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African Town

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Chronicling the story of the last Africans brought illegally to America in 1860, African Town is a powerful and stunning novel-in-verse.

In 1860, long after the United States outlawed the importation of enslaved laborers, 110 men, women and children from Benin and Nigeria were captured and brought to Mobile, Alabama aboard a ship called Clotilda. Their journey includes the savage Middle Passage and being hidden in the swamplands along the Alabama River before being secretly parceled out to various plantations, where they made desperate attempts to maintain both their culture and also fit into the place of captivity to which they'd been delivered. At the end of the Civil War, the survivors created a community for themselves they called African Town, which still exists to this day. Told in 14 distinct voices, including that of the ship that brought them to the American shores and the founder of African Town, this powerfully affecting historical novel-in-verse recreates a pivotal moment in US and world history, the impacts of which we still feel today.
Irene Latham & Charles Waters are “Poetic Forever Friends” first and collaborators second. They are the writing team behind Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship, which was awarded a Charlotte Huck Honor, and Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z, an NCTE Notable Poetry Book. They share a passion for poetry and are committed to creating  meaningful books for young readers. This is their first novel together.

KOSSOLA

Our Story

Be still, my children. Listen with your ears

and your heart. Our story starts with this

mark on my right cheek, these chipped teeth.

See? This is how you know I am who I say I am.

De town where I was born is called Bantè.

It’s nowhere near here, not in African Town, not

in Alabama. This town’s way across de ocean,

on de west coast of Africa in de kingdom

of Dahomey. My family’s home was a round,

two-­story adobe with a terrace. Surrounded by hills,

about eight days’ walk to de sea. Someday maybe

you will see de world de way I have seen it

in Bantè. Then you will know how de sun

kisses de earth, melts like honey over de land—­

it’s no wonder I believed all of life would be

bright and sweet. No wonder it still shocks me

that de world can be so hard, so dark.

But that darkness, it brought me here.

It brought you here. This is our story. 

 

KOSSOLA

Market Day

My favorite day of de week is market day.

De market sits right in front of de king’s

compound, which is located near de center

of Bantè. Villagers come from miles around,

passing through de eight gates in de tall

solid walls that enclose our town on all sides,

like a fortress. Dey come to buy goats, cows, yams,

fried wàrà, fùfú, palm roots, and yards of lace.

“Hurry up, ọmọ mi,” my ìyá sings in Yorùbá,

like I’m still a child. She says I’ll always be her

precious boy, even though I’m eighteen years

old now. “Your bàbá and bàbá àgbà

said you must rope the goats.” I come from

a family of farmers—­not royalty, but rich enough

to own our own animal herds. On market day,

all of us older children help out while

de younger ones race between de stalls

and bang homemade drums. When there’s a lull,

I sneak away to find Adérónké̩, who waits for me

at de trunk of a mahogany tree. “Watch where

I put my feet,” she says, scrambling higher

before my eyes can find her first foothold.

Her laughter rains down on me, soft

and shimmery. Teasing me, challenging me.

I grunt with my efforts, and when I slip,

I try again and again until I make it.

Together we watch de market from above,

two bright birds singing our own song

until de sun drops behind Bantè’s walls

and de other villagers head for home.

“A good day,” Bàbá àgbà says. We carry

only three cases of palm oil and two goats

back home. When I grab hold of de goats’

head-­ropes, Bàbá àgbà puts a hand

on my brother Tayo’s shoulder. “Stay close,”

he says, “or I will sell you to the Portuguese

for tobacco.” Bàbá àgbà’s eyes sparkle,

but his fingers hold firm. I throw my shoulders back,

keep my voice light. “Why would dey want Tayo,

when dey can have me?” We’ve all heard stories

about people getting snatched by King Glèlè’s

soldiers and being sold to traders who carry them

across de sea. But that doesn’t happen

in Bantè, with our walls and gates and families

all looking out for one another. Besides,

Bàbá àgbà doesn’t even like tobacco.

Bàbá àgbà’s cheeks lift, and he gives me

a playful shove. “Those traders don’t want you,

Kossola. You talk too much.” De goats follow

as Tayo and I pull ahead of Bàbá àgbà,

but not too far ahead.

