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Read an excerpt of AFRICAN TOWN

Chronicling the story of the last Africans brought illegally to America in 1860, African Town is a powerful and stunning novel-in-verse, coming January 4, 2022.

Scroll down to read an excerpt!

african town


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.


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