Recently I read Barracoon: The Story of the last “Black Cargo”, by Zora Neale Hurston. What a fascinating concept! A young Zora Neale Hurston, working as an anthropologist in the South, meets and interviews Cudjoe Lewis, a man who was considered to be the last living African man who was transported to the United States in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Kossola, as he was named in Africa, was brought to the U.S. illegally in 1861, long after importing slaves had been made illegal.
Lewis was freed in 1865 when the Union Army came through and freed the slaves at the end of the Civil War. He became a sharecropper, married and had a family, and lived through the harsh periods of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow days of the south. By the time Hurston came along in 1927, armed with a pad of paper and gifts to cajole him into speaking with her, Lewis was an old man.
He told her stories about his life in Africa, his childhood growing up and the conflicts associated with the tribe. He told her the story about how he was captured by warriors from a neighboring tribe, and sold into slavery. He told about his trans-Atlantic passage. He told her about being split up from most of the people that he had been transported over with. It was interesting to hear his stories, and Hurston attempted to remain true to his manner of speaking, using a curious vernacular dialect of English that came from learning English as an adult and not having received any formal education.
Hurston’s manuscript failed to find a publisher in the late 1920s, in part because of the vernacular in which in was written, and probably because people were not ready to face both the reality of a period that was still fresh in people’s minds, as well as the fact that it implicated Africans for playing a role in the enslavement of people from neighboring tribes. The book was published posthumously in 2018.
My gripe with the book was that I wanted more. The stories felt pieced together and didn’t always logically connect. It was like just getting a window of certain moments in his life, before someone stepped in front of you and blocked the view. I wanted to hear more about his experience as a slave. I wanted to hear how he made the transition to freedom in an unknown culture after his emancipation. What hardships did he face? This was our last opportunity to hear from someone who lived it, and I feel like it fell short. The book presented his story as being much too simple. Perhaps that is the reality of interviewing someone who has had such a long hard life, but I still wanted more.