 

TIMOTHY

Master of Disguise

As the sun drops, I turn over the wheel of the Roger B. Taney

to my first mate so I can dress for dinner. Soon I’ll join

my guests for drinks, smoking, and chatting. Oh, how

I love being on the water! Gives a man

a chance to dream, and to count successes.

And there have been many since I’ve moved to this state some

twenty-four years ago. Since then, me and my brothers Jim and Burns

dominate the shipping routes in Alabama. Our ancestors would

be dancing with pride.

As I gallop toward fifty years old, I’ve given my family’s

name dignity—­for my sweet, young wife, Mary, who isn’t

but half my age, for our future children, and for my brothers, too.

As I enter the dining room, my guests greet me with respect.

“Good evening, Captain Meaher,” they say.

“Evenin’, everyone,” I reply, tipping my hat.

I may be Irish by nationality, and a Mainer by birth,

but when necessary, I can transform myself into

either a Southern swashbuckler or a Southern gentleman,

depending on what’s needed.

 

KOSSOLA

Dreaming of Orò

For four years I’ve been training

to be a soldier, getting ready for my

initiation into orò, de highest level

of our Yorùbá religion. “I’m ready now,”

I tell Bàbá. He shakes his head.

“Soldier first. You must earn orò.”

He hands me de spear, shows me again

how to settle my weight into my thighs,

reminds me to use my sight. “Keep your

eyes open, and the spear will follow.”

I drop into de proper stance, but my mind’s

stuck on orò. I want to be part of de secret

society of men right now. I don’t want to wait

for de elders to say I’m ready. I am ready.

No one’s more respected than de orò.

Dey decide which punishment fits which crime.

De king may have ultimate say,

but even he listens to de orò. I want to know

what it’s like to sit in de woods for days

with fellow orò, deciding de fate of others.

I want to know that kind of respect and power.

Even de market shuts down and waits

for de orò’s return. “Higher,” Bàbá instructs,

and I lift de spear. If I can’t make de years pass

any faster, at least I’ve got this time alone

with Bàbá. Perhaps I can impress him,

convince him I’m ready. My eyes zero in

on de target, and I heave my spear.



TIMOTHY

The Bet

The smoky room turns from laughter to seriousness

faster than a water-­wheel when our conversation spins

to Congress’s refusal to reopen the international slave trade.

I pound my fist on the table. “How do they expect us

to make a living? We need slave labor, and we need it cheap.”

The gentlemen nod their heads, and talk

swings to the possibility of our state, and others,

seceding from the Union. “We should secede,” I argue.

“Handle our own slave trade, set our own prices.

It’s the only way to turn a profit.”

Mr. Deacon, a businessman from New York City,

shakes his head. “Well,” he says, “until that happens,

the threat of being lynched will disabuse anyone of

notions about bringing slaves in illegally.”

I cough his words away. “Deacon,” I say.

“You put more faith in the government

than I do. No one’s going to lynch me.”

Mr. Ayers, another Northeasterner, who specializes

in the production of pills, pipes up. “You can’t bring Africans

within sniffing distance of America without being caught.”

Mr. Matthews, a Louisiana farmer of the highest order,

shouts, “Of course it can happen. Matter of fact,

I’ll bet you all a hundred dollars!” Well, that gets my attention.

“Gentlemen,” I say, my voice ominous as a windless sky.

“I’ll wager you all a thousand dollars

that I can smuggle a good number of slaves back

to Mobile without the authorities knowing about it.”

The room erupts with shouts and laughter,

before we all shake hands to seal the bet.

Hang me? Let the government try.

A bet is a bet—­and I aim to win.

