Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"by Zora Neale Hurston Published 08 May 2018
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New York Times Bestseller
"A profound impact on Hurston's literary legacy."--New York Times
"One of the greatest writers of our time."--Toni Morrison
"Zora Neale Hurston's genius has once again produced a Maestrapiece."--Alice Walker
A major literary event: a newly published work from the author of the American classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, with a foreword from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, brilliantly illuminates the horror and injustices of slavery as it tells the true story of one of the last-known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade--abducted from Africa on the last "Black Cargo" ship to arrive in the United States.
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation's history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo's firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.
In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo's past--memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.
Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo's unique vernacular, and written from Hurston's perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.
"Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"" Reviews
“…I want to ask you many things. I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”…when he lifted his wet face again he murmured, Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go to tell everybody whut Cudjo says, and how I come to Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. “Before she was a world-renowned novelist, Alabama-born and Florida-raised Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a researcher into the history and folklore of black people in the American South, the Caribbean, and Honduras. She was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, producing works of fiction in addition to her anthropological work.
Barracoon - An enclosure in which black slaves were confined for a limited period.
-Oxford English Dictionary
Cudjo at home – from History.com - (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)
It was during this period that she first met the last known black man transported from Africa to America as a slave, Cudjoe Lewis. She interviewed Lewis, then in his 80s, in 1927, producing a 1928 article about his experiences, Cudjoe’s Own Story of the Last American Slaver. There were some issues with that report, including a serious charge of plagiarism. Hurston returned to Lewis in Africatown, Alabama, to interview him at length. It is these interviews that form the bulk of her book, Barracoon, plagiarism no longer being at issue.
Zora Neale Hurston - image from Smithsonian
Her efforts to publish the book ran into some cultural headwind, publishers refused to proceed so long as her subject’s dialogue was presented in his idiomatic speech. Thurston refused to remove this central element of the story, and so the book languished. But the Zora Neale Trust did not give up, and a propitious series of events seemed to signal that the time was right
Last fall, on the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots, the musician Questlove learned that he descends from people brought over on the Clotilda. Then an Alabama reporter named Ben Raines found a wreck that looked to be the scuttled ship; it wasn’t, but the story made national news….[while] Kossola’s relevance goes beyond any headlines, [there are also] noteworthy links there: one of Kossola’s sons is killed by law enforcement, and his story holds a message about recognizing humanity echoed by Black Lives Matter. - from Time Magazine articleThen there is the story itself. Hurston gets out of the way, acting mostly as Cudjoe’s stenographer and editor, reporting his words as he spoke them. It is a harrowing tale. A young village man in 1859, Kossula (his true name) was in training to learn military skills when his community was attacked by a neighboring tribe. His report of the attack is graphic, and gruesome. Many of those who survived the crushing assault were dragged away and sold to white slave traders. (Definitely not their choice, Kanye) We learn of his experiences while awaiting his transportation, his telling of the Middle Passage, arrival in America and his five years as a slave. He tells, as well, of the establishment of Africatown, after the Civil War ended the Peculiar Institution in the United States, and of the travails of his life after that, having and losing children, running up against the so-called legal system, but also surviving to tell his tale, and gaining respect as a storehouse of history and folklore. This is an upsetting read, rage battles grief as we learn of the hardships and unfairness of Kossula’s life.
“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!”The book stands out for many reasons. Among them is that it is one of very few reports of slavery from the perspective of the slave. There are many documents available that recorded the transactions that involved human cargo, and many reports by slavers, but precious little has been heard from the cargo itself. It is also a significant document in teaching us about the establishment of Africatown, a village set up not by African Americans, but by Africans, Cudjoe and his fellow former slaves. The stories Cudjoe tells are often those he learned in his home culture.
'The Brookes' Slave Ship Diagram – from the British Library
Barracoon is a triumph of ethnography, bringing together not only a first-person report on experiences in African slave trading, but reporting on slavery from a subject of that atrocity. In addition Kossula adds his triumphant account of joining with other freed slaves to construct an Africa-like community in America, and offers as well old-world folklore in the stories he recalls from his first nineteen years. It is a moving tale for Hurston’s sensitive efforts to reach across the divide of time to encourage Kossula to relive some of the darkest moments any human can experience, sitting with him, calm, caring, and connecting. And finally, it is a truly remarkable tale Kossula tells. It will raise your blood pressure, horrify you, and encourage bursts of tears. You think you’ve had it tough? And for this man to have endured with such dignity and grace is a triumph all its own.
