Cudjo Lewis was getting old, and Zora Neale Hurston had something to prove.
Hurston, the prolific African American author best known for “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” was just starting her career in 1928 when she traveled down to Plateau, Ala., to meet with Lewis. The man was in his 80s. He was widely believed to be the last African man alive who had been kidnapped from his village, shackled in the cargo of a ship and forced into slavery in America. Hurston, competing with other anthropologists of the day, set out to document his life more thoroughly than the rest.
But the book she would write in 1931 about the life of Lewis, much of it in his own words, was never published. For at least two publishing houses, Lewis’s heavily accented dialect was seen as too difficult to read.
So instead the manuscript remained tucked away in the archives at Howard University for decades.
Then the Zora Neale Hurston Trust finally found a buyer — more than 50 years after Hurston’s death in 1960.
On May 8, HarperCollins will publish “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” named for the packed enclosures in which enslaved people were confined on the harrowing Middle Passage. The book includes an introduction by Deborah G. Plant and foreword by Alice Walker, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist credited with reviving interest in Hurston’s works in the 1970s. The book has been excerpted in New York magazine.
Natalie Hopkinson, a member of the board of directors for the Hurston/Wright Foundation, described the book’s significance this way in a column for HuffPost: “We don’t know how much Barracoon was a verbatim account of The Last ‘Black Cargo.’ But Zora’s enthusiastic rejection of respectability politics” — her rejection of publishers’ requests to clean up Lewis’s African dialect — “makes her ahead of her time. Barracoon and its long path to print is a testament to Zora’s singular vision amid so many competing pressures that continue to put us at war with ourselves.”
As Lewis told Hurston, he was captured in his village, Takkoi, during a raid carried out by one King of Dahomey, who “got very rich ketchin slaves” and then selling them to white slave buyers. After a three-day march to the coast, American slave owners stripped naked Lewis and more than 100 fellow villagers and forced them into a barracoon aboard the Clotilde, the last known ship to have made the transatlantic trip in 1859, more than 50 years after Congress had outlawed the slave trade.
Lewis arrived in Mobile and was sold to the owner of a shipping business. He worked toting freight on the Alabama River for more than five years, until the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War freed him in 1865. Then, he and more than two dozen others who had been on the Clotilde banded together and founded Africatown in Plateau, Ala., where they would be free to speak their language and continue their native customs — and where Hurston would find him more than 60 years later.
Hurston interviewed Lewis several times in the late 1920s. Telling his story was one of her first major projects after studying anthropology at Howard University and Barnard College, but it also marked her first major failure. After her first interview with Lewis, she published an article about him and the voyage of the Clotilde in the Journal of Negro History in 1927. Decades later, historians would discover that various passages were borrowed from other works without attribution.
Hurston returned to Alabama to meet with Lewis again in 1928, in part because she feared “he is old and may die before I get to him,” and because she needed to redeem herself, biographer Valerie Boyd wrote, citing a letter Hurston had written to her friend Langston Hughes.
The experience would leave Hurston deeply moved, with enough material to write “Barracoon.”
As Boyd wrote: “Tears welled in his eyes as he described the trip across the ocean in the Clotilde. But what moved Hurston most about the old man — whom she always called by his African name, Kossola — was how much he continued to miss his people back in Nigeria. ‘I lonely for my folks,’ he told her.”
“After seventy-five years he still had that tragic sense of loss,” Hurston wrote, as cited in Boyd’s biography, “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.”
“That yearning for blood and cultural ties. That sense of mutilation. It gave me something to feel about.”
Hurston died poor and mostly alone, having never attained the same acclaim as other celebrated 20th century writers during her lifetime. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Fla.
In 1973, Alice Walker went looking for it.
When she traveled to Hurston’s hometown — Eatonville, Fla. — people there told her the schools didn’t even teach Hurston’s books, as Walker recounted in her 1975 article for Ms. Magazine. She went to Fort Pierce after learning of Hurston’s burial location. She arrived at the cemetery and found the most published female African American writer of the 1930s buried in a “field full of weeds.”
“There are times — and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them — when normal responses to grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of emotion one feels,” Walker wrote of the experience.
Walker got her a gravestone. The inscription was “Zora Neale Hurston: A genius of the south. Novelist. Folklorist. Anthropologist.”
Shortly after Walker’s revival of Hurston’s legacy, her work made its way back into print in wide circulation. Within years Hurston’s most famous novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” became required reading in high school English classrooms across the country.
“I wanted people to pay attention. I realized that unless I came out with everything I had supporting her, there was every chance she would slip back into obscurity,” Walker told PBS in a 2014 documentary. “I loved the way Zora showed a delight in the beauty and spirit of black people. She loved her own culture, especially the language.”
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