Praise for African Town:
A 2023 Scott O’Dell Award Winner
A 2024 Sequoya Book Award Nominee (OK)
A 2023-2024 South Carolina Book Award Nominee

A 2022 NPR Books We Love List Pick
A 2022-2023 Yellowhammer YA Book Award Honor (AL)

A 2022 Great Reads from Great Places Reading List Pick (AL)


“African Town is a stunningly powerful and visceral novel.” —Oprah Daily

“A haunting, beautifully told history.” —NPR

★ “The authors have done a remarkable job of weaving the stories of the characters together and telling the story from both the perspective of the slaves and the people who orchestrated their purchase. Though this story is fictional it is based on a vast amount of research that was done on the actual people who participated in this story. . . This story will inspire readers to do some research to find out more about the real events that took place. . . Not to be missed.” —School Library Connection, starred review

★ “Inspired by the true story of the last American slave ship, African Town is an epic . . . compelling novel that doubles as an important historic document, invaluable for both classroom use and independent reading.” —Booklist, starred review

★ “African Town is a book that should be both taught and treasured.”—BookPage, starred review

★ “This gripping novel . . . [is] told from the perspectives of a myriad characters directly and indirectly involved in this event . . . where each unique voice contributes to the greater whole. Carefully executed passages appear in various forms of free verse and poetry, and each one is specific to the particular character represented. This choice makes the individual contributors not only come alive but also stand out from one another as the narrative progresses. Extensively researched and purposefully designed, this book brings together details of events from 1859 to 1901 and culminates in several pages of back matter that reinforce the entire work. VERDICT This honest, heartrending, and inspiring story is an important and necessary contribution to historical fiction collections for young adult readers.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“An ambitious verse novel told in many voices . . . The authors employ a range of poetic forms, resulting in an insightful, quickly paced telling that centers tradition and resilience.” —Publishers Weekly

“The highly personal stories in verse reveal the different aspects of this illegal trade and the impact on both the Black enslaved people and the White crew members. . . The Africans’ attempts to hold true to their home cultures and traditions—most were Yoruba—as they try to adapt to their new reality come across most powerfully. Enhanced by rich backmatter, this is a strong addition to literature about slavery.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A thoughtful portrait of how trauma informs and inhibits identity making. The end matter is a wealth of fascinating information, from the author’s note that details Waters and Lathams’ research process, to a list that elaborates on the characters’ lives, to an account of what modern day Africatown (formerly Africa Town) looks like.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

About

Chronicling the story of the last Africans brought illegally to America in 1860, African Town is a powerful and stunning novel-in-verse.

In 1860, long after the United States outlawed the importation of enslaved laborers, 110 men, women and children from Benin and Nigeria were captured and brought to Mobile, Alabama aboard a ship called Clotilda. Their journey includes the savage Middle Passage and being hidden in the swamplands along the Alabama River before being secretly parceled out to various plantations, where they made desperate attempts to maintain both their culture and also fit into the place of captivity to which they'd been delivered. At the end of the Civil War, the survivors created a community for themselves they called African Town, which still exists to this day. Told in 14 distinct voices, including that of the ship that brought them to the American shores and the founder of African Town, this powerfully affecting historical novel-in-verse recreates a pivotal moment in US and world history, the impacts of which we still feel today.

Author

Irene Latham & Charles Waters are “Poetic Forever Friends” first and collaborators second. They are the writing team behind Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship, which was awarded a Charlotte Huck Honor, and Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z, an NCTE Notable Poetry Book. They share a passion for poetry and are committed to creating  meaningful books for young readers. This is their first novel together.

Excerpt

KOSSOLA

Our Story

Be still, my children. Listen with your ears

and your heart. Our story starts with this

mark on my right cheek, these chipped teeth.

See? This is how you know I am who I say I am.

De town where I was born is called Bantè.

It’s nowhere near here, not in African Town, not

in Alabama. This town’s way across de ocean,

on de west coast of Africa in de kingdom

of Dahomey. My family’s home was a round,

two-­story adobe with a terrace. Surrounded by hills,

about eight days’ walk to de sea. Someday maybe

you will see de world de way I have seen it

in Bantè. Then you will know how de sun

kisses de earth, melts like honey over de land—­

it’s no wonder I believed all of life would be

bright and sweet. No wonder it still shocks me

that de world can be so hard, so dark.

But that darkness, it brought me here.

It brought you here. This is our story. 

 

KOSSOLA

Market Day

My favorite day of de week is market day.

