Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"by Zora Neale Hurston Published 08 May 2018
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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."
Though the United States passed the 'Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807', boats continued to deliver abducted Africans to America for more than 50 years. The last shipment of slaves arrived in Alabama on the ship 'Clotilda' in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War.
One of the African men on the Clotilda was Oluale Kossula, also known as Cudjo Lewis, who survived five years of slavery, became a free man, and helped found the black enclave of 'Africatown' (or 'Plateau') near Mobile, Alabama.
In 1927, when Cudjo was in his mid-eighties, he was interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston - the American folklorist, anthropologist, and author. In this book Hurston relates Cudjo's story, much of it in his own words.
Zora Neale Hurston
Cudjo describes his ancestry and his early life in the African village of Takkoi, where he was happy with his family and friends. Then, when Cudjo was 19, his village was invaded by warriors from nearby Dahomey, who killed some residents and kidnapped others to sell to white slavers. "De King of Dahomey, you know, he got very rich ketchin slaves. He keep his army all de time making raids to grabee people to sell."
The scene Cudjo describes is horrific: "Dey got de women soldiers too and dey run wid de big knife and dey ketch people and saw de neck wid de knife den dey twist de head so it come off de neck. Oh Lor', Lor'! I see de peoples gittee kill so fast!
Cudjo's village was located in what is now Benin
The white slavers housed the Africans in a barracoon near the ocean, until 65 men and 65 women were loaded onto the Clotilda and brought to Mobile, Alabama. There they were split up among the slavers, who kept some Africans for themselves and sold the others. "We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama."
Cudjo talks about his life as a slave, which was difficult for several reasons. The work was very hard and the new African slaves didn't mesh well with those already living in the country. "In night time we cry, we say we born and raised to be free people and now we slave. We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis. It strange to us. Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say. Some makee de fun at us.”
After emancipation, a group of freed slaves - who couldn't raise the money to return home - established Africatown ("We call our village Affican Town") near Mobile, Alabama. Cudjo married a woman named Seely, 'unofficially' at first, then - after they joined the church - with a proper license. "So den we gittee married by de license, but I doan love my wife no mo' wid de license than I love her befo' de license. She a good woman and I love her all de time.
Shacks in Africatown
Africatown is now a tourist attraction
Cudjo and Seely had six children (fives boys and a girl). "Oh, Lor’! Oh, Lor’! We so happy. We been married ten months when we have our first baby. We call him Yah-Jimmy, just de same lak we was in de Afficky soil. For Americky we call him Aleck."
Along with other residents of Africatown, Cudjo sought to educate his offspring. “We Afficans try raise our chillun right. When dey say we ign’nant we go together and build de school house. Den de county send us a teacher. We Afficky men doan wait lak de other colored people till de white folks gittee ready to build us a school. We build one for ourself den astee de county to send us de teacher.”
Residents of Africatown
Cudjo's children had a difficult time living in America. "All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey. Derefo’, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time.....When dey whip de other boys, dey folks come to our house and tellee us, “Yo’ boys mighty bad, Cudjo. We ’fraid they goin’ kill somebody.”"
This violence may have contributed to some of the children's unfortunate ends.
One son was killed by a law enforcement officer. "Somebody call hisself a deputy sheriff kill de baby boy now.... If my boy done something wrong, it his place come ’rest him lak a man....He have words wid my boy, but he skeered face him. Derefo’, you unnerstand me, he hidee hisself in de butcher wagon and when it gittee to my boy’s store....Dis man, he hidin’ hisself in de back of de wagon, an’ shootee my boy."
A second son was hit by a railroad train, but the company offered no compensation. (A lawyer later helped Cudjo sue for recompense, but Cudjo didn't see a penny of the money.) Of the four remaining children, three died of illnesses, and one mysteriously disappeared.
When Hurston interviewed Cudjo, Seely had also been dead for 20 years, perhaps from a broken heart.
It's clear from the book that Cudjo had a very difficult life, traumatized by the barbarity of slavery and devastated by its subsequent consequences, including discrimination, bigotry, and aggression towards the communities and families of black people. Cudjo's story is both moving and disturbing, and demonstrates how some things in the United States haven't changed enough.
To earn Cudjo's goodwill, Hurston would bring him Georgia peaches, watermelon, and once a Virginia ham. Over the course of many visits, Hurston also helped Cudjo clean the church where he was a sexton, worked in his garden, and drove him to buy crabs.
Hurston notes: “I had spent two months with Kossula, who is called Cudjo, trying to find the answers to my questions. Some days we ate great quantities of clingstone peaches and talked. Sometimes we ate watermelon and talked. Once it was a huge mess of steamed crabs. Sometimes we just ate. Sometimes we just talked. At other times neither was possible, he just chased me away. He wanted to work in his garden or fix his fences. He couldn't be bothered. The present was too urgent to let the past intrude. But on the whole, he was glad to see me, and we became warm friends.”
Cudjo in his cabin
The end of the book contains Cudjo's recitation of several African folktales, which are sly and amusing.
This is an interesting book, recommended to readers interested in African history, slavery, and anthropology.
You can follow my reviews at https://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot....
How to rate and review a book that has no real comparison or companion, that has been my quandary since finishing Barracoon. The rating is for the very fact of its existence, for Zora Neale Hurston’s truly wonderful and difficult work of taking down Cudjo Lewis’s story of childhood, capture, sale to slavers, and transport across the Atlantic on the last slave ship to reach the United States in 1859, and of his life after the freedom granted during the Civil War up to the 1920s.
