ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Africa’s first settlers were runaway slaves. They made camp inside the Great
Mississippi Swamp off on the west bank of the Sunflower River.
Africa shows up on some old US Army Corps of engineer maps
By John Hatch
Africain a Mississippi Swamp?
Drive down Highway 61 from Memphis, Tennessee, into Mississippi, through 70 miles of mostly cotton fields into the town of Clarksdale. As you cross the Sunflower River bridge on the highway, there is a road sign reading “new Africa Road.” Turn parallel to the river and drive a mile or two, then, at the cotton gin of a late-come plantation, turn right to remain on the New Africa road, and you will enter Africa. This is Africa, Love country, locale of the exciting new historical novel from 2ndsight-books.com.
Back when Mississippi north of Vicksburg was covered by the Great Mississippi Swamp, Africa, Love details the heat and human passion that transforms a wilderness camp into an enduring community in a lost chapter of American history.
Rose and Cicero first pioneered the wilderness and built their dream world inside, only to have those connected to them by blood and circumstance move into the swamp and tumble into each other like so many grains of sand on the bank of a bayou, a generational flood that challenges the old ways.
This lost world is vividly imagined in all of its love, sex, infidelity, courage, and undying loyalty to family as they stand against rampaging flood waters and the world outside to fight off railroad land speculators and build a church to mark their good fortune.
Africa’s first settlers were runaway slaves. They made camp inside the Great Mississippi Swamp off on the west bank of the Sunflower River. Africa shows up on some old US Army Corps of engineer maps because the Sunflower was the only way to move crops, and for a time after the Civil War, the Corps of Engineers had to dredge it for freight traffic. At least until what became the Illinois central Railroad was built in the late 1880s.
For former Chicago and Bay-area attorney, John Hatch, Africa was a page from an unopened book. Hatch was born in the nearby town of Clarksdale. In the early 40s, he spent long stretches as a toddler at the home of his grandparents in what was by then called New Africa. half a lifetime later, he heard about the older community called Africa from his Aunt Rose. he would spend the next twenty years researching and writing about the swamp community called Africa. Out of that work comes the new historical novel, Africa, Love.
The Great Mississippi Swamp
Four million acres of swamp land were wrestled from the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations by 1835, same time as development of a cotton gin and a steam boat that could carry freight against fierce Mississippi River current. The value of slaves to farm that rich swamp land doubled.
But only the fringes of the Great Mississippi Swamp were farmed, where trees had been cut to fire steam boats and along bayous that provided transport in and out. Fever, so-called vagrant Indians, white outlaws, and wild Negroes were the risk to those who dared enter the swamp. There are no census records of the place, but the logic of living apart within the sanctuary of the north Mississippi swamp was simple. Like the people called maroons elsewhere in the Americas, these men and women simply chose to live their life apart. the Africans among them had no faith in finding a better life among white people in the North. The Great Mississippi Swamp was a place where the Underground railroad made no stop.
In the 1830s a rail line was built from Memphis to Vicksburg to link up with New Orleans. Africa was already located between the Sunflower River on the east and the new rail line on the west. the railroad sold land to pay for the building of its right of way, and settlements were built along the right-of-way, including the black town of Mound Bayou. Cutting timber and selling it back to the railroad allowed the new owners to pay for the land. This was just before the Federal government erected levees that prevented the Mississippi River from flooding and renewing the swamp whose tree walls prevented the Mississippi River from flooding and renewing the swamp whose tree walls provided sanctuary for settlements of African Americans, some of whom had chosen years before to live more hidden than the residents of Mound bayou. Unlike population began to outgrow its shrinking sanctuary.
With the 1890s, as the railroad sold off more land, including land in the fringes of Africa to the east, new residents swelled what had already grown beyond a wilderness camp. The trail along the northern boundary of Africa was settled and became a show place for large well-maintained homes. This became the New Africa Road. Though some inhabitants of the older community of Africa continued to make moonshine liquor in less accessible areas, New Africa’s gleaming, enterprise-eager new residents soon began to eclipse the older community, and to attract the unwelcome attention of land speculators and Klansmen.
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Africa, Love, available from 2ndsightbooks.com, is the most recent installment of Hatch’s New Africa Chronicles. As for Africa, Love in local bookstores. Wholesale by baker & Taylor, Koen, Book People. Individual books can also be purchased at some local bookstores or a 2nssightbooks,com online. Volume One of the New Africa Chronicles, Mississippi Swamp , is also available.
2ndsightbooks.com is a coop press located in California. PO Box 52 77, Berkeley, CA 94705. PR contact : 520–528-0946. Retail sales toll-free at 866-455-8209.
