Amma is the creator god, the master of life and death, and he is worried. His people have always known how to take care of the spirits of the dead – the nyama – so that they don't become destructive forces among the living. But amid the chaos of the African slave trade and the brutality of American slavery, too many of his people are dying and their souls are being ignored in this new land.
Amma sends a young man, Ekundayo, to a plantation in Virginia where he becomes a slave on the eve of the Civil War. Amma hopes that Ekundayo will be able to find a way to bring peace to the nyama before it is too late. But Ekundayo can see only sorrow in this land – sorrow in the ownership of people, in the slaves who have been separated from their children and spouses, in the restless spirits of the dead, and in his own forbidden relationship with his master's daughter.
How Ekundayo finds a way to bring peace to both the dead and the living makes this an unforgettable journey into the slave experience and Newbury Honor author Julius Lester's most powerful work to date.
Time's Memory is a 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
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By Julius Lester
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2006 Julius Lester
All rights reserved.
"This is my last trip," Josiah Willingham muttered to himself.
It had been a week since the slave ship sailed from Guinea with its black cargo. For a week the screams, moans, and cries of the blacks in the hold had not stopped.
"Can't do it no more and I won't." He refilled his glass with rum, closed his eyes, and drank it down in two quick swallows.
Josiah was a tall, thin man with a sharp nose and small lips. His black hair was parted in the middle and brushed tightly down on both sides of his head. Despite the severity of his features, there was a gentleness about him which showed in the sad softness of his dark eyes. He looked like he should have been in the pulpit of some small country church telling his congregants about God's love. But a loving God, he felt, would not have taken his Hannah, who died after giving birth to their daughter, who lived but a few hours longer than her mother.
That was when he lost his way. After burying his wife and daughter, he left the tiny island off the South Carolina coast where he and Hannah had dreamed and loved. He had no idea where to go or what to do, and he had not cared.
One day, he found himself walking near the docks in Charleston. A man stopped him and asked if he wanted to go to sea. Josiah said yes. Surely, he thought, he would stop grieving for Hannah when he was surrounded by nothing but water. Even if he had known he was hiring on to a slave ship, it saddened him to think he probably would have gone anyway. But four years ago, he hadn't cared about anything or anyone, especially himself.
On the voyage out, being at sea was what he needed. He found himself smiling at the sight of whales swimming just beneath the surface and porpoises leaping out of the water, sailing through the air and back into the water to swim alongside the ship with astonishing speed.
Eventually the ship reached its destination, the west coast of Africa. Until that day, Josiah had never thought about where slaves came from. They were as much a part of the South Carolina landscape as the moss that hung from tree limbs. He had been too poor to own slaves, but if he'd had the money, he would have wanted one or two to help with the work. But he knew Hannah would have made him choose between her and slaves, and that was no choice.
On that first voyage, Josiah's job had been to take the blacks down into the darkness of the ship's hold as they were brought on board. He forced them onto their sides, with knees drawn up, to lie next to each other like spoons in a drawer. He had tried to be indifferent and unfeeling like the other white men on the ship. But the blacks looked at him with desperation in their tear-filled eyes, crying and screaming. He did not understand a word they said, but he didn't need an interpreter to tell him they were pleading to have their lives returned to them. To his ears their cries sounded no different than the ones he had wailed aloud in the hard solitude of his little cabin on the island, cries that still keened but were audible to his ears alone.
Once the ship set sail for Charleston, he went into the hold each morning and brought the slaves on deck to be exercised. While two crew members played a drum and flute, the others forced the slaves to dance. Josiah, however, went back down into the stifling heat and unbearable smells of sweat, fear, excrement, and urine. Invariably, there was a body or two he had to put on his shoulder, bring topside, and toss into the ocean.
That was how he learned that sharks swam behind slave ships, waiting for the inevitable bodies. He vomited the first time he saw sharks thrashing the water as their mouths of sharp teeth tore into the black flesh and turned the blue water a dark red. The other crew members laughed, at both him and the screaming blacks. He never threw up again, but only because he closed his eyes as he pitched the bodies overboard and tried not to listen to the sound of the churning, roiling water.
