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A few years ago, I had heard that an unpublished manuscript of hers, which involved an interview with Cudjo Lewis, the last African kidnapped in the Transatlantic Slave Trade was going to finally receive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.


Quentin's Weeknotes 6/22/19-6/28/19

This Week:


Quentin's Weeknotes 6/15/19-6/21/19

This Week:

You are bereft of hips, as also of arms, hands and feet – try bending your neck to your feet! Your smell is awful; you make people throw-up


Book Notes: The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfield

The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfield

A dystopian satire, written a few years ago, whose closeness to (as well as divergence from) the world we are currently in makes it even more unsettling.

The Subprimes of the title are people whose credit scores are sub-prime (and folks with not that long memories will recall the use of this term in the finance market to describe the volatile loans that led us to the 2008 crash). In 21st century America, they are social pariahs, as every aspect of citizenship and daily life are governed by credit scores (housing, employment, education). Those whose scores are too low are forced into vagrancy, setting up temporary camps called Ryanvilles (named after former House Speaker, weightlifting enthusiast, and champion of government deregulation Paul Ryan). The book intertwines a number of storylines, including several Subprime families, a washed-up reporter whose son is enrolled in an increasingly regimented and privatized school system, the wife of a energy stock trader under inditement for securities fraud, and a mysterious woman of color who tries to build political and social alternatives to all of this.

Along the way there are hard-right evangelical megachurch pastor/politicians, ultra-wealthy energy families manipulating politics towards their own ends, environmental castastrophe (the book opens with Whales beaching themselves en masse, and periodically references unending prairie wildfires), double-speak regressive politics (e.g. "the Clear Skies Act" which mandates environmental deregulation), economic exploitation of marginalized people, and the militarization of everyday life.

The Subprimes highlights the danger and disorientation of our world with both incisive humor and abject terror. The book opens with a depressing depiction of a Ryanville that is later destroyed by a police raid, in a passage both horrifying and enraging. There are also some wonderful puns and wordplay to be found throughout--the wealthy sisters who own most of America's energy concerns are named the "Peppers", presumably in references to the Koch (Coke) brothers.

This is a satire, which means its about ideas and abstractions, not characters and emotions. Most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional--the philandering stock-trader husband is astonishingly simple-minded for someone who scammed hundreds of people. Likewise, the mysterious revolutionary Sargham is almost literally divine, and the ending of the book casts a miraculous shadow over her political beliefs and hard organizing work. There were passages and sections that I found to be pretty abyssmally written, and that let go of subtlety in favor of a rhetorical beating.

And the end of the book is somewhat upbeat, but in a way that felt literally miraculous and belies the complicated ecological, economic, and political problems that it outlined. It initially feels good to see powerless people stand up to the powerful, but offered little beyond that good feeling as to whether such a stand would be ultimately succesful in any other narrative or historical moment.

All together, this was a harrowing read, given our current circumstances. It was definitely entertaining, especially in the "spot the pseudonym" sort of way, and it tells a story of triumph over evil. But I'm not sure that I actually enjoyed it, given how woodenly it was written, and given that the problems it sketches are all around us, frighteningly visible and visceral, I found its magical ending even more despairing.


Quentin's Weeknotes 6/8/190-6/14/19

This week:

  • I listened to this two part interview with Steve Albini and Ian Mackaye. It was a phenomenally rich conversation, with the first part being basically historical, about their respective histories in punk rock and independent music, and the second part being more philosophical, with their thoughts about the internet, criticism, and community. What came through for me is that they are great friends, mutually admiring, and that part of what brings them together is their fierce commitment to humanistic and ethical art-making. What was also neat was to hear their points of difference, with Albini being more analytical and empiricist and Mackaye being more direct and rationalist.
  • I finished reading Grady Hendrix' Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror fiction. It was a fun, easy read, and made so by the amazing covers of these novels, reprinted theiein, and by Hendrix's humorous ironic prose, filled both with genuine love and snark for the outrageous books that made up the horror boom of the late 20th century.