unique communities in the southern parts of the state.

Although the dense academic treatment in Dreams of Africa in Alabama requires a reader’s attention and effort, its lessons have been well worth it. The twenty-first century is a time of reckoning for long-standing injustices and neglected history, and if the cultures of the Deep South clash with only a half-understanding the issues we’re quarreling over, the outcomes will be as undesirable as the quandaries. Learning everything that we can about our past is necessary if we’re going to achieve some measure of truth in this culture that has long relied on myth. Next week, my Creative Writing students and I are going to take in a few tidbits of truth, what we can gain in an hour-long lecture. I hope that, even if you can’t make it to Troy, Alabama next Monday night, you’ll consider taking in a few tidbits of your own wherever you are.

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