Zora Neale Hurston’s Book ‘Barracoon’ Tells Story of Last Surviving Black Slave in US
The manuscript chronicles the life history of Cudjoe Lewis, who was captured from Dahomey, in what is today Benin in West Africa.
10 May 2018 | Staff | teleSUR
In a milieu rife with hate crimes, and police brutality against Black people in the United States, Zora Neale Hurston’s recently released book, “Barracoon; or the Last Black Cargo” makes an essential read as it contextualizes the white supremacy and humanizes the life of a slave which for the most part is a rarity in the canon of Black literature in the United States.
Hurston who died in 1960 has left behind an extensive literary legacy of prominent writings, ranging from anthropological works to fiction. She is most known for her seminal work, “Their Eyes Were Watching Us” in 1937 novel, which came at the tail-end of the Harlem Renaissance, in which she describes the precarious plight of “strong Black women” as the “mules of the world” through a strong Black woman’s character.
The 117-page manuscript published by Harper Collins chronicles the life history of Cudjoe Lewis, who was born in West Africa, abducted and sold as a slave in Alabama six years before the Civil War ended. He was 86 when Zora Neale Hurston interviewed him.
Lewis along with 116 other Africans were captured from Dahomey, in what is today Benin in West Africa, in May 1859 and sold to Captain Foster. Foster who was traveling at the request of the Mehear brothers, three U.S. slave traders originally from Maine but who later relocated to Alabama where they operated a shipyard.
After three months, the newly enslaved were sold at Mobile Bay in Alabama, where the ship was docked but since the transatlantic slave trade was abolished some fifty years earlier, once the Mehears landed on U.S. soil the ship was “scuttled and fired,” the remains of which were later found at the bottom of Mobile Bay.
The literature on the African slave trade, Hurston wrote, had endless “words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.” And through the book, Hurston seems to have managed to not be Lewis’ voice but instead use his voice.
Through this essential piece of literature, critics have marked one of Hurston’s most eminent contribution as giving the ownership of Black persons who were transported through the Atlantic against their own will back to them.
The text which is just a little over a hundred typed pages is narrated mostly in Lewis’ voice, in which he recounts anecdotes about his childhood in Africa, the Middle Passage, the five years he spent enslaved, and his post-emancipation life.
The work, which Hurston once described as a testament to Lewis’s “remarkable memory,” details his cultural traditions, games, folktales, religious practices, and day-to-day activities. According to HarperCollins, the book “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.”
The work, which took a little less than 90 years to make it to the press, also has a long history of rejections at the hands of editors it was shared with during the 1930s when it should’ve first been published.
“In 1930, Hurston floated the idea past Mason: “In the last chapters of the book I shall let Kossula tell his little parables. When I see you next tell me what you think of the idea.” Evidently, Mason didn’t think much of the idea. Not only did Hurston end up reducing the parables to a list, but the collection was never published during Hurston’s lifetime,” Autumn Womack, a New Jersey-based scholar and a professor of African American Studies and English at Princeton University, wrote in Paris Review about Hurston’s book.
“Slavery and its ‘pernicious legacy’ does, indeed, continue to ‘haunt’ us. We are, as many scholars have put it, living in the afterlife of slavery,” Womack wrote.
Saidiya Hartman, a professor who specializes in African American literature and history at the Columbia University, wrote, “If slavery exists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery–skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”
Hurston who frequently exchanged letters with Langston Hughes, while she was researching for the book in the South, concluded in a 1929 letter, “OH! almost forgot. Found another one of the original Africans, older than Cudjoe about 200 miles upstate on the Tombighee river. She is most delightful, but no one will ever know about her but us. She is a better talker than Cudjoe.”
My father he name O-lo-loo-ay. He not a rich man. He have three wives. My mama she name Ny-fond-lo-loo. She de second wife. My mama have one son befo’ me so I her second child. She have four mo’ chillun after me, but dat ain’ all de chillun my father got. He got nine by de first wife and three by de third wife.
In de compound I play games wid all de chillun. We wrassle wid one ’nother. We see which one kin run de fastest. We clam de palm tree wid coconut on it and we eatee dat, we go in de woods and hunt de pineapple and banana.