As Kossula (Cudjo Lewis’s approximated birth name) tells his life story to Hurston, we learn details of the history of the area of Africa in which he lived, the facts of black Africans selling those they had defeated in war to traders from the Americas, life in Africatown, Alabama (all like Cudjo, from that last ship), a glossary providing detailed information on major people and events in the biography, and extended notes.
There are are scholarly issues discussed in some of the introductory material that may add to why this material has not been published sooner, a question of plagiarism in aspects of this work from an earlier historical report. This is discussed from many viewpoints and ultimately appears, if memory serves, may have been an oversight in an article not finalized by the author for publication. Since she has written many other works without this issue arising, it would appear that the decision has been made that this work needed to be published.
On another note, personally, I didn’t have difficulty reading Cudjo’s dialect, as written down by Hurston. But I know that many have enjoyed listening to this book rather than reading it. I do recommend you try it in one form or the other.
Postscript: another note re this late publication. Apparently, Hurston attempted to have this piece published in the 1930s. At the time, the publisher wanted Hurston to translate Lewis’s dialect into standard English. She refused as this would have denied the essence of his identity. It was not accepted for publication.
“We cry ’cause we slave. In night time we cry, we say we born and raised to be free people and now we slave. We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis. It strange to us."
Well, what to say.... I'm ambivalent about this one. The part Zora Neale Hurston actually wrote is beautiful and raw and touching. In 1927, she interviewed Kossula (Cudjo Lewis), then 86 years old, who was one of the last black slaves brought to America. He, along with 100-some others, was smuggled into the United States, after it became illegal to do so. He was enslaved for 5 1/2 years until the abolition of slavery.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo is Kossula's story. I love that Ms. Hurston used his dialect. For some, this makes it difficult to read. I, however, think it adds so much to the account. Kossula becomes real in a way that I don't think he would be if it was told in every day English. You feel his pain, his longing for his home in Africa, his confusion as to why he was stolen and brought here. It breaks your heart to read. Through a period of interviews, Kossula related his story to Ms. Hurston, beginning with the history of his grandfather and some of the customs of his people. He then relates how a rival tribe captured and sold him to white slave traders. He talks briefly about his time as a slave, and then some of his life afterwards. Such a tragic, sad story, full of so much pain and suffering inflicted on countless numbers of Africans.
The reason I'm not giving this book 5 stars even though I love the way Zora Neale Hurston tells Kossula's story is that it is incredibly brief. There is a foreword and an introduction which I think added to story by providing context. The story itself ended all too abruptly a bit over half way through the book. I was very disappointed as I hadn't realised that it was so short. The rest of the book is an afterword by the editor of the book, a glossary (that I don't think was needed), a bibliography, further notes, and a couple of African tales Kossula told to Ms. Hurston. It felt as though the editor was just trying to make it book-length in order to get it published, with all the inclusions.
I'm very glad I read it, and I'll be thinking of Kossula for a long time. However, I'm disappointed and feel cheated (I know, silly, but I think this is something a lot of book-lovers can relate to at some point) that it was so brief and yet the book seemed like it would be longer. Perhaps if I'd realised ahead of time that half the book was written by others, I wouldn't feel so disappointed by its brevity.
Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Oluale Kossola before he died in the 1930's to create this first-person narrative by one of the last people to be transported to the United States through the middle passage. It is interesting in that, among the existing records of that period in time, it is written from the perspective of someone who lived slavery rather than perpetuated it. It wasn't written with an agenda. It is a record of a history.
It is a story of a culture and a life lived far from home and family because of human greed.
"I hailed him by his African name as I walked up the steps to his porch, and he looked up into my face as I stood in the door in surprise." pg 17
Hurston records Kossola's responses to her questions phonetically, which makes you feel like you're sitting there with her, listening to the remembrances of Kossola as he says them.
In the introduction by Deborah G. Plant, she captures this feeling: "The narrative space she creates for Kossula's unburdening is sacred. Rather than insert herself into the narrative as the learned and probing cultural anthropologist, the investigating ethnographer, or the authorial writer, Zora Neale Hurston, in her still listening, assumes the office of a priest." pg xxv
I think, as someone looking back, it's important to understand the transportation of slaves into the U.S. was made illegal in 1808, fifty years before Kossula was taken from his home. It's a piece of American history that has been almost entirely forgotten.
"Of the thousands of Africans smuggled into American after 1808, only one man was held accountable and hanged, and even he died proclaiming his innocence." pg 132
In Barracoon, not only are we given the story of Kossula's transportation in life in the U.S., but also, he shares fascinating details of his life in Africa. There's information about the justice system, social structure, rites of initiation and more.
In addition to his life story, Kossula shares fables he created to share his feeling of loss about his family as he outlived all of his children and wife. I enjoyed this folk lore part of the book the most.
There's some controversy surrounding this book. Apparently, Hurston published a magazine article about Kossula early in the last century and was accused by later scholars of plagiarism.
"Of the sixty-seven paragraphs in Hurston's essay," Hemenway relates, "only eighteen are exclusively her own prose." pg 120
The text in question is Emma Langdon Roche's Historic Sketches of the South, that was published in 1917. The full text is available from the U.S. Library of Congress and can be accessed online. That's how I read it and was able to see some of the similarities in the writing.
However, the interview portions of this book, written in Kossola's distinctive style of speaking, are entirely unique. As the editor of this book points out, Hurston was never accused of plagiarism in her works after writing about Kossola and it was very early in her career. We all make mistakes.
Recommended for any readers interested in history. Barracoon is a treasure.
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...