‘[S]omething to feel about’: Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of The Last Slave

A Review Essay

It is nearly a century since Zora Neale Hurston wrote Barracoon, an ethnography of Cudjo Lewis, the Alabama man believed to be the last living African enslaved in the United States. On May 8 Lewis’ story became widely available to the public for the first time. To mark this historic occasion, and to commemorate the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston – a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, African-American folklorist and ethnographer, and one of the most significant women writers of the twentieth century – USSO has commissioned a series of articles on any aspect of Hurston’s life, her art, her anthropology. This article is the second in the series. You can read the first article here.


The publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon had been a long time coming: about 87 years to be precise.  As its subtitle suggests, the book recounts the story of an ex-slave, a man among the very last survivors of the Atlantic slave trade.  Kossola Oluale (also known by his Americanised name, Cudjo Lewis) had been brought illegally to America on the Clotilda slave ship in 1859.  Barracoon’s long-awaited release in May of this year was heralded as a ‘major literary event’ by its publishers, while a New York Times reviewer conjectured that its publication ‘could have a profound impact on Hurston’s literary legacy’.[i]  To date, Hurston’s ‘literary legacy’ has largely meant the enduring and widespread popularity of her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Indeed, almost every modern edition of Hurston’s other published works, Barracoon included, is sure to advertise Hurston as first and foremost the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Their Eyes Were Watching God: the best known work by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston.

Barracoon was completed by 1931, long before Hurston could claim this epithet. It was swiftly sent out to publishers and quickly rejected by Viking Press, reportedly for its use of dialect which Hurston refused to alter: the majority of the text consists of Kossola’s reported vernacular, rendered faithfully in Hurston’s now famous, much-praised style.  But this was not Hurston’s first attempt at writing Kossola’s story.  She had previously been encouraged to interview him by her mentor, the anthropologist Franz Boas, and her essay entitled “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slave” had been published in the October 1927 issue of The Journal of Negro History.  Hurston’s initial interviews with Kossola had not gone terribly well and the 1927 essay, as her biographer Robert Hemenway notes, was largely plagiarised from Emma Langdon Roche’s pro-slavery Historic Sketches of the South (1914).[ii]  Nevertheless, it was this essay, sent to Charlotte Osgood Mason by Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance, which precipitated Hurston’s meeting with the wealthy, white patron of black arts in late 1927.  Mason, known as ‘Godmother’ to her protégés, believed passionately in the power and worth of all things “primitive”.  She was so captivated by Kossola’s story that she sent Hurston back to Alabama to collect more folklore and to interview him again.  Mason also began sending Kossola monthly cheques and the two corresponded until his death in 1935.  With her patron’s support – both moral and financial – Hurston’s second round of interviews with Kossola was far more successful than the first.

The text of Barracoon itself is relatively short, just over one hundred pages sandwiched between a foreword by Alice Walker and an afterword by Hurston scholar and editor Deborah G. Plant.  It was Walker, of course, who in the early 1970s first resurrected Hurston as an icon of African American women’s writing and ‘A Genius of the South’; indeed, this was part of the epitaph Walker commissioned for her gravestone.[iii]  Brief as it is, Barracoon is nevertheless a unique and vital work not only due to its subject matter or because it constitutes Hurston’s first book-length anthropological work, but also for what it reveals about the often elusive figure of Hurston herself.

The Hurston we encounter here is closer to the anthropologist and collector of folklore of Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938) than the novelist most often associated with Their Eyes Were Watching God.  In her preface, however, Hurston declares that this work ‘makes no attempt to be a scientific document’ and that there will be no ‘intrusion of interpretation’; Kossola, his interviewer assures us, ‘has been permitted to tell his story in his own way’.[iv]  Hurston may not often intrude upon Kossola’s narrative, but Barracoon, I argue, in fact reveals much more about her thinking than has thus far been acknowledged.