I received Mississippi Swamp yesterday and cannot put it down. Fantastic! We usually don’t do fiction, but because Mississippi Swamp is of such historical import, I’d like to consider it for our Anthology.Audrey Peterson, Editor, American Legacy Magazine
Counter(s) the misconceptions of slavery and attempt(s) to set the record straight.Chicago Tribune (July 4, 2001
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. . . powerful and compelling . . .Allen B. Ballard, Where I’m Bound
John Hatch’s “New Africa Chronicles” is an ambitious and necessary enterprise of creative remembering to minimize the damage of cultural amnesia. Mississippi Swamp sketched the determination and passion of some Africans in Mississippi to found “maroon spaces” and to resist enslaving temptations during and after Reconstruction.
Africa, Love continues that story, focusing in finer detail on characters and the dynamics of change in late nineteenth-century Mississippi culture. hatch, like Julie Dash in Daughters of the Dust, immerses readers in the deep structures of African American and Southern histories.Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Dillard University
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John Hatch Explains “The Origin of the Chronicles”
Twenty years ago, my Aunt Rose insisted that if I wanted to be a real writer I should write about New Africa, located a few miles outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I was born. She mentioned a ‘road war.’ As Rose told it, white men grading a logging road were ambushed by people who considered the wooded area to be their sanctuary.To that point in my life, Mississippi represented stereotypes and bad memories, for which reason I had always refused to write about the South, but it was a Christmas party and Rose was animated. Maybe a short story set in New Africa.
When I traveled to Mississippi, I encountered other seniors who added a number of stories about a time of logging, gunfights with white people and a wilderness community called Africa. Growing up, all I had ever seen were endless cotton fields. Apparently, this Africa had been one of the last remnants of the Great Mississippi Swamp, also a new concept.
Thinking by this time, why not a novel about some baaad negroes who refused to be made victim, I searched out Federal Writer’s Project oral history, archival newspapers and books in Delta libraries. They introduced me to a swamp that covered all of what became the Delta. A map of the Sunflower River from the Army Corps of Engineers showed me Africa. . . .
The first white settlers in what would become the Delta farmed land cleared for steamboat fuel. After slave imports were banned, slaves were bought in trade and often stolen to work the new land. To ease the labor crunch, Irishmen were contracted (often Shanghaied) to build levees to protect the new farms.
I reread Saunders Redding and Lerone Bennet, then visited Mississippi’s Department of Archives in Jackson. Hold-over Confederates attempting to wield power in the Mississippi Theater of War seized my attention. General Ord was the commander until Lincoln was assassinated. President Johnson replaced him with a general from Tennessee. . . . And back grounding all of this was the swamp. From the first slaves in the Carolinas abandoned when Native Americans ran European settlers off, black men and women made inaccessible swamp, mountains and desert home. History has largely ignored them. They were maroons, a name applied to indigenous peoples and slaves from Africa who sought wilderness sanctuary all over the Americas. Maroons walked away to build new lives, as did the earliest settlers of Africa.
In my own lifetime, I had refused to write about Mississippi because the fiction I had read didn’t seem worth adding to. Especially, I couldn’t make human sense of the murky time of Reconstruction. There are so few stories in the public consciousness about what actually happened in the day-to-day lives of black people or of our elected representatives. Growing up I had absorbed stereotypes and shadow footnotes to a history written by white people in which war and commerce rendered even ordinary white folks irrelevant.
A friend in Chicago did a thesis describing settlement of the black town of Mound Bayou some few miles southwest of Africa by ex-slaves off of plantations owned by Joseph and Jefferson Davis. To her work I added much of what I could glean of my grandfather’s generation who had lived in New Africa, the farming community that grew out of Africa. Thus, came into being, my New Africa Chronicles. They recount how self-reliant African-Americans carved Africa out of The Great Mississippi Swamp in order to remain both free and as happy as humanly possible. Five novels in all, the story began with Mississippi Swamp. The latest is Africa, Love.
John Hatch was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1941, migrated up the mainline to Chicago in the early Fifties, and now lives in Berkeley, CA with his companion, Jennifer Ways. In 1980, John heard his Aunt Rose describe a gun fight in the farming area Rose and Hatch’s mother grew up in known as New Africa, Mississippi. That tale began a twenty year historical fiction project that became “The New Africa Chronicles”. Africa, Love is volume three. A Harvard Law School graduate, Hatch practiced law in Chicago from 1966 through 1975. He successfully managed a Chicago City Council election and formed an Illinois not-for-profit corporation to sponsor the Black Panther Party Breakfast For Children Program. With other Bay Area artists in 1991, he organized and performed in Artists For Peace during the Iraqi campaign.
In late 1975, Hatch moved to California. His “Episode From An Ancient Script” was produced at San Francisco’s Western Addition Cultural Center in 1979. From the mid-Eighties on, Hatch gradually withdrew from law practice and threw himself into researching and writing his epic historical fiction set in what would this century be called New Africa, MS. The first novel, Mississippi Swamp, was published in 2001. Poems, “St. Gorbachev and Other Missionary Positions,” appeared in 1991. Poetry and short stories written by John Hatch have appeared in the magazines, Genetic Dancer and Cenizas.
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By Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock market. True wealth has more to do with what’s in your heart than what’s in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, “Happy can make you money, but money can’t make you happy.”
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 29 December 2011