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Book Notes: Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Oluale Kossola

"Barracoon" by Zora Neale Hurston

Finished 6/29/2019


Zora Neale Hurston has followed me through the entirety of my adult life. I was assigned to read "Their Eyes Were Watching God" in high school and was entranced by the astonishing poetry of her language

Reflecting back, it's possible that this was the first book by an African-American that I read cover to cover. My High School English teacher gave us some historical context on the Harlem Renaissance and her prominent place therein. Beyond that, like most White Americans, I was pathetically ignorant about the rich Blackness that undergirds American Culture. This book was part of the start of my education.

When I got to graduate school, I was delighted and surprised to discover that she played an integral role in the history of American Anthropology. She studied with Franz Boas and conducted prominent fieldwork in the rural south and Jamaica, collecting folklore, stories, and other aspects of what we might now call Expressive Culture. or even autoethnography. She wrote two books on the subject:  "Mules and Men" and "Tell My Horse."  Though not highly regarded in her lifetime, her folklore and ethnographic work is seeing a critical resurgence for its intellectual reach and deep humanism.

A few years ago, I had heard that an unpublished manuscript of hers, which involved an interview with Cudjo Lewis, the last African kidnapped in the Transatlantic Slave Trade was going to finally receive publication. I finished it a few days ago, and have a few scattered thoughts. The take-away is that it was riveting and wonderful.

  1. Kossula Oluale (also known as Cudjo Lewis) was clearly an astonishing storyteller--Deborah Plant, who edits the book, locates Kossula in the Griot tradition. The narrative is peppered with small details that make it more than just a recounting of memory. I was particularly struck by his evocative descriptions of his first arrival at Dahomey after being taken prisoner, and his horror at the use of ornamental skulls to display the power and violence of the Dahomean dynasties. But he also recounted the early days of Africatown, the community he and others founded after emancipation, telling amazing and dramatic stories about the lives and deaths of his family members and the ways in which they tried to survive in a land to which they were brought in chains. There is also an appendix in which Kossula recounts various fables he knew from his youth which are fantastical and delightful. Africa and the American Flag, by FOOTE (1854)
  2. Hurston's decision to write the book preserving Kossula's dialect was both a way to honor his cadence and storytelling, as well as a rhetorical masterstroke. Many times, I found myself saying sentences aloud to try and divine their meaning, and the delight that I got in evoking Kossula's words made for a richer reading of the text.
  3. I don't have a lot of experience reading the genre of Slave narratives, but found it interesting that Kossula talks very little about his experiences being forced to work on the plantation of James Meaher--a few paragraphs at most. The majority of the book details his shockingly rich memory of his first twenty years in West Africa and his later life in Africatown. His time enslaved takes up maybe two paragraphs. Whether this is from his lack of interest in discussing this horrific period, or Hurston's lack of interest in asking questions about, or just it not being particularly memorable beyond the drudgery and suffering of incessant menial work, I don't know.
  4. The accompanying historical and contextual essays by  Deborah G. Plant are really rich and insightful, describing both the problems that Thurston had in getting the book published, and the controversies which have emerged around it. There is some fairly clear evidence that she plagiarized some of the initial writing she did about Cudjo Lewis from a local Alabama historian named Emma Langdon Roche. But what is also clear is that Hurston's insistence on writing the manuscript in dialect, along with the uncomfortable history of Africans selling Africans made the book seem unpalatable to publishers in the 1930s and 40s. 

So for me, this book is a rich and insightful bookend to a much longer engagement with Zora Neale Hurston, a fascinating and unique piece of historiography, and a gripping tale of a survivor of the violence and horror of American Slavery.

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