Zora Neale Hurston explores the life of a slave trade survivor in 'Barracoon'
Hurston’s study of Lewis was conducted during her years as a Barnard College anthropology student under Dr. Franz Boas.
Though published 87 years after completion, Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” book is a timely work. As American society debates whether to tear down Confederate memorials and reexamines the narrative of slavery and the Civil War, Hurston’s interviews with the last-known survivor of the slave trade serves as a reminder of whose story has often been disregarded throughout American history.
In “Barracoon,” Hurston, a celebrated author, activist, and anthropologist, recounts her many interviews with Cudjo Lewis, a 90-year-old former slave living in Plateau, Ala. Lewis welcomes the opportunity to share his story, but the interviews develop slowly as Lewis lays bare the tragedies, heartbreak, and joys of his life.
Lewis was taken from West Africa aboard the Clotilda in 1860 and sold into slavery in the United States, more than 50 years after the international slave trade was abolished in 1808. Lewis lived in slavery for five-and-a-half years before he was freed with the end of the Civil War in 1865. After obtaining freedom, he and other former slaves worked to earn money and eventually buy a section of land and establish African Town, which later became Plateau, Ala.
Hurston’s study of Lewis was conducted during her years as a Barnard College anthropology student under Dr. Franz Boas. Her assignment was to obtain an interview about the raid that led to Lewis’s captivity in Africa. Following her interview, she wrote an essay and created a five-minute silent film about Lewis’s story. A few years later, Hurston returned to capture a broader picture of Lewis’s life, from his youth in Africa to his experience as a free man in the United States. Hurston details these interviews in a book written in 1931 but unpublished until now.
"Barracoon" includes an extensive introduction by Deborah Plant, which explains Hurston’s methods as an anthropologist and author at the beginning of her career. Ms. Plant also provides background on Lewis’s life and contextualizes the book in today’s terms, giving the story added importance as America confronts its legacy of slavery.
Slave narratives hold an important place in the history of America, notes Hurston. “All these words from the seller,” she writes, “but not one word from the sold.... The thoughts of the ‘black ivory,’ the ‘coin of Africa,’ had no market value.”
“Barracoon,” through its exploration of Lewis’s life, recognizes the importance of his story, his thread, in the tapestry of American history.
As Hurston elicits interviews from Lewis over gifts of watermelon and Georgia peaches, she masterfully captures not only the content of Lewis’s story, but the way in which he tells it. Dialect plays a prevalent role in Hurston’s novels, including the widely acclaimed “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” distinguishing her as an author and a folklorist who stays true to the dialect of the South.
Though the story is recounted from Hurston’s own perspective, she inserts very little of herself into the narrative, letting it be driven by Lewis. Through the retelling of her interviews, she captures the complexity of Lewis’s loss of his native culture and family, the harrowing journey to the US, his time as a slave, and his role in establishing African Town with other former slaves near Mobile, Ala.
Hurston study of Lewis reveals the deep wounds that being forced to leave one’s country and the bonds of slavery inflict on a person. As Lewis tells Hurston about his life, he weeps fresh tears for the horrors he witnessed and the events he has suffered. “'Barracoon' speaks to us of historical injustice,” writes Plant. “It would have us consider that slavery did not end with the Thirteenth Amendment ... but that it evolved.”
Hurston’s “Barracoon” asks us to examine the present even as it explores the past through the experiences of Lewis, the last-known survivor of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in his day.