After the bodies were disposed of, he went below again with buckets of water and a mop and cleaned the hold of the slaves' waste matter. Even though he hadn't been assigned to that job since the second voyage, he thought he would smell the stench for the rest of his life. But he'd only had to smell it. The blacks had to lie in it. He still didn't understand how, at voyage's end, any of them emerged alive. But they did, and then walked down the plank and onto the dock to begin their lives anew in a place whose existence they had not known of, with people who did not look like them or speak a language any of them knew. If he had been black, he doubted that he would have survived the voyage. And if by some stroke of misfortune he had, he could not imagine living, day in and day out, year in and year out, as another man's property to do with as he saw fit.
When that first voyage ended and the ship docked at Charleston, Josiah swore he would never hire out on another slaver. But eventually the money he'd earned ran out, and he hired on to another ship, not knowing what else to do.
Elijah Wright had been the captain of that second ship. Josiah hoped he would never again encounter a man so evil. He had treated the crew only a little better than the slaves, and if anyone complained, Elijah had him tied to the mainsail to be buffeted by the winds until the man's screams and sobs became unbearable.
If Josiah had been distressed by how the slaves had been packed in the hold on his first voyage, his distress turned to anger when Elijah put so many slaves in the hold that the ship rode lower in the water than was safe. But Elijah Wright's theory was that many were going to die anyway. The more niggers he could squeeze into the hold, the better chance he had of arriving in Charleston with a profitable load.
So many slaves were dead when Josiah went into the hold each morning that other crew members had to help him carry the bodies up and throw them overboard. However, those who were sick, perhaps near death even, were to be pitied more than the dead. Elijah Wright did not make distinctions between the dead and near dead. Josiah didn't like remembering the blacks he'd pitched overboard, eyes wide in horror, screams of terror tearing their throats as they realized what was happening to them. So many were thrown overboard on that voyage even the sharks became sated and left bodies to float like seaweed before sinking slowly into the black depths.
Perhaps it was the combination of the crew having to eat too much salt pork and hard crackers, Elijah's evil temper, and the screams and stench from the hold permeating the entire ship. Whatever it was, Josiah was not the only one who, midway through the voyage back, had had more than enough. One morning, he led the men to Elijah's cabin, grabbed the captain, and pitched him overboard, as oblivious to his screams as the captain had been to those of the slaves. Josiah was at the helm when the ship returned to Charleston. He explained to the ship's owners that Elijah Wright had been washed overboard during a storm. They cared less about Elijah's fate than that Josiah had brought back a full load of slaves. They made him captain of the next ship they sent out.
Josiah was determined to be a better slave ship captain than the two men he had served under. Instead of packing the slaves in the hold like spoons, he took on fewer and laid them on their backs with space between them. While fewer died from disease, many more died than he'd expected.
Josiah didn't know how they did it. They seemed to make up their minds that they didn't want to live, and almost overnight they were dead. What kind of power of mind did these blacks have that they could commit suicide by thought?
When Josiah reached Charleston with little more than half the number of blacks he had left Africa with, he knew the ship's owners would barely make a profit when they put the slaves up for auction. They financed one more voyage under his command, with the understanding that this would be his last if he didn't bring back a sufficient number of slaves.
But Josiah could not bring himself to fill the hold as he knew he should. Sometimes he felt that Hannah was looking over his shoulder, approving or disapproving of everything he did, and she didn't like him being on slave ships. Pleasing her, dead though she was, was more important to him than pleasing the men who paid him. He knew his days on a slave ship were over after this voyage.
Just as he refilled his glass with rum, a loud shriek came up from below and through the floor of his cabin. Josiah put his hands over his ears, but other voices joined the shrieking one. It seemed as if the hold was filled not with people but with the cries wounds would make if they had voices.
The door to his cabin swung open. "Captain Willingham? Aren't you going to do something about that god-awful racket?"
