This short book came out of a series of interviews Hurston had done as an anthropology student several years before she wrote the book in 1931. She interviewed a man brought to the US on the last ship importing enslaved men and women which had been illegal for 50 years by that time. The account of her conversations with Cudjo Lewis about his life in Africa, his time as an enslaved person, and his life during the Jim Crow era was not published until 2018. It was rejected by publishers because Hurston insisted that Cudjo’s speech be in dialect. The audiobook version of Cudjo’s dialect read by Robin Miles was mesmerizing and after I finished the book, I continued to hear that dialect in my head.
Oluale Kossula had 19 siblings, and was the son of his father’s second wife. He was brought to the US in 1859 and was enslaved until 1865 when Union soldiers freed him. He expressed a real disconnect with others he encountered while enslaved; he felt greater kinship with those who had spent their young lives in Africa. After emancipation he lived in Africatown, Alabama. He married and he and his wife had six children; by the time of the interviews in 1927, he was the only remaining member of his family.
For the young Zora Neale Hurston to have a good connection with the 86-year-old Cudjo, she had to develop patience as she learned to respect his need for rest and restoration after revisiting those hard times. She was more interested in his life as a slave, but he insisted on talking about his time in Africa and the circumstances of his capture and sale to the slavers. His ethnic group was conquered by women warriors and later the king of Dahomey sold those captured. The title barracoon refers to the enclosure imprisoning them. The cruelty of that time and the loss of his loved ones was the focus of his great sadness; he was homesick for Africa for the rest of his life. Calling him by his African name, Kossula, bringing him food, and honoring his need for respite gained Hurston his story.
One aspect of his young life he described was the practice of paying a father for a young woman to be a wife. He explained that the cost varied; daughters who spent as much as two years in the “fat-house” where they ate eight meals a day and were lifted in and out of bed were more expensive. This practice was only available to the rich.
Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” HarperCollins, 2018, 171 pages, edited and introduction by Deborah G. Plant (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.