Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston is a nonfiction work written after Hurston interviewed the last living slave who had been brought over from Africa. Keep in mind that while slavery was still legal in the United States, the slave trade from Africa was not. Hurston’s subject, born around 1841 as Oluale Kossola in West Africa, came to be known as Cudjo Lewis in the United States. He was living in Alabama when Hurston first met him in 1927 — when he was around 85 years old!
Kossola came from a peaceful tribe that trained him as a soldier for defense purposes only. But the nearby Dahomey tribe, known for starting war so they could capture prisoners and sell them to American slavers, took Kossola from his home when he was 19. Hurston listens patiently and plies Kossola with fruits and meats as he tells how he grew up, was forced to the United States, lived as a slave for six years, and then had to recreate himself after the Emancipation Proclamation. Kossola always, always wanted to be back in Africa, even as an old man. Always.
Like other Zora Neale Hurston books I’ve read, scholars are so eager to add their two cents that the “extras” get to be too extra. Kossola’s story is 94 pages. The book is 171 pages. You get the following (if you’re interested):
- A foreword by Alice Walker, who rediscovered Hurston in the 1970s and brought the writer back into the public eye.
- An introduction by editor Deborah G. Plant
- Plant’s note about her edits
- A preface by Zora Neale Hurston
- An introduction by Hurston
- The actual text about Kossola
- An appendix
- An afterword by Plant
- A list of the people who founded Africantown in Alabama
- A glossary
- End notes
- A bibliography
As you might expect, much of this is repetitive. How could it not be?? I recommend that you flip through the book first to see what’s in it lest you not see the glossary until the end, for example. There are a few reasons I do encourage you to read the whole book, though. The editor’s section on “Trans-Atlantic Trafficking” explains how slavers got to Africa and why they kept doing it after it was outlawed. Africans, like the Dahomey, were a partner in this slave trade. Kossola alone would not have this contextual information.
Furthermore, the editor notes that Zora Neale Hurston does not fictionalize Kossola’s story. She tells it in his “vernacular diction, spelling his words as she hears them pronounced. Sentences follow his syntactical rhythms and maintain his idiomatic expressions and repetitive phrases.” Finally, Hurston’s quotes and paraphrases from other sources could be incorrectly cited, so the editor cleared up the documentation. Readers are doubly assured, then, that this is Hurston’s book and Kossola’s story — not a watered-down version of some editor — which had been a big concern of mine.
Prior to completing the manuscript to what would become Barracoon, Hurston wrote an article about Kossola. I bring this up because much of the work was plagiarized. Hurston’s most notable biographer, Robert E. Hemenway, notes that “Of the sixty-seven paragraphs in Hurston’s essay . . . only eighteen are exclusively her own prose.” I was disappointed to read this, but I knew that Hurston’s career as an anthropologist made me feel hesitant hesitant for other reasons. However, the biographer notes that Hurston never plagiarized again.
Another Hurston biographer, Valerie Boyd, noted that the person who hired Hurston to write the article did not pay her in full, so she kept all the “juicy bits” of Kossola’s story for a later project — which became Barracoon. I note all of this because I am interested in the controversy that always surrounded Hurston, for her whole adult life. Each time I get more controversy, I learn more about the person behind the pen.
Kossola’s story reveals a traumatized man who doesn’t always want to talk — and Hurston respects that. He would say, “Doan come back till de nexy week, now I need choppee grass in the garden.” If you struggle to read dialect, get this work as an audio book. The quote you just read is how almost the whole of Kossola’s story is written. Personally, I love the musical cadence to Kossola’s speech, and I even caught myself adding “ee” to things I said at home (e.g. “scoopee the cat box”). I’m not sure if this makes me a bad person.
He’s an interesting storyteller; Kossla gets all the facts out and then ends with a sentence that seriously hurt in my chest. Here’s an example (emphasis added) from when the Dahomey tribe attacked and cut off the heads of some and captured others in Kossola’s tribe:
When I see de king dead, I try to ‘scape from de soldiers. I try to make it to de bush, but all soldiers overtake me befo’ I get dere. O Lor’, Lor’! When I think ’bout dat time I try not to cry no mo’. My eyes dey stop cryin’ but de tears runnee down inside me all de time. When de men pull me wid dem, I call my mama name.
Okay, I might be crying again. He doesn’t just share his life’s events, Kossola discusses the differences between Africans like him and African Americans born in the United States. When the African women are whipped on the plantation, they take the whip away and lash the overseer with it! When the Africans get Sundays off, they dance. But the African Americans tell them they are savages and laugh. Whereas I’ve read many stories about African Americans struggling to create communities post-emancipation, Kossola and other Africans sit down, figure out how to save up money, buy a piece of land, make laws, and build a church and homes themselves, together. They call the place Africantown.
Kossola notes that when the African Americans call them ignorant, the Africans build a school because then the county has to send them a teacher. He says, “We Afficky men doan wait lak de other colored people till de white folks a gittee ready to build us a school.” It was educational for me to read how an African man perceived differences in the behaviors of former slaves. According to Kossola, African Americans were quick to name call and laugh at Kossola and his group.
I recommend Barracoon, and not just if you’re a hard-core Hurston fan. The fact that Barracoon was finally published set Zora Neale Hurston fans into a tizzy. If you don’t know the history of why Hurston’s manuscript wasn’t published for 87 years (Hurston herself has been dead for 58 years), check out this New York Times article.