Good afternoon or good evening from wherever you are reading this! As it is a Wednesday, I decided I needed to post a book review. While I read this book earlier in June, parts of it still sits with me. As always, you can follow me on WordPress or any available social media platform. This review is also, quite short.
I learned about Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston in the New York Magazine article in late April. The book was published shortly after the article was released, and the Barnes & Noble store I frequent didn’t have the copy until mid-May. I checked it out from the library in June, once I saw how tiny the book was. I had taken the book with me to my family reunion in southeastern Oklahoma. Part of my family (from Alabama) was not happy I was reading this book. I digress.
And even with how short the book is, the content is still deep enough to pull emotions from deep within (that you may or may not have known existed). The book is a interview with Cudjo Lewis who was brought to the United States as a slave. Huston, the lady who interviews Cudjo, has a fantastic resume in publications in anthropology and African- American literature. This interviews were done over a series of months in the 1930s. Zora went to go publish her findings in 1931, but was turned down by editors because they did not want to lay out the uncomfortable truth with Africa’s involvement in the slave trade.
Viking Press, would be willing to publish the story if *and this part made me furious* Hurston re-wrote it “in language rather than dialect.” That, if you haven’t studied too much into languages and dialect, would put Cudjo’s story into simpler words and without it sounding like Cudjo has an accent or dialect. Most stories I have read, did just that when showing characters from different diversities and countries. Personally, it’s a writing hot take that I think is now being resolved.
The interview and manuscript was never published, until Howard University (through the Zora Neale Hurston Trust) was able to find the manuscript and publish it. The first half of the story, is about the process Hurston went to write the story, with only fifty or more pages dedicated to the interview itself. Here is an insert from the book to show what was in fact published this year:
“I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”
His head was bowed for a time. Then he lifted his wet face: “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’ ”
While there might be several red squiggly lines throughout that entire phrase, I’d rather that be the case then the story and interview being reconstructed to a formal interview.
Because the book is only 208 pages, it still takes time to read through. Because of the dialect through out, it takes me a few more seconds to process it as a written dialect, rather than spoken. I was able to read this in two weeks and return it to the library on time. The story is an emotional one, because of the injustice that surrounds the slave trade. While some books have tried to shy away from certain truths in history, this interview pulls back a few curtains for me. One of my favorite stories that Cudjo told, was when he was telling an Old Testament story in his own words. I loved the way he phrased the Jonah story in its simplest story telling.
The last time I studied United States history, was over seven years ago. Most of the detailed information has been lost or remembered incorrectly. Since I’ve been having more interest in my education, I’ve been going through my books and reading history books. This one, was an eye opener, because I had never realized the role that Africa played with the slave trades.
What even bothers me just as much, is that slave trades were made illegal in 1808, but humans were still being traded until the last known slave ship, Clotilda, brought Cudjo Lewis to the US in 1860. Hence why Cudjo Lewis was interviewed, as he was the last slave brought to the United States.
Without writing too many political or history statements, I would just like to add a thought here: A lot of people put the United States for blame for the slave trade and slavery. I would also argue that other nations also played a part, but they may have done so willingly or unwillingly. While it was illegal and each country was monitoring the activity, it was hard to track during those days.
Another thought to keep in mind: It’s easy to forget part of our own human history, so we don’t make the same mistake twice. This is why we study history in school- to learn from our mistakes.
Wishing you all the best,