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Review: In Zora Neale Hurston's 'Barracoon,' the voice of slavery's history speaks

Cudjo Lewis 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, as recounted in her newly published book "Barracoon." [Courtesy of McGill Studio Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama]
Published May 9, 2018

It has taken Zora Neale Hurston's book Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" 87 years to see print. But maybe it happened at just the right time.

Just a week before the book's May 8 publication date, rapper Kanye West opined in a TMZ interview, "When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... For 400 years? That sounds like a choice." Based on Hurston's interviews almost a century ago with an elderly African man living in Alabama who was the last known survivor of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Barracoon is a true story that illustrates just how absurd that is.

The book's title is a word for the pens in which millions of kidnapped Africans were held in ports along the West African coast before being crowded onto ships for the dreadful trip, known as the Middle Passage, to the slave markets of the Americas.

Hurston's subject, Cudjo Lewis, originally named Kossula, passed through a barracoon at about age 19, between his early life in a Yoruba village in what is now Benin and his enslavement on the other side of the Atlantic.

He was captured, along with more than 100 other villagers, in a bloody predawn raid by the fierce female soldiers of the king of Dahomey, a major power in the slave trade. They were marched for three days to the port of Ouidah. This occurred in 1859, more than 50 years after the U.S. Congress had outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade (although slavery itself was still legal in many states), but the profitable enterprise persisted. On the brink of the Civil War, four American businessmen sent a fast vessel named the Clotilda to bring a cargo of Africans to Alabama, in what would be the last known Middle Passage trip. Cudjo Lewis was among them.

When Hurston came to the town of Plateau, Ala. (originally called Africatown and founded by freed slaves, including Lewis), in 1927 to interview him, Lewis was in his 80s and had been free for more than 60 years. But his memories were achingly clear.

Hurston was there to conduct anthropological fieldwork. She is best known for her fiction, especially the classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. But she attended Howard University and Barnard College and trained and worked as a cultural anthropologist and folklorist with such pioneers in the field as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and Carter Woodson. Her research was the basis for her nonfiction books, such as Mules and Men and Tell My Horse.

Hurston's own life is, of course, a complex and fascinating story. The granddaughter of slaves, she was born in 1891 in Alabama and raised in the all-black Florida town of Eatonville, where her father served as mayor. She gained success as a scholar, author, journalist and teacher in the mid 20th century. But her last decade was spent in obscurity; she died in 1960 in Fort Pierce and was buried in a grave that was unmarked until author Alice Walker, who contributed a foreword to Barracoon, went searching for it in 1974.

This book has languished in obscurity even longer. Hurston published an article about Lewis in 1928 that was criticized for plagiarism of another writer's work. She gathered more material and conducted more interviews with Lewis, and then wrote Barracoon. But when she submitted it to publishers in 1931, it was rejected. One factor was her insistence on re-creating Lewis' dialect, still heavily influenced by his native language, when quoting him.

As Walker writes in the foreword, Hurston felt that "dialect was a vital and authenticating feature of the narrative" from an anthropological point of view, and she refused to alter it. Lewis' story was too unique and valuable. Hurston describes him as "(t)he only man on earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home; the horrors of a slave raid; the barracoon; the Lenten tones of slavery; and who has sixty-seven years of freedom in a foreign land behind him."

Lewis' dialect does require some patience from the reader, but it soon becomes familiar. And the story he tells Hurston rewards that patience, although it's often horrifying and heartbreaking. Hurston doesn't subtract herself from the narrative; she recounts how she develops a relationship with her sometimes resistant subject, bringing him peaches and hams, helping him work in his garden on days he doesn't feel like talking. It's a technique that brings both of them to life in all their humanity, etching all the more sharply the cruelties inflicted on Lewis and all of the enslaved.

His most vivid memories, it seems, are those of the raid and the slow dawning afterward of what slavery will mean to him and his friends. Their families, their languages, their very names were stripped away, yet he remembered all those years later, when he had outlived his beloved wife and their six children.

Barracoon was edited by Deborah Plant, who co-founded the Africana studies department at the University of South Florida and served as its chairwoman for several years. Plant, who has written extensively about Hurston and her work, provides a detailed introduction and afterword that put the book into its historical and literary context, including an insightful discussion of how Lewis' story helped Hurston to understand how some Africans became slave traders.

But Hurston's account of Lewis' life is the centerpiece of the volume. Near the end of Barracoon, she describes a poignant scene when she finally persuades Lewis to let her photograph him.

"?'I'm glad you takee my picture,'e_STnS" he says. "?'I want see how I look. Once long time ago somebody come take my picture but they never give me one. You give me one.'

"I agreed. He went inside to dress for the picture. When he came out I saw that he had put on his best suit but removed his shoes. 'I want to look lak I in Affica, 'cause dat where I want to be.'?"

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow
@colettemb.

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