A Review of Zora Neale Hurston’s
Barracoon: The Story of the
Last “Black Cargo”
Originally published in the
Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2018
The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”
Zora Neale Hurston
Edited by Deborah G. Plant
In 1931, anthropologist and future novelist Zora Neale Hurston attempted to publish Barracoon, her narrative of the life of Cudjo Lewis (aka Oluale Kossula), the last surviving passenger of the last slave ship to bring human cargo to America. It was to be her first book, but it received unanimous rejection because of her use of dialect to capture Cudjo’s remarkable voice. Hurston’s subsequent fiction and nonfiction revolutionized the literary use of dialect, however, transforming readers’ and scholars’ ideas of what kinds of American language could be considered artistically and intellectually acceptable, and so nearly ninety years later, Barracoon finally arrives in a landscape that Hurston herself helped create.
A barracoon is a seaside holding station for slaves on the coast of Africa and is thus the last transition between the slaves’ old and new worlds. It’s a curious turning point to use as the title for a book on this subject, but Hurston’s Barracoon is nearly unique among American slave narratives in that it portrays the worlds before and after capture, told by a native African who wasn’t born into slavery. The barracoon was Cudjo’s first glimpse of the enormous, malevolent sea, which in the terrifying account of his Middle Passage strikes the reader as a kind of Homeric monster, and while most slave narratives can only portray the dramatic transition from slavery to emancipation, giving the impression that emancipation equals freedom, Cudjo’s narrative encompasses the arc from freedom to slavery to a different and compromised kind freedom, allowing him to focus at great length on the totality of the world that first created him. Hurston was initially frustrated by Cudjo’s reticence to answer her questions about the aspects of his story that she was looking for, and at his insistence on giving his full family history and painting an expansive picture of his lost world, but she quickly discovers that his memory of Africa is the goldmine that she didn’t know she was seeking.
|Cudjo Lewis, photographed|
by Zora Neale Hurston
Letting Cudjo (mostly) speak for himself, Hurston gives free rein to his astonishing memory and narrative power as he describes an entirely unknown universe to her. This is the book’s most arresting material, portraying a paradise lost that’s as complex and problematic as it is beautiful and fascinating and delightful. It’s uneasy reading to see Cudjo’s idealized society also include a savagery that led to his capture and sale by a rival tribe to the American slave-trading savages who dragged him across the sea to hell, but this ugly larger picture is a necessary part of the book’s enlarged scope, leading Hurston to some of her most important and disturbing conclusions about human nature.
Cudjo’s life in America stretches out much longer, with five years spent in slavery and more than sixty years spent scraping out an existence in postbellum Alabama, but he never stops thinking of himself as African. After emancipation he immediately starts planning to return home, and when this proves impossible he helps found an enclave of freed Africans called Africatown, which recreates a mini version of their homeland and buffets them a bit from the discrimination that they received from white and black Americans alike. He marries another African, has five children, and over the ensuing decades he buries them all in the family graveyard that mirrors some of the African death customs that he’d described to Hurston. Near the end of the book, when he allows Hurston to photograph him, he puts on his best American suit but leaves his shoes off, because he wants to be seen and remembered as African.
This is as heartbreaking a story as could ever be imagined, and in Hurston’s brilliant mimicking voice it sings as a kind of epic song. Her prose isn’t yet the silky instrument that it would later become, and she pads the story a bit with material gleaned from other sources and surreptitiously puts it into Cudjo’s voice, but Cudjo’s extraordinary mind and personality burst through the pages as the primary force of his narrative, even as Hurston’s artistry (and lapses) make themselves palpably apparent. While we feel Cudjo with the deepest immediacy, readers of Hurston’s later work will also see that her dense literary sensibility adds layers of reflective color and shading to how we perceive his story.
|Hurston the enchanter.|
A writer of the highest sophistication, Hurston has the ability to tell a story that’s entirely original and moving and “real” while also weaving itself into a dazzling tapestry of literary allusions and games, as when in her 1937 masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God she has brilliant fun playing with the Bible and Dante and Cervantes and Proust. Arriving at the end of Barracoon’s last chapter, entitled “Alone,” Proust’s woundedly nostalgic ghost seems to whisper through Hurston as the final words of the book leave Cudjo “full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.” Cudjo strikes the most resonant and lasting chords in the reader’s mind, but as in Don Quixote, where we realize that it’s Quixote who’s the enchanter who has himself and Sancho under a narrative spell, and that as an enchanter he’s also a reflection of the larger enchanter, Cervantes himself, Hurston’s readers will see her embarking here on this same kind of artistic odyssey. Cudjo couldn’t be more real to us, but in this first sally Hurston the enchanter begins to make her presence nearly almost as real.