BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Five More (Audiobooks) to Go: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, read by Dion Graham [in The Booklist Reader]

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan and read by Dion Graham

George Washington Black – called “Wash” for short – is an enslaved 10- or 11-year-old (he “cannot say for certain”) on Faith Plantation in 1830s Barbados. He is first owned by one brother, then stolen by another. Recognizing Wash’s intellectual and artistic gifts, that brother, rebel scientist Titch, makes Wash his assistant, and the pair escape the island via hot-air balloon, thus setting in motion a worldwide odyssey through North America, the Arctic, Europe, and Morocco.

The deeply empathetic, decisively chameleonic Graham proves to be the ideal narrator for Edugyan’s (Half-Blood Blues) stupendous novel. Graham embodies Wash in all his incarnations, and is particularly adept at depicting Wash’s transformation from frightened boy to accomplished young man. Throughout, Wash struggles, suffers, and fights – but he also learns to trust, to love, and to surrender to compassion and even forgiveness. An extraordinary and symbiotic presentation.

Five examples of other unusual narratives about enslavement are offered here.


Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston and read by Robin Miles

Published almost 90 years after its completion, and informed by a series of interviews conducted by Hurston, Barracoon introduces Oluale Kossula, the last survivor of the final U.S. slave ship, Clotilda. In 1860, 19-year-old Kossula was enslaved for five years and renamed Cudjo Lewis. After emancipation, however, Kossula’s experiences continued to be difficult and tragic. With patient tenacity, Hurston immortalizes Kossula’s words into cultural, anthropological, historical, and political testimony; Miles, who is as comfortable narrating historic context as she is adopting the patois of an octogenarian former slave, ensures readers will faithfully and accurately hear every word.


Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and read by Simon Manyonda

Originally published in 2004, Iweala’s debut novel – which originated as his Harvard senior thesis – was reissued 11 years later as both an acclaimed film (directed by Cory Fukunaga) and as an audio production (narrated by Simon Manyonda). In this mesmerizing audiobook, Manyonda portrays preteen Agu, who must forget about his past as a son, brother, friend, and student in order to survive as a child soldier. As Agu’s perspective shifts from bewilderment to resignation, Manyonda alters his clipped, staccato voice accordingly, reflecting the impossibility of comprehending a war without sides, justification, or reason. He may be forced to become a “beast of no nation,” but Agu must also continue to believe he is “not a bad boy.” And though his survival depends upon committing heinous acts as he’s victimized by vicious adults, Agu holds onto his humanity. This is a story of unrelenting terror – but knowing 100,000 to 300,000 young children recently lived this nightmare is reason enough not to turn away. After completing this audiobook, listeners may also turn to a 2006 production narrated by Nyambi Nyambi.


The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang and read by Robin Miles

Here’s a little-known fact: Town Line, New York, seceded from the Union during the Civil War and didn’t rejoin the state until 1946! Yet despite its anti-abolitionist leanings, Town Line – located 15 miles south of Canada – was home to Mary Willis, a covert participant in the Underground Railroad. And that’s not all; as an adult, Wang, founding director of the Decatur Book Festival, learned his childhood home was actually built by Willis’ father – and their barn once served as Mary’s Underground Railroad station! Here, the accomplished Miles gives voice to Wang’s intriguing debut. In this Town Line-inspired work of historical fiction, war engenders unlikely bonds as educated, independent Mary, trapped by the responsibilities of running the family farm, finds an unlikely soulmate in Joe, an enslaved runaway who’s endured a heinous past and must also face a perilous future.


Kindred by Octavia Butler and read by Kim Staunton

Originally published in 1979 and regarded as the first work of science fiction written by an African American woman, Kindred finally received an audio update, narrated by Staunton, in 2015. In it, Staunton solemnly takes protagonist Dana back and forth between 1976 Los Angeles and an early 19th-century Maryland plantation. There she realizes she’s entered the lives of her ancestors – black and white – and experiences firsthand the horrors of enslavement. Kevin, Dana’s white husband, soon joins her after an attempt to prevent her from time-traveling goes awry. Together, the two must figure out how to stay alive in the past to ensure their present – and future.


Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill and read by Adenrele Ojo

Eighteen hours may seem long for an audiobook, but narrator Ojo is utterly superb at recreating the epic journey of protagonist Aminata Diallo. After 11-year-old Aminata is abducted from her West African village, she is torturously enslaved on the other side of the world. Her first owner brutalizes her and sells her infant son. And though Aminata’s second owner and his wife call her their “servant” rather than their “slave” – and initially respect and educate her – an unexpected death turns that owner against her. Aminata then escapes to New York, and her work for the British military during the Revolutionary War eventually allows her to seek the promise of lasting freedom in Nova Scotia, Canada. Though Aminata’s wish to go home to Africa is ultimately fulfilled, she doesn’t remain there long; she soon becomes a lauded figure in London’s abolitionist movement. Through Aminata’s story, Canadian-born Hill provides vital history lessons (Nova Scotia, for example, was seen as a promised land for African Americans during the Revolutionary War).


Published: “Five More (Audiobooks) to Go: Esi Edugyan’s WASHINGTON BLACK, read by Dion Graham,” The Booklist Reader, December 19, 2018


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