On “Barracoon” by Zora Neale Hurston

When the news broke about Zora Neale Hurston’s posthumous book release entitled “Barracoon”, I was excited because she is one of those rare storytellers who can take one human life, examine it, and tell the story of that life in a way that makes you appreciate life itself while contemplating the understanding of your own. “Barracoon” takes the life of “the last black cargo” with a rare vantage point (first-person freed slave) and brings it into the present.

The book starts with a foreword by Alice Walker, one of the most prominent African American writers of our time. The foreword was a love letter to Hurston, a tear shed for the ancestors who were robbed of their culture and forced to survive in a strange land far from home, and a call to action for those who are bound to share the stories of the latter.

Those who love us never leave us alone with our grief. At the moment they show us our wound, they reveal they have the medicine. — Alice Walker

After the foreword, a flash course on the tragedies of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and a note from the Editor, Deborah G. Plant, we begin the story of Cudjo. Hurston tells his story from his point of view and in his vernacular—slurring words where they slurred and purposely spelling out each mispronunciation—forcing the reader to hear him as the blend of Africa and America that forged his speech.

Cudjo paces this story in a way that is comfortable to him much to the slight exasperation of Hurston. She wanted to jump right into the slavery chapters of Cudjo’s life and Cudjo in a loving, elderly way, told her that one cannot understand where the story is going without first understanding where the story began. We traveled with Cudjo to his beloved “Afficky” (Africa) where he was free. He talked about the things he loved, missed, and admire. He spoke about his family. He spoke about the war that tore his village apart and the opposing tribe that sold him into slavery. Knowing that Cudjo was sold into slavery by another African tribe was a very real struggle for Hurston and her Harlem Renaissance reclamation of what free meant to Black people. Although this knowledge troubled her, we went deeper into Cudjo’s life.

We learned about the men who shipped him to the Americas and the separation between the people he arrived with and the schism between the Africans and the “Blacks” who had been in America for generations. We see him grow and learn, become a free man, and become one of the original founders of Africatown, Alabama. We see him find a wife, have children, lose children, and take care of his community. In Cudjo’s eagerness for his own story to be told, he unexpectedly stirs up dormant pains that unnerve his calm causing him to be brief with Hurston at times. When he’s given himself time to heal from past distresses, Hurston and Cudjo continue to their present, a friendship hatched out of a story needing to be told and the person telling them.

It saddens me that Cudjo never had a chance to see this outstanding piece of work about his life published. Hurston conducted these interviews in 1931 and fought for the right for the book to published in his vernacular because she knew that language and how it is reclaimed is the key to not only understand Cudjo but to understand the culture that has formed the person he was when they met. Publication houses at the time did not want to take on the book in its vernacular form and tried to persuade her to change it. I am so glad that she didn’t. I recognized my family’s southern drawl in his words and their accents and mannerisms in his speech patterns. His speech was a bridge to my own memories of my grandparents far gone.

This book is a treasure the world took too long to notice. I am amazed at the equal weight of his pauses and his words and I thank Hurston for treating both with dignity. There are many more stories hidden, untold, or unwritten and we must find them. It is our duty.

All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold — Zora Neale Hurston