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Posts Tagged ‘Zora Neale Hurston’

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Posted by nliakos on September 20, 2018

by Zora Neale Hurston (Amistad/HarperCollins 2018; manuscript completed in 1931. Edited by Deborah G. Plant)

Zora Neale Hurston trained as an anthropologist under Franz Boas, “the Father of American Anthropology”, but she is known as a novelist for her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, among others. In Barracoon, Hurston steps back and lets her subject, Oluale Kossola/Kossula, aka Cudjo Lewis, tell his own life story in his own dialect, spelling his words to reflect his pronunciation and copying his syntax. The effect is of reading a primary source, although I guess the living Kossola was the primary source, making Hurston’s work a secondary source.

Whether primary or secondary, Kossola’s story is unique in that there are no other similar narratives of capture, slavery, liberation, and persecution quite like his. However, it is also representative of the hundreds and thousands of narratives that we will never know, because the people that lived those lives could not write about them, and no one who could write cared to ask them what they had experienced and to set it down for posterity.

Kossola lived in a village in West Africa called Banté until he was nineteen years old, when Glélé, the king of neighboring Dahomey, sent warriors to destroy the village, capture people they could sell into slavery and massacre the rest, wiping out the village. This was done; and Kossola found himself a captive, marched to Dahomey and from there to Ouidah (Whydah) in present-day Benin, where he was confined in the barracoon, the building used to keep the prisoners until a ship arrived and they could be sold. The ship which Kossola was loaded onto, the Clotilda, was built especially for this purpose by William Foster and the Meaher brothers. Transporting captured Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to sell them into slavery had long been illegal, and the Clotilde would be the last ship to complete its journey from Africa to the United States. It was 1860, and the Civil War was about to begin.

Kossola, now known as Cudjo, was enslaved in Alabama by one of the Meaher brothers, Jim, where he worked on a river boat carrying freight between Mobile and Montgomery, loading wood and freight, pumping bilge, and doing whatever needed to be done. He relates, “Oh, Lor’! Oh Lor’! Five year and de six months I slave. I workee so hard!” Cudjo and his fellows were freed by Union troops in 1865. Emancipation for them also meant homelessness and poverty. They were free, but they had no house, no land, no money. Somehow, they formed a community of mostly African-born freedmen and women, and after some years were able to purchase a piece of land from the Meahers (Cudjo commented, “Dey doan take one five cent from de price for us. But we pay it all and take de lan’.”) This became “Affican Town” (Africatown, now the town of Plateau, AL).

Cudjo met and married Seely (Celia), and they had six children together, most of whom died, some in suspicious circumstances, as Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow in Alabama and the rest of the former Confederacy. Cudjo and Seely bore the grief of losing their children as best they could. Seely passed away in 1908. Their surviving son had married and moved away, so Cudjo spent the rest of his life alone with his memories. As Hurston tells it, he never stopped grieving for his homeland, which he called “de Afficky soil”. African-born people suffered discrimination not only from white people, but also from African-Americans. Though a pillar in his own tiny community, Cudjo never felt accepted in American society, even though he had nothing to return to in Africa, his entire family having been wiped out in the raid on Banté. The reader is saddened by Cudjo’s solitude. When Hurston conducted her interviews, he was in his eighties, already the last surviving person from the Clotilda. Apparently, those who suffered the Middle Passage together formed strong bonds among themselves. Of course, they were separated from each other upon arrival when they were sold to various people, but following the Civil War, Cudjo managed to be reunited with some of the same people he had been with in the barracoon and on the Clotilda, and it was these people who founded Africatown.

The book is 171 pages, of which only 70 are devoted to the narrative of the life of Kossola/Cudjo Lewis. An appendix including descriptions of games and transcriptions of Cudjo’s stories and parables take up another 17 pages. The remaining 84 pages are taken up by a preface by Alice Walker, a lengthy introduction by Hurston, and following the appendix, an afterword, acknowledgments, a list of the founders of Africatown, a glossary, notes and citations, and a bibliography.

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