We all know Zora Neale Hurston from her brilliant novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Whether you read it on your own or it was required school reading, I’m sure you were forever-effected by its coming-of-age story about a young black woman in the early 20th century. Although this is her most well-known work, it is not her first. In fact, “Barracoon” was.
We told you back in December about this, and now, it will be available to the public on May 8. According to The New York Times, when Hurston finished the work in 1931, no one wanted to publish it. The reasons why might shock you.
In 1931, Zora Neale Hurston wrote the story of Cudjo Lewis, who was believed to be the last living person brought to America on a slave ship. It was never published — until now. https://t.co/n7xpQ04D1l
— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 1, 2018
First, the 117-page manuscript is named after the barracks that enslaved Africans were kept in before they were forced onto slave ships. “Barracoon” tells the story of Cudjo Lewis, a man believed to be the last slave to land on American shores. Lewis tells his own account of being captured by Dahomey warriors in West Africa, and how he was sold to slavers and taken to Mobile, Alabama in 1859. Keep in mind that this was more than 50 years after the United States Congress had outlawed the slave trade. This is what Hurston describes as the “last deal in human flesh.”
Hurston began recording Lewis’ account at the request of her mentor, Franz Boaz, an athropologist. He believed Lewis’ story would be perfect for the Journal of Negro History. So, she went to Plateau, Alabama in 1927 and then a second time in 1931. She established a trust with him, and during the time she listened to his story, she referred to him in life and in the book by his African name, Kossola.
When she finished her book in 1931, she was met with two main criticisms – one about language and the other about presenting Africans as participating players in the slave trade.
Kossola spoke in dialect, and Viking Press wanted her to transcribe it to “language.” She unapologetically refused, and the book was never published. Here is an example of one of her earlier conversations with Kossola that show the difference between dialect and “language.”
“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.’ ”
And when it came to Kossola exposing the role that Africans played in the slave trade, black intellectuals and political leaders at the time were not comfortable with it. Novelist Alice Walker wrote the foreword to the “Barracoon,” which sympathizes with their concern, but it refuses to hide the truth.
“Who would want to know, via a blow-by-blow account, how African chiefs deliberately set out to capture Africans from neighboring tribes, to provoke wars of conquest in order to capture for the slave trade. This is, make no mistake, a harrowing read,” Walker wrote.
I don’t know about ya’ll, but I am incredibly proud to know that Hurston stuck to her guns. Although she isn’t able to see her first work being published, maybe, just maybe she knew that it would come out at the right time, even if she’s not here to see the day.
Valerie Boyd, a woman who wrote a well-received biography of Hurston called “Wrapped in Rainbows” in 2003, believes the work being published right now couldn’t be better timing, especially in this age of the black lives matter movement.
“We’ve got an open bigot in the White House,” Boyd said. “We’re much more engaged with racial issues, with the resistance movement. A book like Barracoon says, ‘Yeah, black lives matter. They’ve always mattered.’ ”
Renese spends her early mornings writing, her days securing insurance for TV shows, and her in-betweens blogging about the silliness and seriousness of life on her blog. Follow Renese on Twitter: @reneseford