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Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

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In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation's history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo's firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo's past--memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo's unique vernacular, and written from Hurston's perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

193 pages, Paperback

First published April 24, 2018

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About the author

Zora Neale Hurston

187 books4,254 followers
Novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and nonfiction writings of American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston give detailed accounts of African American life in the South.

In 1925, Hurston, one of the leaders of the literary renaissance, happening in Harlem, produced the short-lived literary magazine Fire!! alongside Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman shortly before she entered Barnard College. This literary movement developed into the Harlem renaissance.

Hurston applied her Barnard ethnographic training to document African American folklore in her critically acclaimed book Mules and Men alongside fiction Their Eyes Were Watching God . She also assembled a folk-based performance dance group that recreated her Southern tableau with one performance on Broadway.

People awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to Hurston to travel to Haiti and conduct research on conjure in 1937. Her significant work ably broke into the secret societies and exposed their use of drugs to create the Vodun trance, also a subject of study for fellow dancer-anthropologist Katherine Dunham, then at the University of Chicago.

In 1954, the Pittsburgh Courier assigned Hurston, unable to sell her fiction, to cover the small-town murder trial of Ruby McCollum, the prosperous black wife of the local lottery racketeer, who had killed a racist white doctor. Hurston also contributed to Woman in the Suwanee County Jail , a book by journalist and civil rights advocate William Bradford Huie.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,296 reviews120k followers
December 28, 2021
“…I want to ask you many things. 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?”…when he lifted his wet face again he murmured, Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go to tell everybody whut Cudjo says, and how I come to Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. “

Barracoon - An enclosure in which black slaves were confined for a limited period.
-Oxford English Dictionary
Before she was a world-renowned novelist, Alabama-born and Florida-raised Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a researcher into the history and folklore of black people in the American South, the Caribbean, and Honduras. She was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, producing works of fiction in addition to her anthropological work.

Cudjo at home – from History.com - (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

It was during this period that she first met the last known black man transported from Africa to America as a slave, Cudjoe Lewis. She interviewed Lewis, then in his 80s, in 1927, producing a 1928 article about his experiences, Cudjoe’s Own Story of the Last American Slaver. There were some issues with that report, including a serious charge of plagiarism. Hurston returned to Lewis in Africatown, Alabama, to interview him at length. It is these interviews that form the bulk of her book, Barracoon, plagiarism no longer being at issue.

Zora Neale Hurston - image from Smithsonian

Her efforts to publish the book ran into some cultural headwind, publishers refused to proceed so long as her subject’s dialogue was presented in his idiomatic speech. Thurston refused to remove this central element of the story, and so the book languished. But the Zora Neale Trust did not give up, and a propitious series of events seemed to signal that the time was right
Last fall, on the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots, the musician Questlove learned that he descends from people brought over on the Clotilda. Then an Alabama reporter named Ben Raines found a wreck that looked to be the scuttled ship; it wasn’t, but the story made national news….[while] Kossola’s relevance goes beyond any headlines, [there are also] noteworthy links there: one of Kossola’s sons is killed by law enforcement, and his story holds a message about recognizing humanity echoed by Black Lives Matter. - from Time Magazine article
Then there is the story itself. Hurston gets out of the way, acting mostly as Cudjoe’s stenographer and editor, reporting his words as he spoke them. It is a harrowing tale. A young village man in 1859, Kossula (his true name) was in training to learn military skills when his community was attacked by a neighboring tribe. His report of the attack is graphic, and gruesome. Many of those who survived the crushing assault were dragged away and sold to white slave traders. (Definitely not their choice, Kanye) We learn of his experiences while awaiting his transportation, his telling of the Middle Passage, arrival in America and his five years as a slave. He tells, as well, of the establishment of Africatown, after the Civil War ended the Peculiar Institution in the United States, and of the travails of his life after that, having and losing children, running up against the so-called legal system, but also surviving to tell his tale, and gaining respect as a storehouse of history and folklore. This is an upsetting read, rage battles grief as we learn of the hardships and unfairness of Kossula’s life.
“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!”
The book stands out for many reasons. Among them is that it is one of very few reports of slavery from the perspective of the slave. There are many documents available that recorded the transactions that involved human cargo, and many reports by slavers, but precious little has been heard from the cargo itself. It is also a significant document in teaching us about the establishment of Africatown, a village set up not by African Americans, but by Africans, Cudjoe and his fellow former slaves. The stories Cudjoe tells are often those he learned in his home culture.

