REVIEWED: Barracoon

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Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (Historical Folk Memoir, 2018).

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the bright lights in the flowering of African-American culture centered in Harlem in the 1920s. An acclaimed novelist, antropologist and folklorist, she published numerous short stories, nonfiction articles, essays and seven books in her lifetime (the most famous being the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God). She died in 1960.

So how is it that we have this new book, published only this year?

In fact, this would’ve been her very first book-length work, had not the onset of the Great Depression and the temper of the times made publishers unwilling to put it out in the way Hurston insisted. The story of the last living ex-slave, smuggled into the US on the last slave-carrying ship would’ve been a tough sell in any case. And that Hurston insisted on presenting this illiterate old man’s words as is, without ‘cleaning up’ his dialect into ‘proper’ English was a deal-breaker for some.

Another factor was the discomfort many felt in the role of black Africans who were complicit in the whole nasty business of capturing other native people for re-sale in distant lands.

And so, only now and through the charitable efforts of the Zora Neale Hurston Trust, along with modern-day editor Deborah G. Plant and novelist Alice Walker (the latter provides a moving, insightful foreword) that the book has seen print.

Regarding the title: Barracoon is the Spanish word for a barracks. In this case it refers to the structures where African people were held captive before being sold as slaves and put aboard slaving ships for the voyage to the Americas or Europe. This somewhat brief but compelling nonfiction book details the remembered experiences of the last known living person from the very last such ship to sneak its way into the American South just prior to the Civil War.

Kossola was a young man of one of the small nations of the Yoruba people (in or near modern-day Nigeria) when his village was attacked and he (among others) was kidnapped by Dahomian warriors. The King of Dahomey had organized his entire national economy around capturing then selling neighboring peoples to white slave ships. And so, in 1860, Kossola and just over one hundred others were packed aboard a ship called the Clotilda and brought to Alabama. Although slavery was still legal in the American South, importing new slaves had long been outlawed. In fact, the Clotilda was very last ship to smuggle recently-free people into the US.

Renamed Cudjo Lewis, he was only officially a slave for about five years, until the end of the Civil War. Unable to afford a trip home, he and other Africans built a life for themselves near Mobile. First they rented land from one of their former ‘owners’ until they earned enough cash to buy the site outright and found their own town. Interestingly, Africatown had only a few American-born ex-slaves (mostly husbands, wives and new children of foreign-born individuals like Cudjo and his wife). This was in part because American-born slaves often looked down upon the new arrivals–a form of prejudice these Africans experienced that other accounts of pre- and post-war society seldom note.

As a man who wasn’t enslaved till after he was an adult and then only for a few years Cudjo (or Kossola) has a somewhat different perspective on the ‘peculiar institution’ and its tortured aftermath than one who was born into it.

Anyway, years passed, people lived out their lives and died, until the late 1920s. By now Cudjo was in his late 80s and the last ‘real African’ around. He had no formal education, his wife and children had all passed on (some from heartbreaking violence). He was lonely and illiterate–but he was a born storyteller with a great memory. Editor notes at the book’s end attest to the accuracy of his accounts.

Zora Neale Hurston was then at the very beginning of her career as a researcher and writer, she came to record the man’s extraordinary life story in his own words and this book is the result.

I do wish to note that Cudjo’s account takes getting used to. But after a few pages, one gets the hang of his idioms and expressions. He was, indeed, a master storyteller and all evidence indicates his story is accurate and truthful, both inspiring and deeply sad.

Very much a one-of-a-kind narrative, reportedly already on the best-seller lists and I highly recommend it.

 

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