“In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, to interview ninety-five-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 Clotilde, 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 brilliantly illuminates the tragedy of slavery and 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.” (via Goodreads)
Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon is an astonishing book. Born Oluale Kossula to the Igbo people of Nigeria, he was captured in a raid by the Dahomey king. He was then sold to several white men and shipped, along with 109 of his villagers and one very unlucky Dahomey nobleman to Georgia. There he was renamed Cudjo Lewis. By the time Hurston arrived to interview him in 1927, the rest of his enslaved villagers were long dead. Kossula was, in his own words, “edem etie ukum edem eti upar,” or a single tree made from two woods. In other words, he was a man who was free in Africa and enslaved in America.
As Hurston points out, the story of slavery is filled with “words from the seller, but one word from the sold.” Yes, there are dozens of slave narratives, but nearly all are from the perspective of African Americans who either escaped slavery or were eventually freed. Kossula’s perspective is inherently different from someone like Solomon Northup or Josiah Henson. So much so that although both Africans and African Americans were enslaved together, the latter often treated the former as lesser. America is a nation founded on the notion of always finding someone to belittle in an attempt to bolster your own feelings of self-worth. That African/African American friction later leads to some dark circumstances involving Kossula’s sons and leaves him bitter and desperately lonely.
Coming from Igboland, Kossula and his compatriots filter their experiences in America through their particular cultural lense. Even once they’re free, they build a town – Africatown, now called Plateau – and select a leader and spouses based on their traditional practices. Kossula and his wife Abilé even give each child a private African name and a public American one.
Barracoon is simultaneously a painful memoir of a former slave and a chronicle of the interviewer’s personal reactions to that story. We get to know not just Kossula but Hurston as well. Some interview sessions are lush with detail, others he won’t even see her. Hurston adds all of that to Barracoon. In one especially haunting scene after Kossula recalls the horrors of the Dahomey raid on his village and how he was forced to travel from his decimated homeland to the barracoon as the Dahomey warriors carried the decapitated heads of his friends and families tied to their belts. Eventually, the memories overwhelm him and he stops talking. Hurston writes, “Kossula was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He had forgotten that I was there. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke. His agony was so acute that he became inarticulate. He never noticed my preparation to leave him. So I slipped away as quietly as possible and left him with his smoke pictures.”
Hurston often expresses frustration with how much time Kossula spends speaking about his African cultural traditions and his early life across the water, but for me it provided a crucial layer of understanding. My mother raised me on traditional African folktales rather than fairytales with happy endings. If you’ve never read Indigenous folktales, they tend to differ from fairytales in that they don’t have a moral or teach a lesson but simply describe the world and why things are the way they are. So when Kossula, who later becomes the sexton in his Baptist church, tells a parable, he does so with African influences. His story of Jonah and the whale gets filtered through his cultural perspective until it resembles a folktale rather than true parable. It’s utterly fascinating.
It should be mentioned that Hurston does take some liberties with Barracoon. She makes some unfounded suppositions and fails to accurately cite all of her sources. But her errors don’t diminish Kossula’s story. For me, what is so appealing about history isn’t dates and facts (although both are important) but people’s experiences and interpretations. Hurston gets some facts wrong, but not Kossula’s account.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ is a devastating yet vital book. If this were a just world, it would be on every high school US History syllabus starting this fall. It is shocking, powerful, and eye-opening. I will never stop thinking about Kossula. Hurston has burned him onto my heart. It redefines Africa’s relationship with slavery and redefines slavery itself. I don’t care if you don’t like non-fiction or history or whatever other excuses you can come up with. You need to read this book, and you need to read it right the fuck now.
“I tell him, ‘Cap’n Tim, I grieve for my home.’
“He say, ‘But you got a good home, Cudjo.’
“Cudjo say, ‘Cap’n Tim, how big is de Mobile?’
“‘I doan know, Cudjo, I’ve never been to de four corners.’
“‘Well, if you give Cudjo all de Mobile, dat railroad, and all de banks, Cudjo doan want it ’cause it ain’ home. Cap’n Tim, you brought us from our country where we had lan’. You made us slave. Now dey make us free but we ain’ got no country and we ain’ got no lan’! Why doan you give us piece dis land so we kin buildee ourself a home?’
“Cap’n jump on his feet and say, ‘Fool do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property? I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothin? You doan belong to me now, why must I give you my lan’?’
Cudjo tell Gumpa call de people together and he tell dem whut Cap’n Tim say. Dey say, ‘Well we buy ourself a piece of lan’.’
“We workee hard and save, and eat molassee and bread and buy de land from de Meaher. Dey doan take off one five cent from de price for us. But we pay it all and take de lan’.”
Do the world a favor and buy this from your local indie bookstore or get it from your public library.