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'African Town' traces the history of the last slave ship sent to the U.S.


The Clotilda sleeps under the muddy waters of the Mobil River in Alabama. It was found there in 2018, and researchers said last week that the wooden vessel is full of silt, so it's very well-preserved. The Clotilda is the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States, more than 100 people about a year before the start of the Civil War. A new book asks us to think about their lives.

CHARLES WATERS: (Reading) 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.

PERALTA: This is Charles Waters reading from the beginning of "African Town."

WATERS: (Reading) Someday, maybe you will see the world the way I have seen it. Then you will know how the sun kisses the earth, melts like honey over the land. It's no wonder I believed all of life would be bright and sweet. No wonder it still shocks me that the world can be so hard, so dark.

IRENE LATHAM: We were so fortunate that so many details are catalogued by Kossola, and so our research gave us this wonderful skeleton of events and particulars.

PERALTA: And that's Irene Latham. Latham and Waters wrote "African Town" based on research into the Clotilda's voyage and its captive passengers, including Kossola, who, after the war, established a community near Mobile. The young adult novel written in verse is told from the perspectives of more people - the king who sold his fellow Africans into slavery, the Clotilda's captain, William Foster, and plantation owner Timothy Meaher. It is Meaher who sets this whole story in motion by making a bet that he can sneak a slave ship from West Africa to Alabama 50 years after the U.S. banned Americans from participating in the transatlantic slave trade.

WATERS: The slavers wanted to bring in even more humans to keep lining their pockets with money. It was something where, in our research, Timothy Meaher was grousing about it with his friends. And that's how it all came to be with the bet that he made and then hiring William Foster and retrofitting the Clotilda into an enslaved ship. So basically, in that time, it was just greed begetting more greed. That's the mindset of 1859 in Mobile, at least among the businessmen.

PERALTA: Irene, I want to ask about Kossola, the character you just mentioned. We follow him through this book. Can you tell me a little about him?

LATHAM: Kossola has given us such a gift because he has provided the most research information for us because he was interviewed several times. He was a young man, about age 19, when he was kidnapped in his town of Bante. And he was a major force among the community. He was very well-liked. He ended up marrying Abile, who is another Clotilda survivor, and they ended up having six children. He just maintained this sense of gratitude that was so inspiring and never let go of this dream of returning home. But when he knew that was impossible, he was one of the first to say let's build our own home here.

PERALTA: Something that struck me that I don't remember hearing a lot about growing up is about life before slavery for the African people in this book. I mean, can you tell us a little about some of the characters' backstories?

WATERS: Well, in Kossola's case, he was in training.

LATHAM: Yeah. He was going through his initiation for oro, which is the group of men who govern his town, basically. So he was having various initiations, and that was very exciting to him. The women - there's a whole backstory that we invented for Abile. Kehounco is one of several sisters, and so when she is captured on the beach, she really grieves for that companionship of her sisters. And it's part of what draws her to Abile and how they become something like sisters in the barracoon and on the ship and through the rest of their lives.

WATERS: I love all of the Africans. One of them that always stuck out to me was Gumpa, who was actually sold by his own relatives. One of the reasons was because he spoke truth to power and unfortunately paid for that by being sold off. You know, that could really - as you can imagine, really change a person. But he still was a strong, proud, unapologetic yet kind Black man.

PERALTA: Irene, I mean, how much of this story did both of you invent, or how much of it was based on facts?

LATHAM: When you write historical fiction, there are many gifts, and one of them is actually the gaps. But as far as people's motivations - for instance, in our rendering of the story, we don't know about Kossola's love interest, but we invented one for him. We knew from what he had shared about his age and where he was in the Orisha traditions that he would have been ready to marry. And so it was important to us to convey to young people how wrenching this experience would be for a young man to be torn away, to be captured. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of research about the women, and so it became really, really important to us to give voice to the women, to show their strength, to show their friendship, to show how important they were in creating this community.

PERALTA: Yeah. Charles, after the Civil War, the men and women from the Clotilda - they're able to buy land and create a community called Africatown. What do we know about life there?

WATERS: Well, it was sunup to sundown. The women sold food and such and made money that way. And the men would get up and work for Meaher, who made it as difficult as humanly possible for them to succeed. And yet they still were able to build a church and build a school and build a cemetery - extraordinary humans to the point where it just - you know, it makes me a bit misty-eyed.

PERALTA: Africatown gave them back their dignity, right? But they could never stop thinking about home. I wonder if you could read a passage from Kossola talking about time passing in his new home.

WATERS: (Reading) The years passed quickly, and before I know it, we're into a whole new decade, the 1870s. Never thought we'd be in America so long, I say to Abile. She reaches for my hand, and our rough, calloused fingers intertwine. Long time, she says. I nod. Too long. We don't talk much about Ezuzu or the money for going back to Africa. We still add our earnings to the pot, but it feels like it will never be enough. Each day is full of living and leaves us weary. I settle in beside her, do the one thing guaranteed to cheer us. I tell Abile a story - a story of Africa, a story of home.

PERALTA: That's Charles Waters and Irene Latham, authors of the new novel "African Town." Thank you both so much for joining us.

LATHAM: Thank you, Eyder. Such a pleasure.

WATERS: What an honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "ANOTHER DAY (REVISED)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.