“…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’. “
Barracoon – An enclosure in which black slaves were confined for a limited period.
-Oxford English Dictionary
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.
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 article
Then 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
———-5/8/2018 – hardcover
———-1/7/20 – Trade paperback
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
—–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
—–NY Times – May 26, 2019 – ‘Ship of Horror’: Discovery of the Last Slave Ship to America Brings New Hope to an Old Community – By Richard Fausset
—–National Geographic – January, 2020 – America’s last slave ship stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities. – much more information about the Clotilda’s criminal mission, and about the lives of the men and women it transported and their descendants
—–Nw York Times – Last Known Slave Ship Is Remarkably Well Preserved, Researchers Say by Michael Levenson
—–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.”