Last autumn (Octoberish) my cousin and fellow Traces of the Trade traveler Holly Fulton attended an author reading in Salem, Massachusetts featuring Marcus Rediker and his new book The Slave Ship: A Human History. Unlike any book I’ve come across during the making of Traces of the Trade and the research I did while writing Inheriting the Trade, Rediker brings alive the people, black and white, who lived–and too often died–on slave ships. Enslaved Africans, sailors, and captains become living, breathing, brutalizing and brutalized human beings aboard the “floating dungeon.”
One of the last slave ship captains Rediker writes about in his book is James D’Wolf, my first cousin, 6 generations removed, the most infamous slave trader–and head of the most successful family of slave traders–in U.S. history. Rediker tells about the time Captain D’Wolf tied an African woman to a chair–a woman he said he believed had smallpox that could infect the rest of the Africans as well as the crew–and threw her overboard. He is said to have lamented the loss of the chair. During his talk last fall, this is the story Rediker told as he ended his presentation. At some point during the Q&A Holly rose and told all present that she is a D’Wolf descendant. Rediker wrote about this encounter in his Los Angeles Times Op-Ed on January 21, 2008.
I just finished reading The Slave Ship and I enthusiastically recommend it. To understand the true impact–the human impact–of the slave trade, this book is essential reading. And to understand the current impact of the legacy of the slave trade, slavery, Jim Crow, and the racism that persists today, it is essential that we understand this history.
A final coincidence–I know, I know, there is no such thing as coincidence–is what I found at Amazon.com. For every book you look at on Amazon, they always have a section near the top of the page called “Better Together” where they suggest a companion book to the one you’re looking at. The companion book recommended for Inheriting the Trade? You guessed it: The Slave Ship, by Marcus Rediker.
I wrote to Professor Rediker to let him know how much I appreciated his incredible book. I wrote: I will strongly recommend it as required reading for understanding this part of our nation’s history and legacy that we must confront in order to progress in what you call “a social movement for justice.”
He wrote back: I am happy that our books appeared so close together in time, and that they have been and probably always will be linked in one way or another. I hope each can magnify the impact of the other and that together they contribute more than either one could have done alone to the cause we share.
I encourage you to read Rediker’s book. It will magnify your understanding of why so much misunderstanding, mistrust, and enmity remains between people of different races in our nation. It will help you further on your own path toward “a social movement for justice.”