Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston, is one of the most powerfully written books I’ve ever read. It is the account of the life of one of the last slaves brought to America on the slave ship, the Clotilda. Hurston conducted extensive interviews with Cudjo Lewis, née Kossula, and learned the heartbreaking story of his early life in Africa, his capture and sale to the slave traders, his brutal experiences as a slave, and his life after emancipation.
As Kossula tells Hurston, he shared his life with her out of a desire to be known and remembered: “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’”
from the Zora Neale Hurston website:
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.
In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past — memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.
Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon 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.
This man’s story is heart wrenching, but the book is absolutely amazing. Zora Neale Hurston told the story using of his own words, in dialect. Being familiar with her other books, I knew that my first experience with reading Barracoon should be to listen to the audiobook, then read the book. I strongly advise this way of experiencing the story. You should also know that you cannot read or listen to this story without being deeply moved, without it changing something inside you. It is such a profound testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
Hurston spent many months with Kossula, grilling him with questions and recording his long, detailed memories. They became friends, and she ends the book with their parting.
It was a very sad morning in October when I said the final goodbye, and looked back the last time at the lonely figure that stood on the edge of the cliff that fronts the highway. He had come out to the front of his place that overhangs the Cochrane Highway that leads to the bridge of that name. He wanted to see the last of me. He had saved two peaches, the last he had found on his tree, for me. When I crossed the bridge, I know he went back to his porch; to his house full of thoughts. To his memories of fat girls with ringing golden bracelets, his drums that speak the minds of men, to palm-nut cakes and bull-roarers, to his parables. I am sure that he does not fear death. In spite of his long Christian fellowship, he is too deeply a pagan to fear death. But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.
“But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past…”
I also chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “WANDERLUST: Reading the States,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each of the 50 United States. This book took place in Alabama.