At the beginning of Barracoon, the previously unpublished book by Zora Neale Hurston that has at last been released, Hurston turns her attention to the “innumerable books and papers that have been written” about the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
There have been volumes, Hurston says, written by slave traders and by abolitionists about the horrors of Middle Passage and slave auctions. But, she concludes, those accounts have neglected to include the most important voices of all: the voices of enslaved people. She writes:
All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the “black ivory,” the “coin of Africa,” had no market value. Africa’s ambassadors to the New World have come and worked and died, and left their spoor, but no recorded thoughts.
When she wrote Barracoon in 1927, Hurston aimed to solve that problem.
Hurston is best known today for her work as a novelist and for the ecstatic, lyrical prose of Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she was also an anthropologist, and it was her scholarly mission to collect and preserve African-American folk culture. With Barracoon, she put both her literary and her anthropological skills to work to create a unique and harrowing slave narrative, the story of the last known survivor of Middle Passage. His story brings the horrors of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade out of the historical past and into the grasp of living memory, and the results are painful to read.
“We are being shown the wound,” Alice Walker writes in her foreword to Barracoon.
Barracoon is both a historical document and an astonishing literary accomplishment, an unapologetic rendering of a voice that shows us the wound and does not hide from it.
Barracoon reads like a kind of literary ethnography
Barracoon tells the story of Kossola, called Cudjo Lewis. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808 in the US, but Kossola was nonetheless kidnapped from his home in West Africa and sold to illegal slave traders in 1860. He would spend five and a half years enslaved in Alabama before learning from Union soldiers that slavery was abolished in 1865.
Hurston’s conversations with Kossola about his life comprise the bulk of Barracoon, with Hurston’s authorial voice intruding only occasionally. The central voice of the manuscript is Kossola’s, and Hurston renders his speech in dialect: “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo!” he says when Hurston first approaches him. “I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.” (The spelling of Kossola’s name varies throughout the book.)
The dialect, it seems, was the sticking point for Baracoon’s fate. Viking was interested in publishing Barracoon, but “in language rather than dialect,” it told Hurston. Hurston refused to revise Kossola’s voice out of her manuscript, and it languished among her papers as an obscure scholarly artifact until this year.
Kossola’s story is recognizably his own, but Hurston has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail that builds character and the rhythms that create story: Interspersed through Kossola’s account of his training as a soldier for his tribe is Hurston’s account of how she shared a watermelon with him, until, “watermelon halves having ends like everything else, and a thorough watermelon eating being what it is, a long over-stuffed silence fell on us.”
What’s particularly striking about Kossola’s story is how little of it is taken up by his time in slavery. Kossola is in his 90s as he speaks to Hurston, and the five years he spent enslaved take up only nine pages of the whole narrative — but they changed everything. Slavery is a singular and brutal wound in Kossola’s life story, after which nothing is ever the same again.
Before his capture, Kossola was a well-respected member of his tribe, a trained soldier who was in the process of being initiated into a secret society and becoming eligible for marriage. He was just 19 years old. After he was freed, Kossola would never see his old country again.
“It is a kind of slave narrative in reverse,” writes editor Deborah G. Plant in her afterword, “journeying backward to barracoons, betrayal, and barbarity.”
Kossola and his fellow countrymen planned to return to Africa after slavery was abolished, but they found that they would never be able to save enough money for the passage. So if they have to stay in the US, they reasoned, their former owners should give them land to work: “We ain’ in de Affica soil no mo’ we ain’ gottee no lan’,” Kossola recalls thinking. “Dey bring us ‘way from our soil and workee us hard de five year and six months. We go to Cap’n Tim and Cap’n Jim and dey give us de lan’, so makee houses for ourselves.”
Captains Tim and Jim saw things differently, however, and refused to give Kossola and his countrymen anything. Instead, the former enslaved people saved enough to buy their own land and found what became known as Africatown, a community in Mobile, Alabama, that survives to this day.
Kossola lives a full life in Africatown — he marries and has children and becomes a sexton in the town church — but his narrative is permeated with pain and sorrow and loneliness. He pauses frequently to weep. “I so lonely,” he tells Hurston when he recalls how his wife and children died.
“How does one sleep with such memories beneath the pillow?” Hurston asks of Kossola.
Baracoon breathes life into those memories — of the horrors of abduction, of Middle Passage, of slavery, of the Jim Crow South — and makes them so real and so present that they would trouble anyone’s sleep.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Africatown was in Mobile, Atlanta. It’s in Mobile, Alabama. We regret the error.