Zora Neale Hurston Curates a Life Story Spanning Africa, the Middle Passage, and the Jim Crow South

Book review: Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston

Though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going. It may be true, and often is, that every person we hold dear is taken from us. Still. From moment to moment, we watch our beans and our watermelons grow. We plant. We hoe. We harvest. We share with neighbors. If a young anthropologist appears with two hams and gives us one, we look forward to enjoying it.
Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go.
Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears.

Those are Alice Walker’s words from her introduction to Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston’s long-unpublished account of the last survivor of the last transport in the transatlantic slave trade. In addition to being her usual beautiful, emotional writing, she sums up perfectly why I found this narrative so meaningful. Not only is it an extraordinary historical record, but the lessons it subtly imparts are powerful. Heartbreaking, but powerful.

Hurston is, inarguably, one of the most influential authors in the modern American literary canon, not to mention the importance of her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. It seems incredible that a work like this, with so much historical significance from such a historically notable, and just plain beloved, author was allowed to languish for nearly a century but it’s true.

In 1931, she had finished Barracoon, her book-length treatment of her interviews with Cudjo Lewis, or Oluale Kossola, his African name. But she couldn’t get it published, with publishers insisting she adapt Cudjo’s vernacular to some type of generalized American English. Hurston refused, rightly so, and the manuscript was shelved.

Hurston’s insistence on keeping Kossola’s words in this cultural vernacular, without any polishing into something less dialectical, was obviously the right decision, and I can’t believe it’s what kept the book from seeing the light of day. There’s an example right there in the story, when he shows unbridled delight in Hurston’s addressing him by Kossola, his African name. Words matter.

The vernacular isn’t difficult to understand (I would imagine this to be the case for any American native speaker, beyond this subset could be more difficult) and it goes so far in creating a portrait of Kossola as a person. I can’t imagine him being rendered otherwise. Some of the language was incredible too – describing established procedures between tribes in Africa, he calls interpreters “word-changers”. I learned so much just from his language.

Published this year for the first time, it hurts a little to think we could’ve had this book amongst the annals of American literature for nearly 100 years already. It is an education entirely unto itself.

Kossola came to the US on the ship Clotilda, smuggled by Southern planters defying US piracy laws against the slave trade then in place. When Hurston travels from New York to interview him, he’s living in Africatown, established by freed slaves in Alabama. He’s alone but for his daughter-in-law and granddaughters,his big family tragically having succumbed to illness, accidents, and heartbreak, but seems ensconced in the close-knit community they’ve built there.

Hurston wanted to record his memories of experiences that encompassed so much – his happiness recalling growing up in Africa; the events of the slave raid and the barracoons, the holding pens before captives were transferred to the slave ships; what he endured as a slave in America and in the Jim Crow South; and finally his place in a community of free people. She was an anthropologist after all, working to preserve African-American folk culture, and his being a part of – and surviving – so many unique chapters of history was a story that couldn’t be allowed to go untold. Hurston is careful and considerate in letting him tell his story conversationally with her, and in knowing when to let silence prevail. “Kossula got that remote look in his eyes and I knew he had withdrawn within himself.”

And the stories he has to tell are extraordinary, not to mention his lively, lyrical way of telling them and relating fables. They’re beautiful recollections of his life and the culture he knew – and desperately missed – in Africa, of his family, his love for his wife and his gardens, how he and other former slaves built lives for themselves in Alabama once they realized returning home to the country they were “lonely” for wouldn’t be possible.

The 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.
How does one sleep with such memories beneath the pillow? How does a pagan live with a Christian God? How has the Nigerian “heathen” borne up under the process of civilization?
I was sent to ask.

So Kossola tells his stories in his own words, expressing joy and horror, scenes of peace and happy remembrance and ones that are harrowing and haunting. I knew too little about the logistics of how people were actually enslaved, what they went through even before the torturous Middle Passage journey to America. It seems painfully obvious, but the vivid depictions here leave nothing to the imagination, and we owe it to bear witness to this ugliest chapter of history, and to the experiences of “the only survivor of this last cargo.”

It feels flawed in that it’s so brief. The book is padded out with introductions, explanations, and various historical notes about Kossola’s narrative and Hurston’s work with him. It didn’t seem finished somehow, even with Hurston’s own introduction to how she came to help tell his story, and I had to wonder if she’d intended to add something more around the time it was originally planned for publication.

The book’s editor Deborah G. Plant writes:

Though nearly a century has passed between the completion of the final draft of her manuscript and the publication of Barracoon, the questions it raises about slavery and freedom, greed and glory, personal sovereignty and our common humanity are as important today as they were during Kossola’s lifetime.

What a shame both that we had to wait so long to read this and that it couldn’t have the final touches put on it by Hurston herself. I would’ve loved to have read more of her own brilliant writing in relation to Kossola and the subjects she explores with him.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”
by Zora Neale Hurston
published May 8, 2018 by Harper Collins

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11 thoughts on “Zora Neale Hurston Curates a Life Story Spanning Africa, the Middle Passage, and the Jim Crow South

    1. Thank you so much, Ina! It’s really interesting, you should definitely read it, there’s so much to learn from it. He did miss Africa, deeply – I didn’t touch on what he says about it here because it’s so meaningful to read in his own words. He and others wanted to go back but it was too expensive for the ship passage so they settled in the US but their hearts weren’t in it. When Hurston took his photo, he wore his best suit and bare feet because he said that’s how it was in Africa and that’s where he wanted to be. It’s heartbreaking but I’m glad his stories are finally told.

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  1. I’ve been distant from blogging since going away on holiday but I’m coming back now and I’m catching up!! Love this review, it’s a book I’ve had my eye on to read as I don’t feel I read nearly enough of this kind of non-fiction. Excellent to know it’s worth it 🙂

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    1. Great to see you back, you were missed! Hope you had a lovely vacation! 🙂 This one was excellent, incredibly moving and a departure from what I normally read too, but a very necessary one! Looking forward to hearing what you think of it!

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  2. Fantastic review, I have this one to read, it’s on the TBR for next month, I’ve been slacking in my non-fiction, not one single nonfiction read this month, and I’ve got some highly anticipated ones on my TBR 🙂

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    1. Well, to be fair, I know summer’s not usually anyone’s go-to nonfiction reading time, so you’re surely in good company!! I can’t wait to hear what you think of this one, it had me very emotional. And I’m excited to see what else you have coming up, you always have such great nonfiction picks!!

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  3. Thank you. I too know too little about the logistics of how people were actually enslaved, but I’m about to find out, as Barracoon is in my stack of books, new in the last week or so. Thanks for riding out ahead of me on this one, I’ll look forward to reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

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