De market sits right in front of de king’s

compound, which is located near de center

of Bantè. Villagers come from miles around,

passing through de eight gates in de tall

solid walls that enclose our town on all sides,

like a fortress. Dey come to buy goats, cows, yams,

fried wàrà, fùfú, palm roots, and yards of lace.

“Hurry up, ọmọ mi,” my ìyá sings in Yorùbá,

like I’m still a child. She says I’ll always be her

precious boy, even though I’m eighteen years

old now. “Your bàbá and bàbá àgbà

said you must rope the goats.” I come from

a family of farmers—­not royalty, but rich enough

to own our own animal herds. On market day,

all of us older children help out while

de younger ones race between de stalls

and bang homemade drums. When there’s a lull,

I sneak away to find Adérónké̩, who waits for me

at de trunk of a mahogany tree. “Watch where

I put my feet,” she says, scrambling higher

before my eyes can find her first foothold.

Her laughter rains down on me, soft

and shimmery. Teasing me, challenging me.

I grunt with my efforts, and when I slip,

I try again and again until I make it.

Together we watch de market from above,

two bright birds singing our own song

until de sun drops behind Bantè’s walls

and de other villagers head for home.

“A good day,” Bàbá àgbà says. We carry

only three cases of palm oil and two goats

back home. When I grab hold of de goats’

head-­ropes, Bàbá àgbà puts a hand

on my brother Tayo’s shoulder. “Stay close,”

he says, “or I will sell you to the Portuguese

for tobacco.” Bàbá àgbà’s eyes sparkle,

but his fingers hold firm. I throw my shoulders back,

keep my voice light. “Why would dey want Tayo,

when dey can have me?” We’ve all heard stories

about people getting snatched by King Glèlè’s

soldiers and being sold to traders who carry them

across de sea. But that doesn’t happen

in Bantè, with our walls and gates and families

all looking out for one another. Besides,

Bàbá àgbà doesn’t even like tobacco.

Bàbá àgbà’s cheeks lift, and he gives me

a playful shove. “Those traders don’t want you,

Kossola. You talk too much.” De goats follow

as Tayo and I pull ahead of Bàbá àgbà,

but not too far ahead.

 

TIMOTHY

Master of Disguise

As the sun drops, I turn over the wheel of the Roger B. Taney

to my first mate so I can dress for dinner. Soon I’ll join

my guests for drinks, smoking, and chatting. Oh, how

I love being on the water! Gives a man

a chance to dream, and to count successes.

And there have been many since I’ve moved to this state some

twenty-four years ago. Since then, me and my brothers Jim and Burns

dominate the shipping routes in Alabama. Our ancestors would

be dancing with pride.

As I gallop toward fifty years old, I’ve given my family’s

name dignity—­for my sweet, young wife, Mary, who isn’t

but half my age, for our future children, and for my brothers, too.

As I enter the dining room, my guests greet me with respect.

“Good evening, Captain Meaher,” they say.

“Evenin’, everyone,” I reply, tipping my hat.

I may be Irish by nationality, and a Mainer by birth,

but when necessary, I can transform myself into

either a Southern swashbuckler or a Southern gentleman,

depending on what’s needed.

 

KOSSOLA

Dreaming of Orò

For four years I’ve been training

to be a soldier, getting ready for my

initiation into orò, de highest level

of our Yorùbá religion. “I’m ready now,”

I tell Bàbá. He shakes his head.

“Soldier first. You must earn orò.”

He hands me de spear, shows me again

how to settle my weight into my thighs,

reminds me to use my sight. “Keep your

eyes open, and the spear will follow.”

I drop into de proper stance, but my mind’s

stuck on orò. I want to be part of de secret

society of men right now. I don’t want to wait

for de elders to say I’m ready. I am ready.

No one’s more respected than de orò.

Dey decide which punishment fits which crime.

De king may have ultimate say,

but even he listens to de orò. I want to know

what it’s like to sit in de woods for days

with fellow orò, deciding de fate of others.

I want to know that kind of respect and power.

