“What happens to the history of a people not accustomed to writing things down? To whom poverty and illiteracy make wills, diaries, and letters superfluous? Birth and death certificates, tax receipts—these occasional records punctuate but do not describe everyday life.”
Ted Rosengarten asked himself that question in 1968, when he was a Harvard graduate student accompanying a friend on a research trip to rural Alabama. There they met Ned Cobb, an 84-year-old farmer who’d outlived the Communist-organized Alabama Sharecroppers’ Union the students had come to learn about.
Ted’s friend, Dale Rosen, asked Cobb why he had joined the union. “He didn’t respond directly,” recalled Rosengarten. “Rather, he ‘interpreted’ the question and began, ‘I was haulin a load of hay out of Apafalya one day—’ and continued uninterrupted for eight hours. He recounted dealing with landlords, bankers, fertilizer agents, mule traders, gin operators, sheriffs, and judges—stories of the social relationships of the cotton system. By evening, the fire had risen and died and risen again and our question was answered.”
Rosengarten answered his other question—about a history of a people not accustomed to writing things down—six years and six hundred pages later, with All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, which won the National Book Award in 1975. It is Ned Cobb’s oral history—the family insisted his name be changed for the book—taken from transcripts of conversations the men had recorded on Cobb’s farm. Rosengarten determined Cobb’s story was “historically significant because it is common.”
As the student absorbed stories, the storyteller whittled or made baskets from splits of white oak. Rosengarten witnessed that “Cobb was, without question, a hard worker and a great provider, unrivaled in his settlement. One could be guilty, however, of excessive zeal in the pursuit of a good life and excessive pride in attaining it. Righteousness,” concluded Rosengarten in his introduction, “consisted in not having so much that it hurt to lose it.”
Three paragraphs later, Rosengarten steps out as narrator, returning on page one as scribe. Cobb, whom one reviewer called “a black Homer, bursting with his black Odyssey,” speaks directly to the reader for the next five hundred pages.
He became one of the first black farmers in rural Alabama to buy an automobile. “There’s a heap of my race,” says Cobb, “didn’t believe their color should have a car, believed what the white man wanted em to believe.” Defying the system that deprived farmers of the right to reap the rewards of their labor, Cobb “had no definite plan for a new world,” observed Rosengarten, “he just couldn’t endure the old order.”
In 2008, I learned of All God’s Dangers from my history professor at the University of Virginia. I was telling Professor Mason about an 85-year-old tea farmer I’d met in Kenya on a backpacking trip through Africa. Sixty years before, this tea farmer, Japhlet Thambu, aka the General, had led an uprising against British colonial rule that became known as the Mau Mau Rebellion. The General’s stories were rich and accessible. They made Kenyan history come alive.
After listening to me go on and on about this old Kenyan revolutionary, Professor Mason said, “You sound like the guy who wrote All God’s Dangers. Have you read that book? You need to.”
Reading Rosengarten’s impressions of Ned Cobb was like the author had climbed into my head when I met the General and transcribed my thoughts. The work convinced me that the General’s story deserved to be recorded. I—a young American traveler—needed the tools to do it.
When I emailed Rosengarten asking for his guidance, he had other recommendations. “Three books leap to mind that I would urge you to read—examples of white writers’ engaging with African subjects to produce ‘first-person narratives’ that connect history, literature, and anthropology in unpredictable and satisfying ways,” he wrote to me. “Nisa: The Biography of a Kung Woman, by Marjorie Shostak; Conversations with Ogotemmeli, by Marcel Griaule, and The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, an African Sharecropper, 1894-1985, by Charles van Onselen. Perhaps you’re familiar with one or more of these books already. I find them inspiring, if not a little intimidating. You need the courage of ignorance to start down the trail that led to each of them.”
I had no idea how courageous I was. In March 2009, I moved to Kenya and lived with the General’s family on their coffee and tea farm. Six years later, Ohio University Press published The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General, the General’s oral history.
“There is something lost and something gained in the transformation of these oral stories to written literature,” Rosengarten had remarked in the preface to All God’s Dangers. “No exclamation point can take the place of a thunderous slap on the knee. The stories, however, are saved, and Ned Cobb’s ‘life’ will get a hearing beyond his settlement and century.”
Neither Ned Cobb nor the General got to see their book in print, though both got to hold their manuscript. When the General felt the weight of his words—his life in pages—his eyes watered. “You have done it,” he told me. “My grandchildren do not even know the stories I’ve shared with you. They will have to read what you write.” His legacy would outlive his body. Through The Boy is Gone, his life will get a hearing beyond the slopes of Mount Kenya.
Laura Lee Huttenbach is the author of The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General (Ohio University Press, 2015). She lives in Miami Beach, where she’s writing her next book, Running with Raven. Learn more at www.LLHuttenbach.com.
You can find out more about Laura Lee’s book at this video:
The image featured at the beginning of this post is of pictures hanging in The General’s home. It is copyright of Mary Beth Koeth.