Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" cover image
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist and playwright, who may be best known for her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of her four novels. Hurston was and still is noted for her contributions to African-American literature, for her portrayal of racial struggles in the American South, and for her research on Haitian voodoo.
Hurston was also an anthropologist and folklorist and authored two books of folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), and her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road (1942). There was one work by Hurston that mixes anthropology, folklore, and biography. It is the story of one of the last-known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade, a story Hurston told in the vernacular in which that survivor spoke.
It was unpublished... until this week (May 8th, 2018). Now, in a hardcover from Amistad Books (a HarperCollins imprint), comes the book entitled Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” This is the story of a man who was help captive aboard the last slave ship, the Clotilda, to come from Africa and deliver African captives into slavery in America.
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, an African-eccentric community just outside Mobile, Alabama, to interview an 86-year-old African man named Cudjo Lewis. Lewis' birth name was Oluala Kossola, and he was one of millions of men, women, and children who were transported from Africa to America as slaves. By 1927, however, Cudjo (born sometime around 1841) was the only person still alive who could tell the complete story of being captured, transported across the Atlantic (the “Middle Passage”), and forced into slavery.
Hurston recorded Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid on his African hometown (Bantè) by the Fon of Dahomey, who were among the African people who resisted the British-led effort to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade. [Up to the beginning of the Civil War, some Americans still sailed to Africa to get slaves that they smuggled into the United States.] In this raid, Cudjo was captured and transported to Ouidah, a town along the West African coast, where he was held prisoner in the “barracoons.” A “barracoon” was a hut or structure where captors detained Africans who were to be sold and exported to America or Europe as slaves. In 1859, Cudjo would leave Africa for America, where he would spend five-and-half years in bondage as a slave in Alabama until he was freed in 1865.
In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, which had been founded by Cudjo and the other former slaves that had been transported to America in the Clotilda. Hurston spent more than three months with Cudjo, talking in depth about the details of his life.
During this time, Hurston, the young writer, and Cudjo, the elderly former enslaved man, talked about Cudjo’s past. He recounted the memories of his childhood and young adulthood in Africa and then, the horrors of the raid in which he was captured. He narrates the story of his time being held in a barracoon and his eventual selection by American slavers. Cudjo recalls the harrowing experience of the “Middle Passage,” packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda. He finally reveals the years he spent in slavery and his troubled life after helping to found an Alabama town for Africans like himself.
Based on those interviews, Hurston tells the story mainly from Cudjo's point of view, transcribing Cudjo’s unique vernacular diction. Although she wrote the text from her perspective as she heard it, Hurston spelled the words as she heard Cudjo say them, using the former slave's rhythm, expressions, and phrases. Rejected by publishers in the 1930s, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” sees the light of day thanks to the bold vision of Amistad Books and HarperCollins.
THE LOWDOWN: Amistad Books is proving to be a year-round “Black History Month” celebration, thanks to publications such as the recent, brilliant non-fiction tome, Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires, by Shomari Wills. It is best not to underestimate the importance of Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” In the literary world, there are people (like Alice Walker) who worked to restore Zora Neale Hurston, who died in obscurity (more or less), to a place of honor in American literature. Deborah G. Plant is among those people, and Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” is important to the ongoing restoration of Hurston. It is also a fantastic book and a riveting read.
Hurston's text, which includes the body of Cudjo Lewis' story, an introduction, and appendix, makes up 112 pages of this book. By the time I finished reading, I was not sure what part of the story impressed me most, but by recording Cudjo's recollections of his life and trials in Africa, Hurston informs today's readers of her place as an anthropologist. The tale of the raid on Cudjo's village and the forced march from his captors' village to the barracoons is harrowing. I think that this part of the narrative will be imprinted on my memory for a long time, but I found every part of this book fascinating.
Hurston's decision to keep the story in Cudjo's vernacular was the right choice, and potential publishers to whom she hoped to sell this book apparently did not agree with this. Cudjo's story is so powerful and unforgettable precisely because of the manner and language in which Hurston committed it to text. I think Hurston's decisions regarding this text assure her place as a hugely important twentieth-century contributor to American history and culture.
Hurston's appendix contains some folktales Cudjo related to her, the recording of which testifies to Hurston's place as a folklorist. Deborah Plant's introduction is a must-read for readers before they enter Hurston's text. The glossary and notes will help readers grasp many of the terms, phrases, names, and words included in Hurston's text. At 200+ pages, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” is a slim text, but it packs a wallop of a punch both as history and as a document of a particular facet of American slavery.
I READS YOU RECOMMENDS: Readers looking for great tales of “Black History” and for books that reveal an untold corner of American history must have Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” And no Zora Neale Hurston library or collection can be without it.
[This book includes an introduction by editor, Deborah G. Plant, and a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Alice Walker.]