Wednesday, July 04, 2018


Barracoon: The story of the Last Black Cargo. Zora Neale Hurston. 2018. HarperCollins. 2018. 256 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence of the preface: This is the life story of Cudjo Lewis, as told by himself.

Premise/plot: When he was a young man, Kossula was captured by the Dahomey and eventually sold to American slave traders. The year was 1860. Though a slave for just five years--give or take--the experience forever changed him. In 1927, Kossula (aka Cudjo Lewis) met--befriended--a young folklorist named Zora Neale Hurston. His story was important to capture, and Hurston wanted to be the one to do it--in his own words, in his own style. Which meant it was to be written in dialect, in a conversational style. The manuscript did not find a publisher in Hurston's lifetime. But it has now. 

He tells his story in his own way in his own words. He speaks of Africa. He tells of his family, his community, his childhood. He shares memories of visiting his grandfather's home, of his funeral, for example. He talks of learning to hunt and initial training to become a soldier. He was still too young to be a soldier, to join the grown-ups in his village; he was still too young to build his own house and marry. But he didn't get a chance to live the life he thought he would.

His life was interrupted--brutally so. The Dahomey attacked his gated village: capturing some, slaughtering the rest. He was among the captured young men and women. He was kept prisoner in the barracoons of Ouidah (Whydah) until he was purchased by slave traders and loaded as cargo onto the ship Clotilda. He tells of the journey and the destination. He shares his experiences as a slave. He talks of his experiences as a free man. There was no going back. There was no erasing those years. He was cut off from the future that should have been his--his home in Africa. There are stories about his wife, his children, his grandchildren. Make no mistake it's a hard life.

"My Grandpa, he a great man. I tellee you how he go."
I was afraid that Cudjo might go off on a tangent, so I cut in with, "But Kossula, I want to hear about you and how you lived in Africa."
He gave me a look full of scornful pity and asked, "Where is de house where de mouse is de leader? In de Affica soil I cain tellee you 'bout de son before I tellee you 'bout de father; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father till I tellee you bout  de man who he father to him, now, dass raight ain' it?" (20)
"Ole Charlie, he de oldest one come from de Afficky soil. One Sunday after my wife left me he come wid all de others dat come cross de water and say, 'Uncle Cudjo, make us a parable.'
'Well den,' I say, 'You see Ole Charlie dere. S'pose he stop here on de way to church. He got de parasol 'cause he think it gwine rain when he leave de house. But he look at de sky and 'cide hit ain' gwine rain so he set it dere by de door an' go on to church. After de preachin' he go on home 'cause he think de parasol at Cudjo house. It safe. He say, 'I git it nexy time I go dat way.' When he come home he say to one de chillun, 'Go to Cudjo house and tellee him I say sendee me my parasol.' 'De parasol it pretty. I likee keep dat one.' But I astee dem all, 'Is it right to keep de parasol?' Dey all say, 'No it belong to Charlie.' 'Well,' I say, 'my wife, she b'long to God. He lef' her by my door.'" (92)
 My thoughts: I am so glad I read this one. I have long been a fan of Zora Neale Hurston. I was introduced to her work in college and LOVED, LOVED, LOVED it. I would recommend this one. It isn't necessarily easy reading. Some readers may struggle with the dialect. More readers may struggle with the content. I think many of us--if not most of us--want to look away from pain and cruelty and injustice. Even when we know we shouldn't. We don't want to know how it feels, what it looks like. We don't want to be witness to it. But his story deserves to be known and known widely.

I would recommend it.

© 2018 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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