If there is a singular, historical link between Africa and America, it is the literary bond developed in 1927 between Zora Neale Hurston and Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of Black bodies transported from Africa to the Americas from 1619 to 1865, Cudjo is the only man left and Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” is his story.
Barracoon was released May 8, 2019 and Women’s History Month is an apt opportunity to reprise Zora Neale Hurston’s posthumous, nonfiction work. In Barracoon, the renowned novelist and cultural anthropologist captures the humanity and abject exploitation of Cudjo’s story. It is fact-based, rooted in oral history and verified by Hurston’s extensive, ethnographic research.
Born in 1841 in what is now Benin, Cudjo is the last surviving African brought to America in what is believed the last known slave ship – the Clotilda. He was captured at the age of 19 and forced into slavery. The 86 year old opened up to Hurston during her 1927 travels to Plateau, AL which resulted in a literary account of the degradation and trauma of slavery.
Lewis is perpetually homesick and rightfully so. He never forgot his birth name Oluale Kossola, his Takkoi tribe, nor de Affica soil. Sixty seven years later, Oluale Kossola never fully settled into becoming Cudjo Lewis. Instead, he saw himself as being of two different worlds, yet he belonged to neither one. Nothing was of permanence. Not even the town he helped found in Alabama – Africatown – which was renamed Plateau.
An orator of the first order, Cudjo relayed the wisdom of his motherland through stories and parables. He is a man who lost his family in Africa. His identity was snatched from him, replaced by a slave name. Hurston respectfully retained Lewis’ vernacular – jagged and passionate – to give voice to the man deemed America’s last Black Cargo. The following is a poignant excerpt.
“We very sorry to be parted from one ‘nother,” Lewis told Hurston. “We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ‘nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.”
Hurston’s literary approach didn’t tell his story; Cudjo divulged his truth and owned the pace. Hurston didn’t shape his literary voice; his vernacular was left intact.
Barracoon is decidedly different from other books that illuminate the African Slave Trade in America. A master storyteller and unlikely griot did more than just cross paths; they combined like DNA to produce a book of historical magnitude. Instead of making a slave the discussion’s topic, one of the last known survivors of the Middle Passage plaintively speaks.
Zora Neale Hurston should henceforth be deemed the foremost genealogist of the Black American story for fulfilling a literary neglect. In the tradition of her celebrated folklore, Hurston summates, “All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.”