'The Brookes' Slave Ship Diagram – from the British Library

Barracoon is a triumph of ethnography, bringing together not only a first-person report on experiences in African slave trading, but reporting on slavery from a subject of that atrocity. In addition Kossula adds his triumphant account of joining with other freed slaves to construct an Africa-like community in America, and offers as well old-world folklore in the stories he recalls from his first nineteen years. It is a moving tale for Hurston’s sensitive efforts to reach across the divide of time to encourage Kossula to relive some of the darkest moments any human can experience, sitting with him, calm, caring, and connecting. And finally, it is a truly remarkable tale Kossula tells. It will raise your blood pressure, horrify you, and encourage bursts of tears. You think you’ve had it tough? And for this man to have endured with such dignity and grace is a triumph all its own.

Commemorative Marker for Cudjo Lewis – Plateau Cemetery, Africatown, Mobile, AL - image from wiki

The text of the story is short, but Kossula’s tale is epic. Editor Deborah G. Plant has added a wealth of supportive material, including parables and old-world stories Kossula told to his descendants and to residents of Africatown, a description of a children’s game played in his home town in Africa, and background material on Hurston, her professional issues with an earlier piece of work, and her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance, without touching much on Hurston’s unexpected political perspective on segregation. The information adds to our appreciation of the book.

Cudjo with great-grand-daughters twins Mary and Martha, born in 1923 - image from
Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

The ethnographical research Hurston did bolstered a perspective on African culture that different was not inferior, that African culture had great value, regardless of those who believed only in Western superiority. Long before Jesse Jackson, such research proclaimed “I am somebody.” The research Hurston did in the USA, Caribbean and Central America certainly informed and strengthened the portraits she painted in her fiction writing.

The history of slavery is a dark one, however much light has been shone on it in the last century and a half. This moving, upsetting telling of a life that endured it is a part of that history. That this 80-year-old nugget has been buried under the weight of time is a shame. But there is an upside. The pressure of all those years has created something glistening and wonderful for us today, a diamond of a vision into the past.

Review posted – 5/25/18

Publication date
-----5/8/2018 - hardcover
-----1/7/20 - Trade paperback

=============================EXTRA STUFF

-----A film shot by ZNH – Cudjoe appears in the opening scene
----- On the unveiling of a bust of Cudjoe in Africatown - WKRG in Mobile – it also ncludes an interview with Israel Lewis, one of Kossula’s descendants
-----A contemporary profile of Africatown and the challenges it faces, particularly from hazardous industry nearby

-----Emma Langdon Roche’s 1914 book, Historic Sketches of the South, includes much on the Clotilde
-----Wiki on Cudjoe - includes images from E.L. Roche
-----Smithsonian Magazine – May 2, 2018 - Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Tells the Story of the Slave Trade’s Last Survivor - by Anna Diamond
----- History.com piece on ZNH’s work on Barracoon - The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It just Surfaced by Becky Little – (the interviewing was actually done in the 1920s)
-----Bitfal Entertainment - A pretty nice brief summary of Cudjoe’s experience, with many uncaptioned illustrations
-----Time Magazine - Zora Neale Hurston’s Long-Unpublished Barracoon Finds Its Place After Decades of Delay - by Lily Rothman
----- On the slave ship Clotilda
-----NY Times - May 26, 2019 - ‘Ship of Horror’: Discovery of the Last Slave Ship to America Brings New Hope to an Old Community - By Richard Fausset
-----National Geographic - January, 2020 - America’s last slave ship stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities. - much more information about the Clotilda's criminal mission, and about the lives of the men and women it transported and their descendants
-----Nw York Times - Last Known Slave Ship Is Remarkably Well Preserved, Researchers Say by Michael Levenson

-----NPR’s Lynn Neary talks with Amistad’s editorial director Tracy Sherrod, and Barracoon’s editor Deborah Plant - In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Language is the Key to Understanding - Definitely listen to the entire interview. It is under four minutes. One wonderful benefit is to get a sample of the audio reading of the book, which sounds amazing.
Tracy Sherrod is the editorial director of Amistad at Harper Collins, which is now publishing the book. She says Hurston tried to get it published back in the 1930s, but the manuscript was rejected. "They wanted to publish it," Sherrod says, "but they wanted Zora to change the language so it wasn't written in dialect and more in standard English. And she refused to do so."

