Attentive Reading

During this odd time of social isolation I find myself picking up books that have been in my stack either unread or partially read for some time. Oddly, the last two revolve around the great tragedies of the last centuries; the “transatlantic” slave trade and the exterminations of World War II. They are slim volumes that would be read quickly if they were less important or less affecting.

Barracoon, just completed, is a non-fiction work written by Zora Neale Hurston begun in 1927. It was extremely difficult for her to find a publisher and this is a re-issued version with a foreword by Alice Walker. Hurston, a cultural anthropologist, managed to find the last survivor of the last African slave cargo ship brought to America. The book is the story of this survivor, of how he was taken and how he was living then and in that present time in America. Barracoon was the word for the slave barracks where slaves were held for transport and sale. The book is resonant with a sorrow I cannot begin to understand. It is written exactly as she heard him speak, in a difficult pidgeon. And so it requires close concentration to get the meaning. I am generally a fast reader but this held me to a slower, more attentive pace. It is a heartbreaking account of a tragic life, ripped from his home and family, sold into slavery, finding a way to live in “freedom”, losing his wife and all his children. This is his account of heartbreak in his simple, affecting words; of looking across to the hill where his entire Americky family lay buried at the time he recounted his story to Hurston. This pierces the heart of the African American identity in a visceral and personal way. This is not an observer account, it is a subjective memoir spoken in his own voice with very little interjection by the “author”. Everyone should read this as a stepping stone to some small understanding.

And then, as if this wasn’t sufficient sorrow, I picked up Night by Elie Wiesel. This was the first thing he wrote, again reissued. It wasn’t popular when published as nobody wanted to acknowledge the truth of the european extermination. It is his first hand account of the time that, in denial still, his community was first turned into ghetto and later emptied of Jews, transported first to Birkenau, then dispersed to the ovens or work camps. It is his first hand account of the last time he saw his neighbors, loaded into cattle cars, and then his own family’s journey. It is his account of the last time he saw his mother and his seven year old sister as they walked to the crematorium. It is his account of witnessing his father’s death. It is his account of his loss of youth and faith and humanity. I have stood in the crematorium at Birkenau, remarkably intact. I have stood in the ruins at Dachau. And as much as I felt the presence of what happened in those places, and have seen the evidence – the coats, the hair, the shoes – I still cannot truly imagine the horror and enormity of the evil. He describes watching truckloads of babies being loaded into the fire, how do you survive the memory of that? For some reason, one of the most compelling images in this slim volume is of Jews speaking the Kaddish Yatom, the prayer for the dead, for themselves as they marched to their death. This is the prayer we speak for our dead, for others. It is a prayer of praise, not of death. And despite his loathing of any prayer praising a God that would allow the abominations to happen, he found himself reciting it as he thought he was about to die, so ingrained it was in him.

So why am I reading these things? I have no idea, they were next in the stack. But being in isolation allows me the space to read them with attention, with care and with thoughtfulness. That is my book report for today. Shalom

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