“Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’”
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Edited by Deborah G. Plant
Foreword by Alice Walker
Publisher: Amistad (HarperCollins Publishers)
Price: $24.99 (Hardcover)
There was a time when Zora Neale Hurston and her writings were, indeed, nearly forgotten. In her remarkable article in “Ms.” magazine in 1975, “Looking for Zora,” Alice Walker brought attention to Hurston’s life and work, and attention has been paid, pretty steadily, ever since.
Robert Hemenway did a literary biography in 1980, then Valerie Boyd in 2003 published “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.” Only a few months ago the relationship between Hurston and Langston Hughes was examined in “Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal” by Yuval Taylor and recently there has been a lot of interest in the rediscovery and examination of the “Clotilda,” the last, albeit illegal, slave ship, in Mobile Bay.
This ties in perfectly with the publication, finally, of “Barracoon.”
On a couple of earlier folklore-gathering expeditions in the South, Hurston had met and chatted with Cudjo Lewis, whose African name was Kossola Olualay. Starting in December 1927, for about three months, Hurston moved to Mobile and interviewed Lewis extensively. Lewis, 88 years old, was thought to be the last person in America who had been born and lived in Africa, and been brought to America and sold into slavery. Of the Yoruba people, he had been born in 1841 in West Africa.
He had been interviewed before and was not eager for the spotlight. Cudjo was a man of great dignity, and Hurston had to win his confidence and friendship. Some days he wanted to be left alone to tend his garden. Other days he was willing to reminisce, to tell his story.
And what a story.
King Ghezo of Dahomey in West Africa, we learn, kept his people in a constant state of warfare with his neighbors. The Dahomey had a standing army of about 12,000, and 5,000 of these were Amazons, fierce female warriors who showed no mercy. Ghezo claimed that raiding and capturing slaves was essential to the culture of the Dahomey. In a sense it was since, perpetually at war, they did not have time to pursue agriculture.
When they raided, the aged and any resisters were decapitated at once, the remaining captured and brought first to the Dahomey village. Those not killed as sacrifices in the spring festivals were taken to the coast and kept in a barracoon, a wooden stockade.
Cudjo relates all this, as well as what village life had been like among his people, including a stunning description of the Yoruba death penalty.
This deserves a moment of its own. Cudjo’s Yoruba people were a peaceful community but there was law and order. The victim and the person convicted of murder were brought into the public square. Then after considerable dancing and ceremony, “men rush out and seize the murderer an’ take-a de palm cord and stretch him face to face upon de dead man, an tie him tight so he cain move hisself.”
The victim and murderer are wrapped leg to leg, body to body, nose to nose. “His lips touch de lips of de corpse. So dey leave him.”
People watch until the convicted man dies.
“How long it take? Sometime he die next day. Sometime two or three days. He doan live long. People kin stand de smell of de horse, de cow and de udder beasts, but no man kin stand de smell in his nostrils of a rotten man.”
Now that’s what I call a deterrent!
Cudjo describes his capture at age 19, the travails of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic with 115 fellow villagers, his arrival in Mobile and his five years of slavery. This is that rarest of literary phenomena, the first-hand account.
As Hurston reminds us, there had been reams of writing about the slave trade “but not one word from the sold….not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the ‘black ivory,’ the ‘coin of Africa,’ had no market value.”
(Readers today may wonder why this book was not published when completed, in the early 1930s. It would have been a sensation then, as it is now. Viking Press and other publishers did express interest, but wanted Lewis’ colorful language as it had been taken down, often phonetically, by Hurston, made more conventional. Hurston refused.)
Cudjo tells of his labors as a slave on a riverboat under “Capt. Jim,” whom he describes a decent master, and of his travails in the Jim Crow era.
After Emancipation, a surprise to Cudjo and his mates, Cudjo and his fellows first thought to return to Africa but that proved impossible due to the expense. So, they formed Africatown outside Mobile, lived there as best they could, more or less by their own laws and mores, converted to Christianity, and endured poverty and prejudice, being cheated by white businessmen and lawyers. Nevertheless, they survived, building a life, a church, a community.
Lewis and his wife had six children. Sadly, most died before them. Except for Hurston’s work, Kossula Olualay and his story would certainly have been forgotten. Reading “Barracoon,” one realizes what a shame that would have been.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.