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A New York Times Magazine piece by Rachel L. Swarns in April of this year bore the headline: “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?”
That university is hardly exceptional in its discovery or the issues it faces.
In the context of a consciouness that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, Ned and Constance Sublette’s long, rich and meticulously researched book, “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry” (Chicago Review Press) tells the harrowing and necessary story of how black lives mattered to a still-formative United States of America—as not just forced labor, but also product and currency.
At a moment when presidential candidates argue about jobs, the economy, race relations, international affairs and our country’s moral direction, the Sublettes show how all those issues were rolled into the single ugly truth on which much of what some seek to “make great again” was, well, made great.
As the publisher’s description states, the book offers “a provocative vision of US history from earliest colonial times through emancipation,” centered around “the brutal story of how the slavery industry made the reproductive labor of the people it referred to as ‘breeding women’ essential to the young country’s expansion. Captive African Americans in the slave nation were not only laborers but merchandise and collateral all at once. In a land without silver, gold, or trustworthy paper money, their children and their children’s children into perpetuity were used as human savings accounts that functioned as the basis of money and credit in a market premised on the continual expansion of slavery.”
I’ve written widely about Ned Sublette’s previous books. (You can find my reviews of his excellent books on New Orleans here and here.) In those volumes, and in “Cuba and Its Music,” ideas about cultural history are expressed via music against a common backdrop of the slave trade throughout the Western hemisphere.
Somewhere around the 400th of the 673 pages of narrative in “The American Slave Coast,” the Sublettes delve into the white supremacist leanings of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics for what would become our national anthem, including the rarely heard and objectionable third verse.
Music in this book, too, as is, in a larger sense, the long song of racism that still hums through life in the United States. I’ve also written about Sublette’s own propensity toward writing songs (one of which was covered by Willie Nelson).
It seems only natural to recite the elements of “The American Slave Coast” as spoken-word poetry. Why not set it to music?
That’s what the Sublettes are doing—for one night only, at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Friday, October 28:
“The American Slave Coast: Live” is a spoken word-and-music performance piece drawn from the pages of the book. Alto saxophonist and composer Donald Harrison will lead the band. Speakers will include Jonathan Demme, Nona Hendryx and Carl Hancock Rux.
Harrison, who is among the most important jazz musicians of my generation, is also uniquely qualified for this gig. Aside from leading jazz ensembles (he’ll lead a fine one at Symphony Space), he is, in his hometown of New Orleans, Big Chief of Congo Nation, which claims as its spiritual home Congo Square; enslaved Africans once drummed and danced there on Sundays, but until 2011, the city officially called the site “Beauregard Square,” in honor of a Confederate general.
Come join me on Oct. 28.
Meantime, here’s a brief interview with Ned and Constance Sublette.
When you two began working on this book, did you envision it in other forms?
Ned: We formally began work on it as a project in 2010. It took five years, plus now that it’s been out for a year we’ve been taking it around and doing events, so six years now. I hope this performance can be the beginning of a new cycle of events for it. Maybe we can even make it into a movie.
Did you ever imagine the book would be so timely and resonant with daily news?
Ned: I think we did, though we didn’t know how it would play out. At the time we were more worried about getting lost in the Civil War sesquicentennial deluge of books, which is now over. I think the sesquicentennial was an interesting moment that — for the people who have been reading, paying attention, trying to understand — marked a new sophistication in our collective understanding of American history with slavery at its core.
It’s been astounding watching our book come to life in the news, in one way or another, in the last couple of years, right down to the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is in there. Every generation has different questions that they look to history to answer, and this is the history we need to know right now.
Also, between the greater availability of research material in the post-Google era and the investigations of a new generation of scholars, we’re seeing all kinds of historians do really interesting work. So I see this book as part of a movement of greater awareness of this issue.
Constance: During the course of researching this book I became more and more aware of our present situation as a war on people of color. I became aware of white privilege in a way I never had before.
Why did you need to bring this from the page to the stage?
Ned: It seemed like a natural step to me. There are lots of people who are never going to read a 673-page book but who might sit down and watch a performance version.
I love the idea of discourse with music. I’ve been producing episodes of the public radio program Afropop Worldwide since 1990, and that’s what we do, juxtaposing narration and musical beds, so after 25 years of cross-fades, it seemed very natural for me to imagine our text flowing back and forth with music, kind of like a living audiobook or a radio version.
This is my fourth book, and I’ve learned that you have to go out and perform your book, one way or another, after it’s published, so from the very beginning of working on The American Slave Coast, I was thinking of how to perform it.
Constance: We had to comb out all the bits that would make no sense to an audience hearing it without the context of the whole book. Fortunately, we’ve been reading parts of the script ourselves on tour, which helped a lot and gave us a chance to workshop it a little. On our book tours, at every stop, always, the Q & A at the end of a reading was transformational of the content, with all the varieties of communities that were present at our events — brilliant, passionate, people with their own insights.
Does this presentation change the meaning of The American Slave Coast?
Constance: No. But it adds the dimension of actually hearing the voices that are in our text. It’s a tapestry of voices, so we hear from slave narratives — Charles Ball, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Louis Hughes — as well as a unique letter from 1853, written by a woman named Virginia Boyd who was being held for sale in a slave trader’s yard in Houston in 1853. And there are voices from the Fisk University and WPA oral histories. Plus everybody from Andrew Jackson to Karl Marx to contemporary scholars.
Ned: Second that. This is a really exciting group of speakers to work with. There exists an audiobook (from Tantor) of The American Slave Coast — no music, just straight narration by Robin Ray Eller — and it takes up, like, 25 CDs. So obviously we can’t cover but a small part of what’s in the book. In my mind the full musical version exists and I would happily go on staging scene after scene.
Any idea what Donald Harrison will play?
Ned: I have no idea, other than that he’ll be working with a quintet that will have [guitarist/banjoist] Detroit Brooks and [pianist] Zaccai Curtis in it. I’ll hear the music the night before the show, and we’ll hear it together with the seven voices on the day of, and then we do it, and then it’s over. Blink and you miss it. We’ve talked in general terms about what he would do, but I don’t know how he will respond to those conversations or to the script. Whatever he does will by definition be right.
I remember Donald from when he used to live in Brooklyn. I’d seen him play with Eddie Palmieri a bunch of times. But I didn’t get to know him until Constance and I moved to New Orleans for a very significant year in 2004. When I saw him in action as a Big Chief on Mardi Gras day 2005, I was knocked out, and his post-Katrina 2006 procession was the setting for the finale of my book The World That Made New Orleans. I asked him if he would do this like, I don’t know, a couple of years ago, and he said yes. He was my first choice for composer, and I didn’t have a second choice. The way I see it, he brings the music, but he also brings moral authority. As do all the vocalists.
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