Noyac author Richard Cummings’ latest novel, “Prayers of an Igbo Rabbi,” has something to satisfy a variety of literary tastes — from suspense to historical fiction.
Cummings, 74, aimed to tell a story about race and to educate about little known history, while being entertaining rather than preachy. “It’s an American novel about slavery and its legacy in the form of a murder mystery, ghost story, and it’s also about how slavery still haunts America, and what its legacy is,” he said during a recent interview. “We are still very much a segregated society, which is personally disappointing to me. But on top of that, the book is a good read.”
The book centers on a local legend in Georgia that rose out of a real event at St. Simons Island in 1803: Africans from a slave ship chose to kill themselves rather than live as slaves.
“This is a powerful story,” Cummings said. “I’ve never heard about this, and I really wanted people to know about it.”
The slaves had been purchased by Thomas Spalding, a Georgia congressman and plantation owner. “They were Igbo slaves from West Africa,” Cummings explained. There was a rebellion on the ship, and many slaves walked into a creek with chains on and drowned themselves. “They were reciting a prayer: ‘The water brought us, the water will take us home.’”
The legend goes that Ebo Landing (also spelled Ibo Landing) at St. Simons Island is haunted by the drowned Igbo, whose moans can still be heard, Cummings said. “In order to free their souls, they have to drown a descendent of the slave owner who bought them.”
Chinua Achebe, the Igbo Nigerian author of “Things Fall Apart,” said to be the most widely read book in African literature, contributed a blurb to “Prayers of an Igbo Rabbi.” Achebe wrote, “It brings to life one of the most haunting stories of the slave era, Ibo Landing, and shows the tragic connections that have been forged between peoples across centuries and continents.”
The “Prayers of an Igbo Rabbi” protagonist is Roger Westerfield, a lawyer who retreats to St. Simons Island to write his first novel. He fails to realize that he is a descendent of Spalding, and is pursued by the ghosts of the slaves. Further complicating his life, he is accused of murdering an old woman whose house he bought.
Cummings mirrors his character Westerfield in that they both visited St. Simons Island to work on a novel. After an initial two-week trip, Cummings decided he wanted to buy a house there. He owned a house on North Harrington Street, where the descendents of Igbo slaves, the Gullah people, lived. “There are only a few of them left, because developers have bought all the property,” he said.
Cummings said that it is harder than ever to get a book published, especially one dealing with a difficult subject such as race, as the big publishing houses are risk adverse. But he found Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers, based in Cherry Hill, N.J.
“I’ve always regarded race to be a really, really, fundamental issue in America,” Cummings said. “As Bill Clinton said, 'It needs constant work.'”
Cummings first big book came in 1980 with “The Pied Piper: Allard K. Lowenstein and the Liberal Dream,” a biography of a one-term congressman who recruited whites into the Civil Rights movement and was assassinated in 1980.
Cummings’ other books include “The Prince Must Die,” written under a pen name about an assassination attempt on Price Charles, and “The Immortalists,” a story set mostly in the Hamptons about a man determined to beat death.
Cummings lived in Bridgehampton for a time before moving to Noyac in 2003, where he now lives with his wife, fellow author Mary Cummings, the archivist of the .
He is a Brooklyn native, but has lived all over, including stints teaching at universities in Barbados and Ethiopia. He has been a professor of environmental law and Constitutional law at Pace University in Queens and at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. He wrote a column for many years for and his byline has appeared in The New York Times, among other publications.
Cummings has completed the first draft of a next novel, revolving around contemporary history, China, and powerful people in Washington, D.C.