Zora Neale Hurston (b. 1/7/1891; d.1/28/1960) was an accomplished ethnographer, folklorist, anthropologist, and novelist. She attended Howard University and received her B.A. from Barnard College in 1927. As an African-American woman from the South at that time, she was driven and found ways to accomplish her goals. Her best-known work which has grown in popularity over the decades is Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her other books and writings (essays, short stories, plays) were published decades ago, some of it for a more limited or academic audience. The manuscript written in 1931 which became Barracoon, however, was never published in book form until May 2018.
Barracoon was on the “New York Times” hardcover bestseller list until August 2018. Hurston has become more popular posthumously, as topics she wrote about have gained widespread interest throughout American culture in the ensuing decades. (Note: a barracoon is temporary barracks-like housing for those awaiting transport via ship to the country where they’ll be enslaved.)
Barracoon is the story of the last surviving person to be brought from Africa on the very last and little-known slave ship named the Clothilda. It was a small and fast sailing ship that 3 brothers named Meaher and a Captain Foster took to the African coast for the purpose of illegally transporting Africans to the American South in 1860 to be used as slaves. Their return was on the brink of the South’s secession and onset of the Civil War. Had they been caught in the U.S., the penalty for the Meahers and Foster would be death. They managed to outrun or evade authorities, unload and distribute their cargo of Africans to be used as slaves, then sank the ship. While the four men each took some Africans for their own use, the remaining slaves were bought and sent to Selma, Alabama.
Hurston was sent to interview the last survivor of these events to get his story—an oral history. She first met Cudjo Lewis in 1927 and spoke with him intermittently over a period of several months. (Note: while his African name was Kossola, he commonly used the name Cudjo Lewis, which I’ll also use here. Cudjo means a male child born on a Monday…one of the many small and wonderful nuggets found in this book!)
His story is told in dialect, and this is the core of the book. He was born in 1841, so in his late 80s when he told his story to Hurston. He was born into an African family that was not poor, but not a reigning family in his tribe, although his grandfather was an official for their king. He had a good and happy life that ended without warning when he was 19. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Dahomans attacked his village, killing or beheading many of the villagers while taking the young, strong men captive. That village was wiped off the map, and the captives, including Lewis, marched to the coast, where they were kept in a barracoon for several weeks until the Clothilda arrived. Arrangements were made to buy 125 of the captives, including Lewis.
This is where Lewis’s life changed forever. As the captives were being loaded onboard, someone sighted attackers coming. All but 1 load of about 15 captives remained, but the ship had to set sail immediately and left them behind…except for Lewis, who called out to a friend being loaded, and was allowed to board, too. Had he kept silent, he would have remained in Africa and probably been killed by the attackers or died of starvation. There was no good choice at that moment.
After 45 days at sea, the crowded ship arrived in the U.S., and after the deceptive moves mentioned above, the captives were dispersed. Lewis was taken by a Meaher brother who treated him comparatively well. He was trained in his work and remained a slave for 5.5 years until he was given freedom at the end of the Civil War. He rented & farmed land until he was able to buy a parcel. He married and fathered 6 children. All of them and his wife preceded him in death, leaving only a few grandchildren by the time Hurston talked to him.
Lewis died not long after their talks. He was lonely, had a challenging life, felt deep sorrow at losing all his children and wife over the years, knew many things were wrong, but he did not feel sorry for himself. He did not whine. Although he dreamed of returning to Africa one day, he could never afford it. My thought is that it’s probably just as well. After his slave and other experiences, it’s likely he’d no longer fit it. In any case, his village had been eradicated, so where would he go.
I was struck by several bits of information that show how different cultures do things. My favorite was how his African tribe handled marriage. Before he was captured, Lewis had his eye on a young woman and asked his parents to start the marriage process. He was captured before this could happen, but he had explained that when the first wife is tired of being the only wife, she tells the husband and starts looking for another wife for him. SHE chooses any additional wives, trains them in their duties, etc. I think that’s a smart way to handle polygamy. In other cultures, if the wives don’t get along, that means trouble and bad feelings for the entire family. This way, the women all get along, there’s help with the work and children, and other wives are trained how to do the work by the first wife. Household harmony should ensue, and who wouldn’t want that!
However, there were other things that I think dismayed and saddened Hurston; e.g., it was evident that there wasn’t unity among the African tribes. This wasn’t a simple case of white men landing on African soil and trapping people to take as slaves. The Dahomans who brutally killed and took captives from Lewis’s tribe did it for enrichment of their own tribe; quite simply, for money and power.
The Africans and African-Americans on the plantation where Lewis was taken weren’t all helpful in training and helping him adjust. Some made fun of his inability to understand their language upon his arrival and ridiculed his personal ways. I suppose that helped certain people at the bottom of the social ladder to feel superior to SOMEONE, but it was certainly unkind and outright mean. Lewis’s boys were also badly teased when they were in school, to the point where they became very tough fighters in self-defense.
I felt that Hurston wished the Africans and African-Americans acted better than that, that their behavior should be exemplary for humanity. Deborah Plant says in the Afterword:
“The body of lore Hurston gathered was an argument against…notions of cultural inferiority and white supremacy, and it defied the idea of European cultural hegemony as it also questioned the narrative of white supremacy.” (p. 159)
Besides Lewis’s story told in dialect, there’s a wealth of other detailed information in this book from various sources that corroborate what he says and with the historical record. As one often finds with illiterate people, Lewis’s memory was excellent, even at his age, and what he said has been proven. There is much to learn in the additions, and I found all of it fascinating. I highly recommend this book, as well as her others, to anyone who enjoys folklore, but above, storytelling. Hurston is one of the best.
When I started reading Barracoon, I remembered an episode of “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. I remembered that he mentioned there was one last slave ship that most people had never heard of; and that Questlove was a descendant of someone on that ship. That was obviously an astonishing piece of news. I include information here for anyone who wants to watch Questlove get the news:
In case you don’t know who Questlove is, this is from Wikipedia:
Questlove “is an American percussionist, multi-instrumentalist, DJ, music journalist, record producer, and occasional actor. He is best known as the drummer and joint frontman (with Black Thought) for the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots…. Questlove is also one of the producers of the Broadway musical Hamilton…. Additionally, he is an adjunct instructor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.”
I think it helps to know that this ONE good thing came out of that horrific tale. Who knows, there may be many more Clothilda descendants in Alabama and nearby states who have contributed greatly to humanity.