Zora Neale Hurston’s recovered masterpiece, “Barracoon,” is a stunning addition to several overlapping canons of American literature. Available now in this handsome edition with a foreword by Alice Walker, it joins a small body of firsthand accounts of the transatlantic slave trade while providing a new glimpse into the life of Hurston as an anthropologist. The book also offers an unnerving interrogation of modern conceptions of the earliest African Americans.
At the story’s center is Oluale Kossula, also known as Cudjo Lewis. He was one of the last survivors of the Clotilda, the last vessel to carry kidnapped Africans into a life of bondage in the United States — 50 years after the slave trade was officially abolished. In 1927, Hurston made the first of several journeys to Africatown, near Mobile, Ala., to interview him.
The broad strokes of Kossula’s story will be familiar to those with a rudimentary knowledge of the slave trade. At age 19, he was kidnapped from his village in West Africa and sold to European slavers. While today we may claim that he was betrayed by “his own people,” Kossula knew that he had been victimized by the Dahomey, whom he regarded as distinct from his own ethnic group. (The Dahomey are portrayed romantically by some African American writers, notably Audre Lorde, who composed feminist poetry celebrating the women warriors who defended their homeland.) Kossula recounts their cruelty as he was forced to watch them burn the decapitated heads of his loved ones to trade for cash, as he himself was soon sold away, never to see his home again. This, even more than the indignities of slavery, remained the core of his life’s terrible melancholy.
Kossula’s homesickness is vast and seems to have no bottom. Hurston, renowned for her joie de vivre, is restrained as she coaxes this story from the loneliest man in the world. The woman who famously wrote, “I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife,” makes herself almost invisible in this book, dedicating entire chapters to Kossula’s monologues, with few authorial interventions.
To lubricate his storytelling, Hurston wooed the elder with peaches and watermelon. In a moment of extravagance, she offered him a ham. Yet this doesn’t feel like coercion or trickery, although Hurston was clearly on assignment and had deadlines to meet. For one, Kossula genuinely liked her and she took care to demonstrate to Kossula (and her reader) that she respected his feelings. As he recounts the death of his son (one of several family losses), Hurston averts her eyes so as not to be “indecently intrusive.” He sounds eager to share his story as he hopes that someone “on Afficky soil” will remember having known him. But the telling is not easy. He has to take breaks to weep.
Hurston used language as much as she used gifts of food to gain trust and intimacy. When Hurston calls him “Kossula,” the name given to him at birth — rather than “Cudjo,” the name he adopted because it can be pronounced by American tongues — he weeps again, but this time with pleasure. She renders his speech phonetically in these pages, but this seems in service to accuracy, rather than condescension. Though she deliberately mutes her own voice, Hurston — the novelist who wrote the great love story “Their Eyes Were Watching God” — winks at us as Kossula remembers his wedding to Selly. “In de Afficky soil, you unnerstand me, we ain’ got no license. . . . I doan love my wife no mo’ wid de license than I love her befo’ de license. She a good woman and I love her all de time.” He loves her hard, like Tea Cake loves Janie.
Hurston’s fidelity to Kossula’s voice may have kept “Barracoon” from being published almost 90 years ago. Viking Press wanted “the Life of Kossula, but in language rather than dialect.” Hurston, who died in 1960, refused such revision, and her manuscript eventually ended up in the Howard University library archives.
Kossula’s understanding of his own life does not center on his experience in bondage — and in this, perhaps, he and Hurston are kin. Instead, he focuses on the life he lived in West Africa and his life in Africatown, a settlement of emancipated persons. This may be the most surprising aspect of his recounting. While technically “Barracoon” can be categorized as a slave narrative, Kossula tells the story of his life as a free man.
There is, of course, important scholarship that traces the legacy of chattel slavery on the material and emotional lives of contemporary African Americans. Michelle Alexander’s bedrock study “The New Jim Crow” and Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th” both examine our prison system as the treacherous reincarnation of America’s peculiar institution. Christina Sharpe’s “In the Wake” illustrates that African Americans in the 21st century dwell in the wake of the ships that carried our kidnapped ancestors to a brutal new land. But for Kossula, slavery and the Middle Passage are actual memories, rather than history or metaphor, and his pain is immediate and unrelenting.
The only misstep here is Hurston’s decision to title the work “Barracoon,” referring to the pen where kidnapped Africans were imprisoned as they awaited the grisly journey to America. That’s not where this story dwells. Near the end of her time in Alabama, Kossula posed for a photo, dressed in his best suit but in his bare feet, explaining, “I want to look lak I in Affica, ’cause dat where I want to be.” I wish the title of this book could have somehow honored the spirit of his request, framing Kossula’s story as he composed his photograph: with his feet on American soil, posing among the graves of his family, devastated, but not enslaved.
Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, including her most recent, “An American Marriage.”
By Zora Neale Hurston
Amistad. 171 pp. $24.99