Book Review: Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston


Author:  Zora Neale Hurston
TitleBarracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo
Publication Info: Amistad (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 208 pages
Previously read by the same author:

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography
  • Mules and Men
  • Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston

Summary/Review:

This recently published biography/ethnography is by the great author, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, based on interviews she conducted in 1927.  Her subject is Kossola, also known as Cudjoe Lewis and by other names, who was the last known survivor of the African slave trade.  The Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, but slave traders were able to smuggle in enslaved people from Africa without consequences right up to the Civil War.

Kossola was born in West Africa in what is Benin in the present day around 1840. In 1860, he was captured by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey and sold to American slavers on the ship Clotilda.  Hurston expresses Kossola’s story in his dialect, allowing him to tell his story.  He talks of his childhood in Africa, capture, passage across the Atlantic, and enslavement in Mobile, Alabama.  After Emancipation, Kossola and other former captives of Clotilda pooled together money to buy land near Mobile from their former captors and created a self-contained community called Africatown.  There he tells stories of his marriage, children, his unsuccessful lawsuit after a train crashed into his buggy, and the death of his son, also in a train crash.  Kossola became known as a storyteller, and the appendix includes a sample of his stories.

The book is an interesting piece of overlooked American history.  It’s also a glimpse into the ethnographic practices of the time, good and bad, as Hurston relates her visits to Kossola and the negotiations that went into planning their interviews. More than once Hurston uses terms like “primitive” to describe Kossola, a shocking judgement for an anthropologist and African American. Critics of the work suggest that parts of Kossola’s narrative are fictionalized – either by himself or by Hurston – and note that she plagiarized and earlier interviewer’s work in an article she wrote about Kossola.  Nevertheless, this is a valuable historic document to read both for Kossola’s story and as an addition to Hurston’s work.

Favorite Passages:

Here is the medicine: That though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going. It may be true, and often is, that every person we hold dear is taken from us. Still. From moment to moment, we watch our beans and our watermelons grow. We plant. We hoe. We harvest. We share with neighbors. If a young anthropologist appears with two hams and gives us one, we look forward to enjoying it. Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go. Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears. – Alice Walker March 2018

From 1801 to 1866, an estimated 3,873,600 Africans were exchanged for gold, guns, and other European and American merchandise. During the period from 1851 to 1860, approximately 22,500 Africans were exported. And of that number, 110 were taken aboard the Clotilda at Ouidah. Kossola was among them—a transaction.

Hurston’s manuscript is an invaluable historical document, as Diouf points out, and an extraordinary literary achievement as well, despite the fact that it found no takers during her lifetime. In it, Zora Neale Hurston found a way to produce a written text that maintains the orality of the spoken word. And she did so without imposing herself in the narrative, creating what some scholars classify as orature. Contrary to the literary biographer Robert Hemenway’s dismissal of Barracoon as Hurston’s re-creation of Kossola’s experience, the scholar Lynda Hill writes that “through a deliberate act of suppression, she resists presenting her own point of view in a natural, or naturalistic, way and allows Kossula ‘to tell his story in his own way.’”

Kossula was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He had forgotten that I was there. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke.

“Poe-lee very mad ’cause de railroad kill his brother. He want me to sue de company. I astee him, ‘Whut for? We doan know de white folks law. Dey say dey doan pay you when dey hurtee you. De court say dey got to pay you de money. But dey ain’ done it.’ I very sad. Poe-lee very mad. He say de deputy kill his baby brother. Den de train kill David. He want to do something. But I ain’ hold no malice. De Bible say not. Poe-lee say in Afficky soil it ain’ lak in de Americky. He ain’ been in de Afficky, you unnerstand me, but he hear what we tellee him and he think dat better dan where he at. Me and his mama try to talk to him and make him satisfy, but he doan want hear nothin. He say when he a boy, dey (the American Negro children) fight him and say he a savage. When he gittee a man dey cheat him. De train hurtee his papa and doan pay him. His brothers gittee kill. He doan laugh no mo’.

Rating: ***1/2

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