 

By the time of the publication of her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston probably held little hope that the text of Barracoon — completed over a decade earlier — would ever see publication.  In Dust Tracks, she recalls her meetings with Kossola in generally fond terms, describing him as ‘a cheerful, poetical old gentleman in his late nineties, who could tell a good story’.[v]  Yet what Hurston learned from Kossola’s life story also disturbed her in some measure; he had been sold into slavery not by white men but by Africans of the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin).   Hurston realised that ‘[her] people had sold [her] and the white people had bought [her]’.[vi]  This ‘inescapable fact that stuck in [her] craw’ dispelled ‘the folklore [she] had been brought up on –that the white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard ship and sailed away’.[vii]  That in fact ‘[her] own people had butchered and killed, exterminated whole nations and torn families apart, for a profit’ ‘impressed upon [Hurston] the universal nature of greed and glory’.[viii]  Plant is right to wonder how such a revelation would have affected Hurston as a leading light of the ‘New Negro’ movement, whose racial pride and claims to authenticity were ‘rooted in African origins’.[ix]

Zora Neale Hurston and Deborah G. Plant (ed.), Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”, (Harper Collins, 2018), is available from May 8.

Hurston’s racial politics and individualist philosophy in later life certainly seem to have been influenced by this realisation of ‘the universal nature of greed and glory’.  She had no desire to act as a representative of her race or part of W. E. B. Du Bois’ ‘Talented Tenth’, the elite group of the most able African American artists and intellectuals whom Du Bois hoped would “uplift” the race.  Race pride and race prejudice, she writes in her autobiography, are merely ‘scourges of humanity’ which permit ‘[t]he solace of easy generalization’.[x]  ‘When I have been made to suffer or I have been made happy by others,’ she affirms, ‘I have known that individuals were responsible for that, and not races.’[xi]  Kossola’s suffering, then, had been caused not by “white” or “black” men but by individuals granted the ‘power and opportunity’ which Kossola lacked.[xii]

Yet this rationale does not diminish the tragedy of his story, rendered sensitively and compassionately by Hurston. Kossola says little of his relatively short time as an enslaved man.  Indeed, Barracoon is far less about the experience of slavery than it is about the deeply painful experience of being cut off from home, family and roots and being unable to return or reconnect.  ‘After seventy-five years,’ Hurston notes in Dust Tracks, Kossola ‘still had that tragic sense of loss.  That yearning for blood and cultural ties.  That sense of mutilation.  It gave me something to feel about.’[xiii]

Kossola’s ‘yearning for blood and cultural ties’ is made evident and rendered movingly in Barracoon. He wants Hurston to tell his story, to spread his account of events, in the hope that word of his existence will reach Africa.  He wishes desperately that someone there will hear his story and say ‘“Yeah, I know Kossula”’.[xiv]  Kossola’s oft-repeated refrain – ‘“you unnerstand me”’ – seems further indicative of his desire for connection and identification.  Indeed, Kossola is portrayed here, whether in the barracoon at Ouidah (the slave pen in which he was held before being taken to America) or later in his Alabama home (named Africatown and founded by Kossola and his fellow Clotilda survivors), as a man ‘transfixed between two worlds, fully belonging to neither’.[xv] 

The narrative voice here is not, as Plant notes, the usual ‘heroic, self-possessed, and self-realized voice associated with black autobiography’; Kossola often expresses emotion, cries and admits the desolate loneliness of his situation.[xvi]  Unlike the famous slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano, a prominent abolitionist in the British movement to end the Atlantic slave-trade, or Frederick Douglass, a leader of the American abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, Kossola’s is not a happy tale of post-emancipation triumph, but one of displacement and isolation.  Barracoon, then, is a fitting title for Kossola’s harrowing tale; unable to return to the ‘Afficky soil’ of which speaks so fondly but equally unable to forget it, he seems forever suspended between his two ‘homes’.  In recounting his early life to Hurston, she realises that in some moments he slips back into his former life: ‘Kossula was no longer on the porch with me.  He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey’.[xvii]  He recalls, too, that at his daughter’s funeral the congregation sang the hymn ‘Shall We Meet Beyond the River’; having long been a Christian and a church-goer, Kossola knew ‘“de words of de song wid my mouth, but my heart it doan know dat. Derefo’ I sing inside me, ‘O todo ah wah n-law yah-lee, owrran, k-nee ra ra k-nee ro ro.’”’[xviii]  The words which comfort him in his grief, the rhythms that move him, are still those of his African home.

