Our Diversity Book Club is reading Autobiography of a People, edited by Herb Boyd, this month, an excellent choice for Black History Month as evident by the subtitle “Three centuries of African American history told by those who lived it.” Many of the pieces are essays, but there are also letters and a few poems.
As a large anthology, it’s a bit daunting for a book club, but our leader gave us permission to choose a piece or two from each section so that’s how I’m tackling it. My favorite piece, so far, is the one by Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker to Mrs. Lincoln. She wrote beautifully about what she witnessed in the White House.
I’ve learned, so far, two startling facts that I didn’t know before.
One is that some of those who were enslaved from Africa were Muslims. I know enough history to understand that would be so, but I’d never put it together until I read this passage by editor Herb Boyd:
Slave owners were often puzzled when some of their captives would suddenly cease activity, drop to their knees, and pray to the East. Only later would they learn that these Africans were Muslims who were merely fulfilling their daily prayers. p. 60
The second fact was about the existence of an amazing engineer, Lewis Latimer, who played vital roles in the invention of the telephone and in the spread of electricity in the US and Britain. The Wikipedia article about him is pretty good, but the autobiographical piece in this anthology is better.
I also learned a new word! This was from a piece by John Parker, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, about some of his terrifying adventures. He worked better with people who traveled a long distance to get to his location on the Ohio River — their experiences made them strong and resourceful. The runaways from the Borderland were more inclined to make rookie mistakes and have out-sized expectations. He introduced a story about them with this sentence:
I had an experience with one of these uncontrollable groups which made me very chary about my fugitives ever after. p. 98
According to my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1979), chary has the same root in Old English as care. It means “discreetly cautious,” and especially “hesitant and vigilant about dangers and risks.” This is such a good word that I’m surprised I haven’t run across it before. I’m going to use it as a kind of cross between cautious and choosy when there’s an element of risk involved.
Wondrous Words Wednesday is hosted by Bermudaonion’s Weblog. Kathy says: “Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading.”