‘The African slave trade is the most dramatic chapter in the story of human existence. Therefore a great literature has grown up about it. Innumerable books and papers have been written. These are supplemented by the vast lore that has been blown by the breath of inarticulate ones across the seas and lands of the world’.
After almost a century, Zora Neale Hurston’s eye-opening and horrific tale of the last slave ship to leave for America has finally been published. Unique in its scope and execution, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” tells the story of Oluale Kossula, one of the last remaining people to have been violently uprooted from his homeland and forced into slavery in America. Occupying an interesting position within literature, Hurston’s latest book adds to the small proportion of first-hand accounts of slavery whilst also allowing the reader to witness the life of Hurston as an anthropologist. Most widely known for her seminal novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, little is known about her years as a student of anthropology.
Studying at Columbia University in her thirties, Hurston was sent from New York to Plateau, Alabama, to continue her fieldwork of collecting black folklore and historical data. Her task this time was to interview Kossula, one of the last known people living in America able to recount their first-hand experience of being taken captive in Africa and sold into the American slave trade.
Hurston’s first question to Kossula may have seemed direct and all-encompassing. One of those questions that is impossible to answer in a brief space of time: ‘I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave’. In fact, Hurston never poses this as a question, though it doesn’t sound like a demand either. A direct approach – though one that worked – Hurston gained Kossula’s trust through small acts of kindness. Instead of calling him by his ‘slave’ name, Cudjo Lewis, Hurston used his given name, Kossula. On her visits to his home in Africatown she brought offerings of peaches or ham for them to share. Most importantly, she never forced him to tell his story and never puts words into his mouth. What results over a three month period is one of a budding and honest friendship and Barracoon, the product of this friendship, stays true to Kossula’s voice and his story. Hurston’s brief interceptions and interludes, which link the numerous meetings they had together, adds a fluidity and poetry to the narrative whilst also reminding the reader of the immediacy of slavery. Although published over ninety years later than expected, this immediacy and intimacy is not lost.
Arriving on the Clotilda under the command of Captain William Foster, Kossula experienced the inhumanity of being sold, transported and bartered for as if mere ‘cargo’. He experienced the degrading and back-breaking work expected of Africans for no pay. He also lived to experience freedom – though this granted further difficulties as a direct result of slavery. Eventually Kossula was able to set up a community for Africans like himself – Africatown – pooling what little bit of money himself and others like him had earned as free men. Ironically, Africans may have gained their freedom but they could never afford to return back to their homeland. It was this homesickness and yearning that spurred Kossula on to create a community reminiscent of Africa.
Barracoon then tracks Kossula’s life after slavery. He tells Hurston of his marriage, of becoming a father to sons and the injustice and oppression black people still experienced at the hands of white people and the structural racism – and sexism – America was, and still is, built on. Some of the things that happen to his young sons probably wouldn’t be out of place nowadays, highlighting that although America has come a long way from slavery it still has a long way to go.
When Hurston first meets Kossula in 1927, he is not only the lone survivor of slavery but he has also outlived his wife and, tragically, all of his children. He is full of deep sadness but never once sounds bitter about his life. It is with true commitment to Kossula’s story and his voice that Hurston refused to publish Barracoon after being instructed by Viking Press to change Kossula’s dialect into standardised English. Now, almost a century later, Kossula and his story have been published to the world as Hurston, and I’m sure he, would have liked it. ‘Through this publication’, Deborah G. Plant states in the Introduction, ‘Barracoon extends our knowledge of and understanding about the experiences of Africans prior to their disembarkation into the Americas. Like a relic pulled up from the ocean floor, Barracoon speaks to us of survival. It recalls the disremembered and gives an account for the unaccounted’.
‘Barracoon’ by Zora Neale Hurston was published on 23rd April. Thank you to HarperCollins, via Edelweiss+, for the review copy.