Since January 7 marked Zora Neale Hurston’s (1891-1960) birthday, this blog looks at one of her books. Hurston’s book, Barracoon: The story of the last “Black Cargo”, tells the oral history of Cudjo Lewis as she recorded it in 1927.
Zora Neale Hurston was a talented anthropologist, ethnographer, folklorist, filmmaker and novelist. Her first interview with Cudjo Lewis occurred when she was sent by her mentor, anthropologist Franz Boas to record Lewis’ story for an article in the Journal of Negro History. This article was published in the journal later that year (Hurston, 1927). Hurston was later funded by a white patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason (Hurston, 2018, p. xix), to travel to Alabama to talk to Cudjo Lewis, also known as Oluale Kossola (d. 1935), and record his life story for a book.
Cudjo Lewis was a survivor of the Clotilda, the last known ship to have imported Africans illegally into the U.S. to enslave them. The book reminds us that the slave trade had been outlawed 50 years before when Clotilda made this journey. The narrative that Hurston recorded provides some sense of the horrifying experiences endured by some 3,873,600 Africans that Deborah Plant – who edited Hurston’s book — identifies in the introduction as having been “exchanged for gold, guns, and other European and American merchandise” in the period from 1801 to 1866 (p. xvii). Told across twelve chapters and 112 pages, Cudjo Lewis’ oral history recounts his life growing up in the town of Bantè, Benin, the raid in which he was captured, his confinement in barracoons at Ouidah, his transportation, and life in slavery and after emancipation. Readers also learn about the tragic experiences he endured with the premature death of his children.
Throughout the book, Hurston situates herself in relation to the narrator whom she represents. We see how she brought gifts for Cudjo, engaged him in informal conversation, and enjoyed eating crabs and peaches with him. When Cudjo wants to get rid of her quickly (p. 51), Hurston joins him in doing chores instead. Hurston is quick to attend to how the re-telling of his traumatic capture transported Cudjo to a different time and place. She notes (p. 49):
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.
Although Hurston’s book recording Lewis’ life story was completed and submitted for publication in 1931 (Alter, 2018), it was not published until 2018. Throughout the story, Hurston used dialect, which entails more work on the part of the reader. Her use of dialect appears to have been one reason why Hurston was not able to publish the book in the 1930s. Hurston, however, remained true to her narrator and refused to re-write the book in a “language other than dialect” as suggested (Alter, 2018).
In an intriguing post-script to the publication of Hurston’s book, until the publication of Hannah Durkin’s article (2019) on Sally ‘Redoshi’ Smith (d. 1937), it was believed that Cudjo Lewis was the last living survivor of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the United States. Durkin (2019, p. 631) quotes from a letter that Zora Neale Hurston wrote to Langston Hughes in 1928, where she indicates that during her visit to Alabama, she met another survivor from the last slave ship, the Clotilda, who was older than Lewis. In her article, Durkin pieces together the life of Sally Smith (‘Redoshi’) from multiple sources, including Hurston’s unpublished writing, an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser, a 1938 film released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – The Negro Farmer: Extension Work for Better Farming and Better Living, and in U.S. Civil Rights Movement leader, Amelia Boynton Robinson’s memoir (Durkin 2019, p. 633).
For anyone wanting to learn more about Zora Neale Hurston’s life, you might read a graphic novel that tells her life story: Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge (2017). To learn more about Hurston’s contributions to the Federal Writers’ Project see Catherine Stewart’s book (2016) Long past slavery: Representing race in the Federal Writers’ Project, for which you will find my review here: https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/WPBJM9UV5QPFCXWYYQFF/full?target=10.1080/00131946.2019.1703706
Alter, A. (2018, May 4). A work by Zora Neale Huston will finally be published, Book news. The New York Times, p. 13.
Bagge, P. (2017). Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story Drawn and Quarterly
Durkin, H. (2019). Finding last middle passage survivor Sally ‘Redoshi’ Smith on the page and screen. Slavery & Abolition, 40(4), 631-658. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2019.1596397
Hurston, Z. N. (1927). Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver. The Journal of Negro History, 12(4), 648-663. doi:10.2307/2714041
Hurston, Z. N. (2018). Barracoon: The story of the last “Black Cargo” (D. G. Plant Ed.). New York: Amistad.
Stewart, C. A. (2016). Long past slavery: Representing race in the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.