Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Q&A with Nick Tabor



Nick Tabor is the author of the new book Africatown: America's Last Slave Ship and the Community It Created. He is a journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of publications, including New York  Magazine and The Washington Post Magazine.


Q: How did you first learn about the Clotilda, the last slave ship of your book's subtitle, and at what point did you decide to write this book?


A: In 2018, HarperCollins was publishing the book Barracoon, which consists of Zora Neale Hurston’s interviews with Cudjo Lewis—one of the last living survivors of the Clotilda voyage.


My editor at New York Magazine wanted a story on what had become of Cudjo’s descendants, so she asked me to track them down. It was no easy task.


But when I eventually got one of them on the phone—it was Garry Lumbers, who was living near Philadelphia—he told me pretty forcefully that instead of writing about the descendants, I ought to be focusing on the Africatown neighborhood.


Garry had a wonderful childhood there, but he felt that in the present day it looked like a “war zone”—with industrial pollution and lots of abandoned houses. He wanted to know how it had gotten to be that way.


I did visit and write a piece about the neighborhood’s condition, and later I also wrote a chapter on Africatown for a book published by The New Press.


But it wasn’t enough. Garry had posed a profound question, and I wanted to answer it. I wanted to piece together the connection between the slave ship and the present-day pollution.


How exactly had Africatown been singled out as the place where all these factories would be sited? I thought that if I could explain that, it would reveal a lot about how environmental racism works everywhere. At the end of 2019 I moved to Mobile to do the research full time.

Q: The writer Jane Dailey said of the book, “Alternately enraging and inspiring, Africatown connects the history of slavery, industrial pollution, labor exploitation, movements for environmental and political justice and--always--the power of hope for the future.” What do you think of that description?


A: I appreciate Jane’s comment! I admire her work, and she certainly described what I was trying to do.


In a way, Africatown isn’t only about a single community; it’s also a sweeping history of structural racism, particularly in the South. I set out to show how one thing led to the next, in a 160-year progression. But because Cudjo and the other characters are so riveting, it doesn’t read like a textbook.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?


A: I lived in Mobile while I was writing it, and before the lockdowns started I was in Africatown almost every day—visiting the churches, volunteering on cleanup days, attending meetings, interviewing people.


I also spent time in many libraries and archives, from the dusty stacks at Union Missionary Baptist Church (which the pastor, Rev. Derek Tucker, was kind enough to open up to me), to the Library of Congress. Every author has to play to their strengths, and one of mine is a capacity for exhaustive research and reporting.


There were many surprises. But perhaps the most memorable discovery was the one I talk about in the Netflix documentary Descendant.


For years, people had been looking for the remains of the Clotilda, in Mobile Bay. There was a rumor that the descendants of Timothy Meaher—the businessman who brought the enslaved Africans to Alabama in 1860—knew where the ship was, and had intentionally misdirected at least one person who was looking.


I thought I’d never be able to prove this. But then I found a letter, sent from one member of the Meaher family to another, that seemed to confirm it all. It’s the kind of moment an investigative reporter lives for.


Q: How do you think the history of Africatown affects its residents today?


A: Well, lifelong residents of Africatown grew up surrounded by pollution—in the air, in the ground, in the fish they caught from the rivers—and it seems like a staggering number of people from the community have died of cancer. That pollution is the result of decisions that were made over many decades.


And the Meaher family, which still owns a lot of the property surrounding the neighborhood, has made money by leasing and selling land to the factories (although I should add, the younger generation of Meahers has recently started a dialogue with the shipmates’ descendants, and we don’t know where that will lead).


But you can also see the history reflected there in ways that are more encouraging. There’s an incredible tradition of storytelling in Africatown that goes back to the shipmates and the oral culture of West Africa. There are culinary traditions and other practices that they’ve kept alive. The church founded by the shipmates is still alive and well.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: In the short term, I’m writing a couple pieces that are linked to Africatown: one on the author Albert Murray, who grew up there, and another on the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation, a now-forgotten organization that forced the National Park Service to start recognizing Black history sites, back in the 1970s. I also have some longer magazine stories in the works.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: It was an honor to have descendants, Africatown residents, and activists who are fighting for the neighborhood trust me with their stories. I hope they all benefit from this book.


Also, I can’t praise the documentary Descendant highly enough; I think everyone should see it.


The director, Margaret Brown, and I collaborated throughout the time we were working—mostly in informal ways, though I was also commissioned to do some work for the film. Research and writing can be lonely endeavors, and my regular conversations with Margaret always helped me keep perspective.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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