One day de chief send word to de compound. He want see all de boys dat done see fourteen rainy seasons. Dat makee me very happy because I think he goin’ send me to de army. But in de Affica soil dey teachee de boys long time befo’ dey go in de army. First de fathers (elders) takee de boys on journey to hunt. Dey got to learn de step on de ground (tracks). De fathers teachee us to know a place for de house (camp site). We shoot de arrows from de bow. We chunkee spear. We kill de beastes and fetchee dem home wid us.
I so glad I goin’ be a man and fight in de army lak my big brothers. Every year dey teachee us mo’ war. But de king, Akia’on, say he doan go make no war. He make us strong so nobody doan make war on us. Four, five rainy seasons it keep on lak dat, den I grow tall and big. I kin run in de bush all day and not be tired.
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. One traitor from Takkoi (Cudjo’s village), he a very bad man and he go straight in de Dahomey and say to de king, “I show you how to takee Takkoi.” He tellee dem de secret of de gates. (The town had eight gates, intended to provide various escape routes in the event of an attack.)
Derefore, dey come make war, but we doan know dey come fight us. Dey march all night long and we in de bed sleep. It bout daybreak when de people of Dahomey breakee de Great Gate. I not woke yet. I hear de yell from de soldiers while dey choppee de gate. Derefore I jump out de bed and lookee. I see de great many soldiers wid French gun in de hand and de big knife. 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 people gittee kill so fast!
Everybody dey run to de gates so dey kin hide deyself in de bush, you unnerstand me. I runnee fast to de gate but some de men from Dahomey dey dere too. I runnee to de nexy gate but dey dere too. Dey surround de whole town. One gate lookee lak nobody dere so I make haste and runnee towards de bush. But soon as I out de gate dey grabee me, and tie de wrist. I beg dem, please lemme go back to my mama, but dey don’t pay whut I say no ’tenshun.
While dey ketchin’ me, de king of my country (Akia’on) he come out de gate, and dey grabee him. Dey take him in de bush where de king of Dahomey wait wid some chiefs. When he see our king, he say to his soldiers, “Bring me de word-changer” (interpreter). When de word-changer came he say, “Astee dis man why he put his weakness agin’ de Lion of Dahomey?” Akia’on say to de Dahomey king, “Why don’t you fight lak men? Why you doan come in de daytime so dat we could meet face to face?”
Den de king of Dahomey say, “Git in line to go to Dahomey so de nations kin see I conquer you.”
Akia’on say, “I ain’ goin’ to Dahomey. I born a king in Takkoi where my father and his fathers rule. I not be no slave.”
De king of Dahomey askee him, “You not goin’ to Dahomey?”
He tell him, “No, I ain’ goin’. ”
De king of Dahomey doan say no mo’. One woman soldier step up wid de machete and chop off de head of de king, and pick it off de ground and hand it to de king of Dahomey. When I think ’bout dat time I try not to cry no mo’. My eyes dey stop cryin’ but de tears runnee down inside me all de time. I no see none my family.
All day dey make us walk. De sun so hot. De king of Dahomey, he ride in de hammock and de chiefs wid him dey got hammock too. Dey tie us in de line so nobody run off. In dey hand dey got de head of de people dey kill in Takkoi. Some got two, three head. Oh Lor’ I wish dey bury dem! I doan lak see my people head in de soldier hands; and de smell makee me so sick.
After a three-day forced march, the party arrived at the coast; Cudjo had never seen the ocean before.
When we git in de place dey put us in a barracoon behind a big white house and dey feed us some rice. We see many ships in de sea, but we cain see so good ’cause de white house, it ’tween us and de sea. But Cudjo see de white men, and dass somethin’ he ain’ never seen befo’.
De barracoon we in ain’ de only slave pen at the place. Sometime we holler back and forth and find out where each other come from. But each nation in a barracoon by itself. We not so sad now, and we all young folks so we play game and clam up de side de barracoon so we see whut goin’ on outside.
When we dere three weeks a white man come in de barracoon wid two men of de Dahomey. Dey make everybody stand in a ring. Den de white man lookee and lookee. He lookee hard at de skin and de feet and de legs and in de mouth. Den he choose. Every time he choose a man he choose a woman. He take sixty-five men wid a woman for each man. Den de white man go way. But de people of Dahomey come bring us lot of grub for us to eatee ’cause dey say we goin’ leave dere. We eatee de big feast. Den we cry, we sad ’cause we doan want to leave the rest of our people in de barracoon. We all lonesome for our home. We doan know whut goin’ become of us.