Commemorative Marker for Cudjo Lewis – Plateau Cemetery, Africatown, Mobile, AL - image from wiki
The text of the story is short, but Kossula’s tale is epic. Editor Deborah G. Plant has added a wealth of supportive material, including parables and old-world stories Kossula told to his descendants and to residents of Africatown, a description of a children’s game played in his home town in Africa, and background material on Hurston, her professional issues with an earlier piece of work, and her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance, without touching much on Hurston’s unexpected political perspective on segregation. The information adds to our appreciation of the book.
Cudjo with great-grand-daughters twins Mary and Martha, born in 1923 - image from
Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama
The ethnographical research Hurston did bolstered a perspective on African culture that different was not inferior, that African culture had great value, regardless of those who believed only in Western superiority. Long before Jesse Jackson, such research proclaimed “I am somebody.” The research Hurston did in the USA, Caribbean and Central America certainly informed and strengthened the portraits she painted in her fiction writing.
The history of slavery is a dark one, however much light has been shone on it in the last century and a half. This moving, upsetting telling of a life that endured it is a part of that history. That this 80-year-old nugget has been buried under the weight of time is a shame. But there is an upside. The pressure of all those years has created something glistening and wonderful for us today, a diamond of a vision into the past.
Review posted – 5/25/18
Publication date – 5/8/2018
-----A film shot by ZNH – Cudjoe appears in the opening scene
----- On the unveiling of a bust of Cudjoe in Africatown - WKRG in Mobile – it also ncludes an interview with Israel Lewis, one of Kossula’s descendants
-----A contemporary profile of Africatown and the challenges it faces, particularly from hazardous industry nearby
-----Emma Langdon Roche’s 1914 book, Historic Sketches of the South, includes much on the Clotilde
-----Wiki on Cudjoe - includes images from E.L. Roche
-----Smithsonian Magazine – May 2, 2018 - Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Tells the Story of the Slave Trade’s Last Survivor - by Anna Diamond
----- History.com piece on ZNH’s work on Barracoon - The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It just Surfaced by Becky Little – (the interviewing was actually done in the 1920s)
-----Bitfal Entertainment - A pretty nice brief summary of Cudjoe’s experience, with many uncaptioned illustrations
-----Time Magazine - Zora Neale Hurston’s Long-Unpublished Barracoon Finds Its Place After Decades of Delay - by Lily Rothman
----- On the slave ship Clotilda
-----NPR’s Lynn Neary talks with Amistad’s editorial director Tracy Sherrod, and Barracoon’s editor Deborah Plant - In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Language is the Key to Understanding - Definitely listen to the entire interview. It is under four minutes. One wonderful benefit is to get a sample of the audio reading of the book, which sounds amazing.
Tracy Sherrod is the editorial director of Amistad at Harper Collins, which is now publishing the book. She says Hurston tried to get it published back in the 1930s, but the manuscript was rejected. "They wanted to publish it," Sherrod says, "but they wanted Zora to change the language so it wasn't written in dialect and more in standard English. And she refused to do so."
Hurston refused, says Deborah Plant, because she understood that Lewis's language was key to understanding him. "We're talking about a language that he had to fashion for himself in order to negotiate this new terrain he found himself in," she says. "Embedded in his language is everything of his history. To deny him his language is to deny his history, to deny his experience — which ultimately is to deny him, period. To deny what happened to him."
I was deeply engrossed in this slave narrative based on Hurston's interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the presumed last living African held captive and taken to America to become a slave in 1860. While the work is heavily prefaced with discourse on Hurston's process of coming into the writing of this novel (and claims of plagiarism), Cudjo's story itself is only 94 pages. The tail end of the book contains an extensive appendix with stories, endnotes, and other items pertinent to the work.
