ZORA NEALE HURSTON
Reviewed by Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta
An anthropologist's conversations with a black man reveal uncomfortable truths about race, culture and an African past…
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston conducted a series of conversations with an elderly African American man named Cudjo Lewis in Alabama - or to use his original African birth name, Oluale Kossula - the last slave brought on the last slaving ship from Africa to America.
While innumerable accounts of the slave trade exist from the perspective of slave traders and owners, Hurston wanted to hear the voice of the enslaved. "All these words from the seller; but not one word from the sold," she notes.
Over three months, Hurston brings Cudjo gifts of clingstone peaches, Virginia ham and ripe watermelon 'fresh off the ice'. Sometimes they just sit together companionably, eating the watermelon 'from heart to rind'; another time she helps him clean the church where he works as sexton. On other days, he talks, and she records his story.
The back story
Kossula, along with other members of his Yoruba tribes people, had been captured in an attack led by the king of Dahomey - thereafter to be held in 'barracoons' or holding sheds by the sea, before being sold to slave traders and brought across the Atlantic on the Clotilda, the last slave transporter to have made the transatlantic journey called the 'Middle Passage'. Shortly thereafter, civil war broke out and five years later, Cudjo would be a free man again - but far from his country and his true culture.
Cudjo's narrative is poetic and deeply affecting. He wants to tell his story. "Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want to tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Affickey soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, 'Yeah, I know Kossula.'"
He begins by telling her about the culture of his people. When Hurston asks him to tell his own story instead, Kossula explains that his story can start only with that of his family elders. "Where is de house where de mouse is de leader?"
After describing the customs and way of life of his people, Kossula describes the violence, horror and heartbreak that follow: the pre-dawn attack by female warriors of Dahomey who slaughter the aged, keeping decapitated heads as trophies and rounding up the youth for capture; the terrified teenager who tries unsuccessfully to escape, and who only wants to be with his mother again; being held in the 'barracoons'; the harrowing ordeal of the Middle Passage under the hold, as 'cargo' in space barely a few feet high, with more than one hundred other captives.
Thus Kossula's voice takes the story of slavery back to the original moment of violence when one African tribe attacks and captures another people in order to trade them as merchandise. As Alice Walker's powerful foreword points out, Barracoon "resolutely records the atrocities African people inflicted on each other... This is, make no mistake, a harrowing read. We are being shown the wound... And we have suffered so much from this one (lie): that Africans were only victims of the slave trade, not participants."
A tale of freedom
But as Walker points out, if the story shows the wound, it also carries within it the material to heal. Cudjo's story is also one of freedom, of survival, and of deep humanity. Unable to return to Africa, the freed slaves pool their resources to buy land and build a settlement, Africatown. Cudjo marries Seely (Abile), a woman who had come over from Africa on the ship like him; they see their children struggle under racist barbs from other African Americans - "Dey callee my chillun ig'nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey… It hurtee dey feelings;" they grieve the early deaths of their children, one of whom is shot dead by a police officer.
Throughout his narrative, especially in his account of the little daily intricacies of his culture, family, and childhood, we sense Kossula's deep grief at the loss of his homeland. "I doan fuhgittee nothin'," he says simply. When Hurston wants to take his picture, he takes off his shoes. "I want to look lak I in Affica, 'cause dat where I want to be." But he also wants to be photographed along with the rest of his family in the graveyard. He describes his divided sense of identity as "Edem etie ukum edem etie upar": one part mahogany, one part ebony.
87 years later
In 1931, when Hurston completed the manuscript and sent it to the publishers, they wanted the vernacular dialect of Cudjo's speech edited. Hurston refused to dilute the language, and the manuscript remained unpublished. Until now, 87 years later, when it has been taken out of the Howard University archives for publication.
Barracoon is a difficult, heart-breaking and deeply important book. The slave trade flourished for close to four centuries. Just in the period from 1801 to 1866, in the 19th century, nearly four million African human lives were exchanged for gold, guns and other merchandise. And yet, it has taken until the 21st century for us to be able to read this account, recorded in the 20th century and in his voice and in his words, of a man from Africa who was captured, displayed, traded, and enslaved, then freed.
The reviewer is a civil servant in India