Even de market shuts down and waits

for de orò’s return. “Higher,” Bàbá instructs,

and I lift de spear. If I can’t make de years pass

any faster, at least I’ve got this time alone

with Bàbá. Perhaps I can impress him,

convince him I’m ready. My eyes zero in

on de target, and I heave my spear.



TIMOTHY

The Bet

The smoky room turns from laughter to seriousness

faster than a water-­wheel when our conversation spins

to Congress’s refusal to reopen the international slave trade.

I pound my fist on the table. “How do they expect us

to make a living? We need slave labor, and we need it cheap.”

The gentlemen nod their heads, and talk

swings to the possibility of our state, and others,

seceding from the Union. “We should secede,” I argue.

“Handle our own slave trade, set our own prices.

It’s the only way to turn a profit.”

Mr. Deacon, a businessman from New York City,

shakes his head. “Well,” he says, “until that happens,

the threat of being lynched will disabuse anyone of

notions about bringing slaves in illegally.”

I cough his words away. “Deacon,” I say.

“You put more faith in the government

than I do. No one’s going to lynch me.”

Mr. Ayers, another Northeasterner, who specializes

in the production of pills, pipes up. “You can’t bring Africans

within sniffing distance of America without being caught.”

Mr. Matthews, a Louisiana farmer of the highest order,

shouts, “Of course it can happen. Matter of fact,

I’ll bet you all a hundred dollars!” Well, that gets my attention.

“Gentlemen,” I say, my voice ominous as a windless sky.

“I’ll wager you all a thousand dollars

that I can smuggle a good number of slaves back

to Mobile without the authorities knowing about it.”

The room erupts with shouts and laughter,

before we all shake hands to seal the bet.

Hang me? Let the government try.

A bet is a bet—­and I aim to win.

Praise

Praise for African Town:
A 2023 Scott O’Dell Award Winner
A 2024 Sequoya Book Award Nominee (OK)
A 2023-2024 South Carolina Book Award Nominee

A 2022 NPR Books We Love List Pick
A 2022-2023 Yellowhammer YA Book Award Honor (AL)

A 2022 Great Reads from Great Places Reading List Pick (AL)


“African Town is a stunningly powerful and visceral novel.” —Oprah Daily

“A haunting, beautifully told history.” —NPR

★ “The authors have done a remarkable job of weaving the stories of the characters together and telling the story from both the perspective of the slaves and the people who orchestrated their purchase. Though this story is fictional it is based on a vast amount of research that was done on the actual people who participated in this story. . . This story will inspire readers to do some research to find out more about the real events that took place. . . Not to be missed.” —School Library Connection, starred review

★ “Inspired by the true story of the last American slave ship, African Town is an epic . . . compelling novel that doubles as an important historic document, invaluable for both classroom use and independent reading.” —Booklist, starred review

★ “African Town is a book that should be both taught and treasured.”—BookPage, starred review

★ “This gripping novel . . . [is] told from the perspectives of a myriad characters directly and indirectly involved in this event . . . where each unique voice contributes to the greater whole. Carefully executed passages appear in various forms of free verse and poetry, and each one is specific to the particular character represented. This choice makes the individual contributors not only come alive but also stand out from one another as the narrative progresses. Extensively researched and purposefully designed, this book brings together details of events from 1859 to 1901 and culminates in several pages of back matter that reinforce the entire work. VERDICT This honest, heartrending, and inspiring story is an important and necessary contribution to historical fiction collections for young adult readers.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“An ambitious verse novel told in many voices . . . The authors employ a range of poetic forms, resulting in an insightful, quickly paced telling that centers tradition and resilience.” —Publishers Weekly

“The highly personal stories in verse reveal the different aspects of this illegal trade and the impact on both the Black enslaved people and the White crew members. . . The Africans’ attempts to hold true to their home cultures and traditions—most were Yoruba—as they try to adapt to their new reality come across most powerfully. Enhanced by rich backmatter, this is a strong addition to literature about slavery.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A thoughtful portrait of how trauma informs and inhibits identity making. The end matter is a wealth of fascinating information, from the author’s note that details Waters and Lathams’ research process, to a list that elaborates on the characters’ lives, to an account of what modern day Africatown (formerly Africa Town) looks like.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

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