The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’" by Zora
Neale Hurston, edited by Deborah G. Plant and with a
foreword by Alice Walker; Amistad (171 pages, $24.99)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
glad you takee my picture,’ 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.’
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.’"