Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

I have already written about Zora Neale Hurston, whose birthday it is, here and here, but my wife, knowing how much I admire the writer and cultural preservationist, bought me a copy of a “lost” work of hers for Christmas which was recently brought out posthumously and caused quite a stir. I read portions of Barraccoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo in The New Yorker back in May, but the published edition comes with many worthwhile trappings: introductions, forewords, editors’ notes, afterwords, more notes, and photos, which make the book itself a valuable addition to your library.

If you were on a desert island and didn’t get the memo, Barraccoon is a narrative collected by Hurston in her capacity as a folklorist. It records conversations she had in 1927 with a man named Cudjoe Lewis, who was at the time the last living survivor of the transatlantic slave trade to America. Though the trade was technically banned in the U.S. in 1807, shipments of African slaves continued to be smuggled to the American south. The ship carrying Lewis and over a hundred other enslaved people arrived in Mobile, Alabama on the very eve of the Civil War, making it the last such voyage. The group of people who’d come over in that particular group were thus only American slaves for a little over five years. After the war, most of them remained together and formed a community near Mobile called Africatown.

By the time Hurston and others interviewed Lewis, he was the only person who could describe an experience of slavery that began with life as a free person in Africa, followed by capture by slave traders, then the Middle Passage, and acclimation (so to speak) to the harsh new reality of life as a slave. (A “barracoon”, by the way, is a kind of stockade or holding pen for slaves or prisoners.) The overwhelming impression Lewis conveys is one of sadness. First as an old man, he misses the country he left behind. Seniors tend to remember their childhoods vividly, and Lewis conveys those memories to us with painful clarity. We learn about life in his village, the mores, the folkways, the rituals. He was 19 when he was captured and just about to experience his marriage initiation. He was thus already a young man, with two decades worth of life experience, when his life was forever interrupted. His second great period of sadness ironically has to do with his more recent decades as a free man. All six of his children and his wife preceded him in death, and Lewis himself was the victim of a train accident which left him permanently injured. One son was shot in the throat by a deputy over a misunderstanding. One was decapitated in another train accident. One walked off one day and was never seen again. Others died of illness. And of course, all the people who’d come with him from his African village were dead by this point, too. In the end Lewis is left with some in-laws and his grandchildren but feels alone in the world. Through a good portion of his interviews with Hurston he is overcome with emotion, unable to continue. The narrative itself is pretty short, and one senses this is probably why.

Ironically, the shortest portion of the book has to do with Lewis’s life as a slave. Just a couple of pages. He conveys the impression that it was merely a period of intense work. What’s to tell?  A detail that stands out in my mind is the humiliation of Lewis and his countrymen when they first get off the boat — made to naked, like animals, for all the world to see, nowhere to hide. The book contains many moments like that, matter-of-fact, first-person nightmares.

Some other interesting takeaways. We rightly blame the Southern white for slavery as it existed in 1860, but they were far from the only guilty parties to this sprawling crime. The men who bankrolled and sailed the ship that brought Cudjoe and the people of his village to America were New Englanders. And the men and women who captured Cudjoe’s people in the first place were Africans, from the neighboring nation of Dahomey. And, in the post-slavery period, Cudjoe’s people suffer not just from racism by whites, but from a second level of jingoism from American-born African-Americans, who ostracize Cudjoe and his people for being foreigners with strange names, accents, and ways. Like a disease, the commodification of human beings degraded and soiled and harmed everything and everyone in touched.

Hurston’s training as an anthropologist (and her ear as an artist) combined to make her adamant about writing down what she heard in phonetic dialect. Some feel this is what prevented some of her work, including this one, from being published. Towards mid-century, many in the African American community soured on seeing black speech spelled out that way — it had echoes of minstrelsy and Uncle Remus. With the amelioration of time, however (and some great writers who followed in her footsteps like August Wilson, and Hurston’s great champion Alice Walker) this literal transcription puts us in touch with the real voice. It gets us close to Cudjoe, we feel that we have really heard him. If you’d cleaned it up, made it grammatical, ironed out the pronunciations, the result would be an interpretation, and an inauthentic one at that.

A side benefit of the book is we get a little slice of Hurston herself as our Virgil, dogged, but respectful and sensitive. She must have been a good shoulder to cry on. Yet she never loses sight of her ultimate responsibility. She gave us this gift.