Emotionally, I despaired at Cudjo's longing to return to his native land and be among people he knew and loved. His parting from all that was familiar made me sick to my stomach--it is truly unfathomable. Academically, I imagine this work will become an essential piece--if not in its entirety, then in excerpt-form--in high school and collegiate classrooms across the world.
Hurston composed the work based on her interviews with Cudjo Lewis between 1927-30 and was never granted publication in her time because publishers felt the use of vernacular would be off-putting to readers; a sentiment she obviously did not agree with, as she refused to change the work in order to achieve publication. I'm grateful to Harper Books for publishing Hurston's work posthumously, and for sending me an advance copy in exchange for this honest review.
Full review can be found here: littlereaderontheprairie.wordpress.co...
Wow! Kossulo’s story is touching and heartbreaking. I felt as if I was sitting there with him and he was personally telling me his story. There isn't much that needs to be said, go read it.
Check out my review here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hQYQ...
This is a short book—171 pages and a lot of that is front and back matter (I didn’t read much of this)—but the pain and trauma-on-top-of-trauma quotient is so high it takes a while to read in whatever spurts you can tolerate. It is the life story of Kossola, the last living slave abducted from Africa after other Africans plundered his village, brutally beheading people, to catch human beings to sell to the thriving but illegal slave trade. “Barracoon” is the word for the barracks the captives were locked in pending their trip as “black cargo” to the United States.
This is the story of American slaves and their descendants, but it is also a study of how we humans destroy ourselves—all of us: Africans kill and enslave Africans; White people work and brutalize Africans; American-born Black people disparage African-born “savages” once they are free men; White men kill unarmed free Black men with impunity; it goes on and on and on. When greed and ego and power become seductive enough, when we feel insecure and need a scapegoat, we dehumanize others and turn them into objects—a commodity deemed stupid, inferior, and without dignity—to justify our heinous actions against them. Slaves, Jews, immigrants, pick your example; they’re everywhere unfortunately. And the irony is that Kossola, and probably others like him who actually survived their living deaths, are probably so much stronger and more resilient than the majority of people. Certainly me—I’d have been dead before I was taken out of my African village.
Barracoon is an interview record of the memories of Cudjo Lewis who is believed to be the last living person captured in Africa and brought to America on a slave ship. Lewis was captured in 1859 by Dahomey warriors, sold to American slavers, and illegally shipped to Mobile, Alabama (importing slaves to the USA had been outlawed in 1809). He was 19 years old when captured and was approximately 91 years old when interviewed in 1931.
He recounts how his village was wiped out by the Dahomey warriors and those who were deemed too old or weak to be sold as slaves were beheaded, and during a multi-day trip to Dahomey territory the decapitated heads were preserved by smoke curing which cut down on the odor and allow them to be kept as trophies. This smoking process was done within view of the live captives including Kossola (Lewis' African name).
Once in place as a slave in the States, Cudjo Lewis described being called a "heathen" by the other slaves. It hadn't occurred to me before that there might be a cultural rift between the slaves born in the states and those recently arrived from Africa, but it makes sense that there would be. By 1859 virtually all the other slaves living in the States would have been born in North America and spoke English as their first language. Lewis and others of his group of contraband slaves from Africa would have been extreme minorities. Also, the existence on this group of Africans had to be kept a secret so they couldn't be auctioned off in public. Therefore, five years later after the Civil War ended and they were freed, they were still living in the same general vicinity and they were able to establish "Africatown," a community founded and run by Africans. That's where Lewis spent the rest of his life.
A substantial portion of the book consists of his account of his life and family experiences living in Alabama since the Civil War. He and his wife had six children, and he tells of the deaths during those many years of his wife and three of his children. He still seemed to have vivid memories of Africa, and said that he hoped his words would be published and that somebody in Africa would read them and say that they remembered him as Kossola—his African name.
Cudjo Lewis was interviewed by the author Zora Neale Hurston who is best known for her book Their Eyes Were Watching God. She tried to publish Barracoon in 1931, but the only publisher to consider it insisted that it not be written in southern black vernacular. She refused to make modifications, and it had remained unpublished. Hurston died in 1960, and administrators of her estate in a search for unpublished material came across the manuscript and decided to publish this year.