Josiah looked at Wallace Troy, the man he had chosen as his second-in-command because of his years of experience on ships of all kind. Josiah was sorry he had not known that Troy had as few morals as Elijah Wright. "And what do you propose I do about that god-awful racket, Mr. Troy?"
Troy looked at the bottle of rum sitting in the center of the table and how tightly Willingham was holding his half-full glass. Wallace Troy didn't bother to hide his contempt for the captain as a sneer spread across his face.
"When I was second-in-command to Captain Rodney Miller, he went into the hold with his rifle, put the barrel down the throat of one of them, and pulled the trigger. We didn't hear a sound for the rest of the voyage."
Josiah looked at Wallace with as much contempt as Wallace directed at him. "I've heard of Rodney Miller. The man is unfit for human company. There'll be none of Rodney Miller's cruel methods on my ship. Is that clear, Mr. Troy?"
"That screaming is about to drive the men crazy!"
"Let me ask you something, Mr. Troy."
"Would you scream if you had just been stolen from your homeland, cuffed and shackled, put into the hold of a ship that was going to take you to a place you never knew existed, and, once you arrived, you found out you were going to work the rest of your life for nothing? Would you scream, Mr. Troy?"
That was why Wallace Troy hated Josiah Willingham. He talked like a Yankee abolitionist and not like a white man was supposed to. Every right-thinking white man knew niggers didn't have feelings like white people. That black skin of theirs made them less sensitive and less aware of what was going on. Slavery was a blessing because it brought niggers into contact with whites. Just being around white people would civilize them, as much as that was possible.
"Would you scream, Mr. Troy?" Josiah repeated the question, louder.
"If something's not done about that noise, you might find yourself on the other end of a mutiny like the one I heard you led."
"And would this one be led by you, Mr. Troy?"
Wallace Troy turned around abruptly and walked out of the cabin, slamming the door behind him.
Josiah raised the glass to his mouth, then stopped and set it down. He had to keep his wits about him. Troy was dangerous. Even if Josiah found a way to quiet the blacks, that didn't guarantee he would make it back safely to Charleston. But if he didn't get them to stop their infernal screaming, there was no doubt the crew would throw him overboard like garbage.
As Josiah started to get up, the ship suddenly began rocking violently from side to side. He stumbled and almost fell before managing to regain his balance. Outside, the wind was howling and rain slapped hard onto the deck and the roof of his cabin. A storm had come up, but from where? When he had come to his cabin a short while ago, the sky was clear in every direction.
In the hold the screaming grew in intensity and strength until it was almost as loud as the wind and the rain. The ship was pitching violently now. The bottle and glass of rum fell off the table, the glass shattering as it hit the floor. Josiah tried to get to the door, but it was like walking up a steep hill. He was reaching for the knob when the ship rolled sharply to the other side. Josiah and the shards of glass on the floor were hurled in the opposite direction.
"Captain! Captain!" Josiah heard Wallace Troy's voice from outside. Willingham wasn't sure, but he thought he heard fear in Troy's voice.
Josiah finally reached the door and stumbled onto the deck. He raised his forearm against the hard-driving rain that immediately soaked him, stinging his flesh like swarms of bees. Huge waves crashed over the bow of the ship, sending more water across the deck and drenching the men who were roping themselves together and tying the rope to the mainmast to keep from being swept overboard.
"This storm came out of nowhere!" Troy yelled in the captain's ear. "From nowhere! One minute it was bright and sunny and the sea was calm. In less time than it took me to blink my eyes, the blackest clouds I've ever seen rolled across the sky and the winds came up. It's the niggers! I know it is! That screaming they're doing, that's what brought this storm. They're devils and heathens. The men are ready to go down below and pitch them all overboard. It's the only way to save ourselves! You hear me? It's the only way!"
"I'll take care of it!" Josiah shouted back.
"You better, or we will!"
Josiah staggered across the deck to the door to the ship's hold. It was all he could do to maintain his balance against the ship's rolling and the relentless rain. He finally managed to wrench the door open and step inside.
He stood there on the top step, holding tightly to the handrail that bordered the steps. The shrieking of the blacks was louder here, the sound assaulting him like hard fists.
