'Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"' by Zora Neale Hurston

Review #126

A rare and precious voice from our nation’s past speaks to us through this book. We would all do well as individual readers and as Americans to heed the story narrated in this Sunday’s selection, ‘Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”’ by Zora Neale Hurston:

The voice belongs to Cudjo Lewis, born Oluale Kossola (also spelled Kossula), who was the last survivor of the last ship that brought enslaved Africans to the United States before the Civil War. Hurston visited the elderly Lewis in his Alabama home in the late 1920s to hear and relay his harrowing and heartbreaking story. It unfolds in an as-told-to style, with Hurston quoting Lewis at length and phonetically to capture his way of speaking, and his narration feels like he’s telling his story to us directly. He was a teenager when the army of the Dahomey kingdom, with its head-severing women soldiers, sacked his village and took him prisoner. After a stop in a barracoon, or slave barracks, in what is now Benin, he was stripped naked and crammed with more than 100 other people into a slave ship called Clotilda bound for Alabama, even though importing slaves into the United States had been outlawed for decades. In America, he was ostracized and mocked for being foreign by fellow slaves who were born here. After Emancipation, Lewis is nominated by his fellow former slaves to approach their ex-master about giving them some land on which to form their own independent community. The master is indignant: How dare he be asked to compensate them after he treated them well while they were in bondage, and had spent so much money and effort to bring them here? Nope, they were on their own. Eventually, Lewis and the others scrape together enough money to buy the land to establish Africatown outside Mobile. Lewis started a family, but his wife and most of his children predeceased him. Two sons died violently, one at the hands of law enforcement. His wife and daughter fell sick and died. His loneliness in his twilight years is palpable. He deeply misses his family as well as Africa. He wonders if after six decades anyone there still remembers him. It feels glib and weird to use GIFs to punctuate his narration, so I will leave traditional spaces between paragraphs.

My one frustration with ‘Barracoon’ is that it felt padded with more supporting materials than actual text. There are multiple intros and prefaces—the ‘beginning’ quoted below doesn’t appear until almost a quarter-way into the book—and even a foreword AND a reprinted article from Alice Walker. Don’t get me wrong, all of these are valuable, particularly Walker’s piece about Hurston’s sad journey from Harlem Renaissance luminary to an unmarked grave in Florida. But I wanted to hear more from Lewis than everyone else.

‘Barracoon’ is the second book I’ve reviewed by Hurston—you may remember that I enjoyed her novel ‘Moses, Man of the Mountain’ back in 2018. It’s incredible that ‘Barracoon,’ completed in the 1930s, didn’t find a publisher until recently. It contains a rare perspective of the Middle Passage told by someone who survived it, and is a vital historical record. America’s unfinished reckoning with the legacy of slavery is our inheritance, and this book is an important reminder that we all have a lot still to do to fix and heal this country. ‘Barracoon’ should be taught in schools, if it isn’t already, and universally read.

How it begins:

It was summer when I went to talk with Cudjo so his door was standing wide open. But I knew he was somewhere about the house before I entered the yard, because I had found the gate unlocked. When Cudjo goes down into his back-field or away from home he locks the gate with an ingenious wooden peg of African invention.

I hailed him by his African name as I walked up the steps to his porch, and he looked up into my face as I stood in the door in surprise. He was eating his breakfast from a round enameled pan with his hands, in the fashion of his fatherland.

The surprise of seeing me halted his hand between pan and face. Then tears of joy welled up.

‘Oh lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me my name from cross de water but you. You always callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!’

My rating:

‘Barracoon: The Story of the “Last Black Cargo”’ by Zora Neale Hurston was published by Amistad in 2018. 201 pages including a foreword and a reprinted article by Alice Walker, an introduction from editor Deborah G. Plant, a glossary, bibliography and notes. $16.99 at Barnes & Noble.

More things worth your time:

  • Watch this: PBS NewsHour aired this story last year when the wreckage of the slave ship that brought Cudjo Lewis to Alabama, the Clotilda, was found in the Mobile River. The Clotilda was burned after arriving in Alabama to cover up its purpose.

  • Read this: Human trafficking is still a major issue worldwide. For more information about it and what’s being done to stop it, check out Donna’s article in Business Travel News: ‘Moving Human Trafficking Awareness Beyond the Travel Industry's Front Lines.’ As she writes, ‘The travel industry is, unfortunately, a key component in human trafficking. Airlines transport victims and hotels provide places not only for potential sexual exploitation but also for forced labor.’ Another good resource is this episode of the You’re Wrong About podcast.

  • Read this, too: ‘Can Reading Make You Happier?’ by Ceridwen Dovey in The New Yorker was recommended by Carla. I enjoyed this piece because it delves into how reading books, particularly fiction and poetry, can heal us when we grieve or feel lost. It made reference to a book I often turn to in those times that I reviewed 100 newsletters ago: ‘Siddhartha’ by Hermann Hesse. I loved this quote from Dovey’s story: ‘In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks.’ I also agreed very strongly with this quote from a bibliotherapist:

    “We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.” 

    The main reason I started Books on GIF is to be an outlet for books that haven’t been blessed by the Times or the New York Review of Books or Book Twitter. BoG is here for the the offbeat writers and the overlooked publishers. Sometimes I lose sight of that as I try to grow this newsletter’s audience. But this story in The New Yorker, ironically enough, has restored my focus. Thank you, Carla.

  • Look at this: Scientific genius Justine Haupt has created a rotary cell phone for all us Gen-Xers and Boomers who miss them. She says: ‘I wanted something that would be entirely mine, personal, and absolutely tactile, while also giving me an excuse for not texting.’ I want one.

  • Do this: Booker-Prize winning author Bernardine Evaristo will discuss her new novel ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ with Safiya Sinclair at Strand Book Store on Thursday, March 19 from 7-9 p.m. The book ‘spans decades and is comprised of interconnected stories of a group of Black British women of different generations, faiths, classes, politics, and heritages.’ Tickets are $15. More information can be found here.

In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’ by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Also in the queue are ‘The Book of X’ by Sarah Rose Etter, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann and ‘Celestial Bodies’ by Jokha Alharthi, among others.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #125 featured ‘Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest’ by Hanif Abdurraqib.

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,


With GIFs from Giphy.com.