Barracoon could easily be overcome by the tragedies of Kossola’s life.  These continue during his many decades of freedom; his wife and children are all dead or presumed dead by the time of Hurston’s interviews.  But Hurston studs her account with small moments of simple happiness, gestures of friendship and instances of shared joy.  She brings gifts of food for Kossola – Georgia peaches, watermelon, even a Virginia ham – he, in turn, offers her fruit from his trees and on one occasion they eat fresh crab together.  Through food and gift-giving they develop what seems a genuine, warm bond of friendship.  That Kossola’s story gave Hurston ‘something to feel about’ seems indicative of this bond and of a sympathy and understanding of his situation and of the unique horrors of the slave trade which is not always evident in her writings.  Indeed, Hurston’s views on slavery and its legacy have often, especially among a more contemporary audience, been deemed insensitive and problematic.  In “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, published in May 1928 (only months after her first meeting with Kossola), Hurston expresses her resentment at the fact that ‘[s]omeone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves’; she declares, though that ‘[i]t fails to register depression with me […]Slavery is the price I paid for civilization.’[xix]  In Dust Tracks, too, Hurston seems dismissive in her affirmation that, despite the ‘sad[ness]’ of slavery, there is ‘nothing but futility in gazing backward […] and buking the grave of some white man’ who ‘probably did cut some capers’ but ‘has been dead too long to talk about’.[xx]

In Barracoon, though, this attitude seems fundamentally altered; in Kossola, Hurston encountered a human story and an individual to whom she could connect on a personal level.  In his desire for belonging, for home and homeliness, Hurston may have recognised something of herself and her own ‘cosmic loneliness’, as she would later describe it in Dust Tracks.[xxi]  Raised in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston was one of the few Harlem Renaissance artists who considered herself a true representative of the black, working-class folk of the American South. However, having studied at Barnard College and moved amongst middle-class intellectual circles in New York, she struggled to negotiate the ‘sociocultural chasm’ between her upbringing and her life in New York.[xxii]  For her biographer, Robert Hemenway, Hurston at this time ‘was struggling with two concepts of culture’.[xxiii]  She prized what was deemed both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, both written and oral traditions; the role of the Harlem Renaissance artist, of course, was to bridge the gap between these seemingly disparate cultural polarities.  In her meetings with Kossola, then, and in her efforts to present and disseminate his story, Hurston was confronted with perhaps the starkest realisation of her ‘duty’ as a black anthropologist, folklorist and ‘New Negro’ writer.

Perhaps consequently, the questions she put to Kossola reveal some of the most profound and persistent quandaries evident in her own life and later work.  From the outset, she is especially interested in Kossola’s religion:‘How does a pagan live with a Christian God? How has the Nigerian “heathen” borne up under the process of civilization?’.[xxiv]  The daughter of a preacher, Hurston’s childhood had been steeped in religion; from a young age she revelled in the Christian rituals, but ‘of the inner thing’ she continued ‘to seek answers’.[xxv] 

Hurston’s scepticism of religion and her complex views on the roots and functions of Christianity have long been overlooked.  Later in the 1930s, she would undertake field research and write on the Sanctified Church.  Here she would highlight the pagan origins of African American religion, affirming that ‘the Negro has not been christianized as extensively as is generally believed. The great masses are still standing before their pagan altars and calling old gods by a new name’.[xxvi]  The Sanctified Church, she avers, ‘is putting back into Negro religion those elements that were brought over from Africa and grafted onto Christianity as soon as the Negro came in contact with it’.[xxvii]  In Kossola, to her a prime example of a converted Christian who has integrated his African religion and his adopted religion, she feels that ‘[i]n spite of his long Christian fellowship, he is too deeply a pagan to fear death’.[xxviii]  Kossola, then, as the closest living link Hurston encountered to the slave past, to those of her own ancestors uprooted forever from African soil, represents a significant figure in her own story and trajectory as an anthropologist, folklorist, writer and thinker.