What was he going to do? How was he going to make them stop? Josiah wasn't a superstitious man, but he was convinced that blacks had powers white men knew nothing of. He had no doubt they had called up this unnatural storm. But if they didn't put a stop to it, they were going to kill everyone, including themselves. Maybe that was what they wanted.
When his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he moved slowly down the stairs, clutching the handrail as the ship continued rolling. When he reached the last step it was as if someone or something pushed him. Josiah stumbled and had to reach out for the edge of one of the tiered bunks to keep from falling. Just as he did, the ship tilted violently. Josiah started slipping to the floor when hands came out of the blackness and grabbed his shirt. Josiah tried to pull away, but the screaming became louder and the very sound seemed to intensify the hold of the unseen hands.
This can't be happening! Josiah told himself as he continued struggling unsuccessfully to free himself. Then, amid all the screaming, he thought he heard something different. He stopped struggling and listened. Yes. There it was again! It couldn't be. But it was! A baby was crying! But he had looked over every one of the women before they were brought onto the ship and there had not been a pregnant one among them. At least not one so close to term that she would have given birth on the ship.
The child is still but a seed.
Josiah looked around, though he could see little in the blackness.
"Who said that?" he shouted back at the voice that sounded so familiar, so achingly familiar. "Hannah? Is that you? Hannah?" Had he heard her actual voice, or just the one with which he conversed every day in his head?
It is me, Josiah.
Hannah! Oh, Hannah!
There is no time now, Josiah. They asked me to speak with you. What has become of you, Josiah Willingham?
Josiah didn't understand. How could he be having a conversation with Hannah? How could she hear what he was thinking, since he had not spoken aloud since calling out her name? Was he losing his mind?
Oh, Hannah! I have become a weak man since you left me.
Not so weak. You stood up to Wallace Troy, who wants to kill someone because he is afraid.
I won't be able to stop him if this storm doesn't stop.
You must do what they ask.
What? What do they want?
When the ship reaches Charleston, you will take everyone out of this hold except one who will be hiding in the shadows. When it is safe, you will take her away with you and hide her where no one can find her, her and the child she is carrying. If you promise to do this, the ship can resume its voyage under blue skies and on a calm sea.
Excerpted from Time's Memory by Julius Lester. Copyright © 2006 Julius Lester. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
• The book is divided into three parts. Why do you think the author structured the book like this? What is the main theme of each part?
• How do the epilogue and prologue act as "bookends" and help you understand who is narrating the story, who is recording the story, and why? How do they work in tandem with the body of the book?
• Why is it important that Nathaniel tell the whole story of his ancestors, from the time they first became enslaved?
• How does Julius Lester's use of a multi-perspective narrative affect the telling of the book?
• The first chapter of Part One opens with Josiah Willingham, a grieving man who has lost his faith in God and who is regretting his part in the slave trade. How does this set the tone for the book?
• Throughout the story, the author offers information to define the word nyama. By the end of the book, what do you understand nyama to mean? How would you compare nyama to similar terms from other religions and philosophies?
• "Words were as alive as any man, woman, or child. They had an odor . . ." (p. 31) On several occasions the truthfulness of a speaker's words is measured by the tangible quality of smell. How do we evaluate someone's words? What do we say when we believe someone's words to be truthful? To be false?
• In Part One, Chapter 5, the author uses the term "Time's memory" for the first time. Julius Lester challenges the concept of linear time in the structure of TIME'S MEMORY. Had you thought of time, of history, in this way before? Why did the author choose this as the title of the book?
• In the Author's Note, Julius Lester states, "The story is perhaps one of the most autobiographical I've ever written." (p. 228) What do you think he means?
• A dream inspired Julius Lester to begin writing TIME'S MEMORY. What role do dreams play in the novel? (e.g., p. 44)
• The narrator says in the Prologue: "We are more than our personal memories." How does this statement affect or change your ideas about memoirs and memoir writing?
• What kind of information would you need to collect or find out in order to write your own "Time's memory"?