Book of the week
Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’
“The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God isn’t done making waves in the literary world quite yet,” said Cristina Arreola in Bustle.com. Six decades after her death, Zora Neale Hurston has a new book to her name, and it tells a remarkable story. In 1931, Hurston traveled alone to Alabama to interview the last living person to have been kidnapped in Africa and brought in chains to America. Hurston, then an untested anthropologist with much to prove, wasn’t the first outsider to interview Cudjo Lewis. But she brought gifts of peaches and ham, called the 90-year-old by his African name, Kossula, and gradually coaxed out the finest account of his story. She never found a publisher for the short manuscript because, said Natalie Hopkinson in HuffingtonPost.com, she was ahead of her time: She insisted on transcribing Lewis’ dialect, and Viking Press wanted it in standard English.
Hurston, while letting Lewis speak, remains a presence in the margins, said Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. She shows “an unerring instinct for when to push Lewis,” and “the details he shared are indelible.” A native of today’s Benin, he was 19 when he was captured by Dahomey warriors, invaders who beheaded many of Lewis’ fellow Isha and carried the heads with them as they marched the captives to the coast. There, the Isha were held in a barracoon, or slave pen, until white Americans purchased them and loaded them on the last slave ship to cross the Atlantic. Enslaved for five years, Lewis was toting freight for the ship captain who owned him when he learned he’d been freed by the Confederacy’s 1865 defeat. He and other survivors of the 1859 crossing established an independent community, named Africatown, just outside Mobile.
On the page, Lewis is “at times funny, heartbreaking, sharp, and metaphysical,” said Hanif Abdurraqib in 4Columns.org. It’s a gift to hear his voice in the phonetic transcription Hurston devised for it, and we can sense his pain but also how determined he was to make sure that his story wasn’t lost. Recounting what it was like to stand among his own people and watch slave traders break up a family, he describes grief so heavy it “look lak we can staind in it.” The main text runs less than 100 pages, but we need books like this, said Lauren Michele Jackson in InTheseTimes.com. Though such stories are central to who we are, “Americans arguably know more about Jupiter than slavery.”