Babo and Mori

Following our last post from a few weeks ago, today’s HHBlog post is in commemoration of Black History Month here in the United States. However, we at the Blog believe that it is important to expand our knowledge and understanding of the African Diaspora to regions in the Americas beyond the conventional scope of the United States or even Anglophone and Francophone North America. Today’s post is therefore in commemoration of two West African men, a father and son, named Babo (father) and Mori (son). For those who have read Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno or Greg Grandin’s academic text The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (2014), this history will be a familiar one.

Babo and Mori were two amongst many enslaved West Africans who were on board a slave ship, the Tryal, traversing the South Pacific towards Lima, Peru at the beginning of the nineteenth century. We know little about them – their lives before capture from Senegal and enslavement, their personal intimacies and thoughts – yet due to the events that transpired in 1804 and 1805, we in the academy know considerably more about their lives and desires than we do for the majority of the millions of enslaved Africans who were dispossessed of their homes and stolen to the Americas.

In 1804, as the Tryal was led to the Americas by Spanish sailors, Babo and Mori led a revolt on board the ship, killing their white captors save for a select few. Benito Cerreño, the Spanish owner of the ship and its captain, was kept alive and ordered by the West Africans on board to navigate the Tryal back to Senegal. Cerreño instead sailed back and forth along the coast of Chile hoping to be rescued,  until they came across a New England seal ship, the Perseverance. When the captain of the Perseverance, Amasa Delano (distant relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) boarded the Tryal, Babo, Mori, and the other West Africans aboard the Tryal performed their own enslavement in order to not be found out. They quite literally created a theatre out of what they knew the white gaze would believe to be true – not what was true i.e. that enslaved Black people had revolted and were in control of the ship and of white men – and what the white gaze accepted as “natural” roles for Black people.

They held Cerreño captive at knifepoint for the better part of an entire day, all the while Delano attempted to help what he believed to be a Spanish ship in distress. As Cerreño was forced into playing the role he had previously had – as captain and slaver – the Black rebels on board acted out the roles of enslaved and docile West Africans, all while keeping a close eye on their audience Amasa Delano. At the end of the day, after spending hours upon hours with a desperate but silent Cerreño, Delano boarded his own away ship after having given provisions to the Tryal and made his way back to the Perseverance. But as he pulled away from the Tryal, Cerreño dove on to Delano’s boat and suddenly the obvious was made clear to Delano. Delano’s New England crew rained violence down upon the West African rebels aboard the Tryal, leading eventually to the ship’s capture and a trial against the West Africans, including Babo and Mori, that took place in 1805.

The events of this rebellion of enslaved West Africans was later dramatized by Herman Melville, where I first encountered it for a course on Blackness in Latin America. The genius rebellion, down from the violent assault on their captors/enslavers to the performance of enslavement for a white American audience, is a captivating story that reminds us of both the attempts at dehumanization enslavement created, and the resistance to this dehumanization that the African Diaspora engaged in throughout the entirety of this diverse history. Although we do not know exactly what Babo, Mori, and the other enslaved West Africans thought before or after their revolt, we know from their actions that they were determined to resist enslavement by any means necessary.

~ M

Bibliography

Grandin, Greg. The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. United Kingdom: Picador, 2015 [2014].

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016 [1855].

 

 

Babo and Mori

Zora Neale Hurston

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[A fabulous photograph of Zora Neale Hurston in Eatonville, Florida. Found at https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/33048 ]

In celebration of the start of Black History Month here in the United States, today’s HHBlog post is dedicated to the poet, fiction writer, anthropologist, and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891 and spent the majority of her early life in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated Black township in the United States. Raised by her mother Lucy Potts Hurston and her father John Hurston until Lucy’s untimely death when Zora was thirteen years old, Zora Neale Hurston remembered her childhood as a relatively peaceful time where she was surrounded by Black success, inspiration, and support. After her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage, Zora struggled through school. Eventually Zora ended up, at age twenty-six, in Baltimore with no complete high school education. She enrolled in public school, claiming to be sixteen years old in order to receive her education for free; from this moment onward, her publicly-stated age was always to be ten years younger than her real age.

After living for a time in Baltimore, Zora made her way to Harlem, New York and became an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, becoming friends with the likes of Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, and Sterling Brown. In 1928, she graduated from Barnard College (the women’s college attached to Columbia University). Throughout the 1930s and 1940s she wrote several short stories, novels (Jonah’s Gourd Vine published in 1934), and folklore collections (Mules and Men published in 1935). Perhaps her most famous work was 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God – a must-read novel for anyone and everyone, in our opinion here at the Blog. It was not until the publication of her autobiography in 1942, however, that she gained more prominent recognition. Even then, though, she received little compensation for her writing, as demonstrated by the fact that when she passed away in 1960 from a stroke, her neighbours in Florida had to cobble together money for her funeral. From 1960 until 1973, her grave remained unmarked – something that Zora had foretold in a letter she wrote to W.E.B. Du Bois regarding how often Black people’s graves went unmarked in the United States. It was not until 1973 when Alice Walker, a then-young Black author, made a pilgrimage to the segregated Florida cemetery Garden of Heavenly Rest that Zora’s grave received a tombstone, reading “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”

In honour of Zora Neale Hurston and all the Black women artists, writers, and cultural workers who came before and after her, we ask our readers to seek out, listen to, or watch the work of Black artists who dedicated themselves to displaying Black joy, complexity, and nuance in a world that affords little space for complicated understandings of Blackness.

If you haven’t read anything by her, check out this wonderful reading by Alice Walker of an excerpt from Their Eyes Were Watching God:

~ M

Bibliography

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows:The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Lisa Drew Books, 2004.

Boyd, Valerie. “About Zora Neal Hurston.” Accessed February 3, 2017. http://www.zoranealehurston.com/about/index.html

Zora Neale Hurston