Hurston’s timely revival in the 1970s, a generation after the publication of her most famous works, permitted and perhaps necessitated the formation of a romantic and idealised image of her which has often, as literary scholar Carla Kaplan notes, ‘glossed over what is objectionable in her life and writing’.[xxix] The publication of a ‘new’ work seems a suitable occasion to revisit past oversights and to embrace Hurston as the fundamentally itinerant, complex and conflicted thinker and individual she undoubtedly was. Unfortunately, the marketing of Barracoon and the hype around its publication have once again emphasised the extent to which Hurston has, as Kaplan affirms, ‘often been loved too simply’.[xxx] This said, the publication of Barracoon is also a thoroughly positive sign and symptom of Hurston’s enduring appeal and relevance.  Barracoon merits attention and praise not only due to its status as a unique historical and anthropological document, but as a work which affords rare insight into one of the twentieth century’s most elusive and alluring writers.

 

[i]Alexandra Alter, “A Work by Zora Neale Hurston Will Finally Be Published”, The New York Times, May 1, 2018, < https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/01/books/zora-neale-hurston-new-book.html> [28 September 2018].

[ii]Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977) p. 96.

[iii]Hurston had died impoverished over a decade earlier, in 1960, at the St. Lucie County Welfare Home and was buried in an unmarked grave.

[iv]Zora Neale Hurston,Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave (London: Harper Collins, 2018)p. 3; Hemenway argues, though, that Barracoonis ‘the type of book that Boas would have repudiated’ (p. 101).  It purports, he says, ‘to be solely the words of Cudjo; in fact, it is Hurston’s imaginative recreation of his experience’ (p. 101).

[v]Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road(New York: Harper Perennial, 2006)p. 164.

[vi]Ibid, p. 165.

[vii]Ibid, p. 165.

[viii]Ibid, p. 165.

[ix]Deborah G. Plant, Afterword to Barracoon, p. 125

[x]Hurston, Dust Tracks, p. 248.

[xi]Ibid, p. 248.

[xii]Ibid, pp. 165-166.

[xiii]Ibid, p. 168.

[xiv]Hurston, Barracoon, p. 19.

[xv]Alice Walker, Introduction to Barracoon, p. xix.

[xvi]Plant, Afterword to Barracoon, p. 130.

[xvii]Hurston, Barracoon, p. 49.

[xviii]Ibid, p. 74.

[xix]Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, I Love Myself when I Am Laughing … and Then Again when I Am Looking Mean and Impressive:A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, ed. by Alice Walker (New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1979) p. 153.

[xx]Hurston, Dust Tracks, p. 254.

[xxi]Ibid, p. 44.

[xxii]Plant, Afterword to Barracoon, p. 121.

[xxiii]Hemenway, p. 99.

[xxiv]Hurston, Barracoon, p. 16.

[xxv]Hurston, Dust Tracks,p. 221.

[xxvi]Hurston, “The Sanctified Church”, The Sanctified Church(Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1983), p. 103.

[xxvii]Ibid, p. 105.

[xxviii]Hurston, Dust Tracks, p. 94.

[xxix]Carla Kaplan (ed.), Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (New York: Doubleday, 2002) p. 31; see also Sean McCann “The Cruelty of Zora Neale Hurston,” The Common Review, 2.3 (Fall 2003) 6-15.

[xxx]Ibid, p. 30.

Laura Ryan

Laura Ryan is a PhD student in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester. Her research looks at D. H. Lawrence and the Harlem Renaissance as well as exploring transatlantic and transnational modernisms more widely.

About Laura Ryan

Laura Ryan is a PhD student in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester. Her research looks at D. H. Lawrence and the Harlem Renaissance as well as exploring transatlantic and transnational modernisms more widely.
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