Hurston refused, says Deborah Plant, because she understood that Lewis's language was key to understanding him. "We're talking about a language that he had to fashion for himself in order to negotiate this new terrain he found himself in," she says. "Embedded in his language is everything of his history. To deny him his language is to deny his history, to deny his experience — which ultimately is to deny him, period. To deny what happened to him."
October 20, 2022
This book was suppressed for over 70 years because the myth of poor, exploited Africans capturing and selling their countrymen to the evil white slavers suited America with their collective guilt and wish not to offend African-Americans further. But you cannot build a house on shifting sands, and this book, by one of America's absolute top journalists of the era, provides part of the missing foundation.

I read it at more or less the same time as the very genial Michael W. Twitty's The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South which explores, through extreme DNA analysis of his blood, all the strands from Africa to Scotland that have, slaver and enslaved, native American and free white, alike, It is not just cooking but culture, and both have affected American history.

At this time I also read The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. This had a chapter on slavery in Africa. It was very surprising to read of the salons of the African women with their imported china tea sets and high life style financed by their involvement in the slave trade. This was a very sophisticated society. This was not the rough, tribal end we are all taught were exploited by the slavers.

These three books together have opened my eyes more to the organisation of the immense business of entrapping people, holding them as goods, and selling them to be enslaved as essentially farm animals. And the best of these, Barraccon has been suppressed.

Hurson interviewed the last living slave, Mr. Cudjo Lewis, over three months. He tells in detail of his capture at the age of 19 and the conditions in his part of Africa that meant his capturers main business was the supply of captured men and consequently agriculture suffered from a lack of manpower and they had to import their foodstuff. That's a very cynical society that does that to its fellow men, one that puts profit above feeding the nation. Oh wait, that's almost a model for our own societies today.

It isn't brilliantly written, it is very short, but it is paradigm-shifting and I would like to give everyone a copy of this book, every school child, every adult in all the countries that captured or enslaved Africans and all the African-Americans who suffered from in this business where the Black man is as much to blame as the White. If there had been no 'product' to buy, there would have been no trade. (Someone else would have suffered instead). This is not to take away from slavery the extreme cruelty wrought on Africans as slaves by the White man, I'm only talking here of the business of demand and supply. How Africans were treated in the Americas is strictly the White man's sin.

I am writing this not as an American, I'm writing this as a British woman with half my life spent in the Caribbean, in an educated country where the Black man has been king for 150 years. My persepective may not be one you share. But a review is an opinion, a collection of thoughts engendered by a book, and these are mine.
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,963 reviews294k followers
October 4, 2022
How does one sleep with such memories beneath the pillow? How does a pagan live with a Christian God? How has the Nigerian “heathen” borne up under the process of civilization?
I was sent to ask.

Barracoon only came to my attention after I recently watched "The Woman King" trailer and found my way to some of the criticisms. It's a book that remained unpublished for years; Hurston's interview with one of the final remaining survivors of the Atlantic slave trade.

The movie controversy is about the glorifying of the Dahomey people of Africa (those with the infamous all-female military unit known as Amazons) when, in truth, they were responsible for capturing the people of neighbouring kingdoms and selling them off to white slavers. Granted, critiques and calls for boycotting have come from people who have not seen the movie, but it doesn't look great.

It relates to this book because Cudjo Lewis (or Oluale Kossola, as was his birth name) was one of those captured by the Dahomey. He tells how he and others were dragged away from their home and families, some murdered, some imprisoned in barracoons, then presented to U.S. Captain William Foster for his selection. Cudjo was enslaved and later freed in Alabama, where he and others founded a community known as Africatown.

The book apparently struggled to find a publisher because Hurston writes out Cudjo's vernacular, which I personally think adds an authenticity to the narrative. It might be a struggle for those not fully fluent in English, but otherwise I think it is not difficult to understand. For example:
Soon we git in de ship dey make us lay down in de dark. We stay dere thirteen days. Dey doan give us much to eat. Me so thirst! Dey give us a little bit of water twice a day.

It's an extraordinary and awful life story.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,737 reviews1,469 followers
June 8, 2020
“All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.”

Here, Zora Neale Hurston expresses why she wrote this book.

I have had difficulty rating this book. That the book has now finally come to be published IS of course wonderful. It should have been published decades and decades ago!

BUT, but, but… I do have some complaints with the final product.

Only half of this book is in fact Cudjo Lewis' story, his story, told by him. Zora Neale Hurston was absolutely right in demanding that his voice should be heard and that he was to be allowed to speak in his own dialect. Cudjo Lewis was the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. He was captured by a rival tribe in 1859 and sold into slavery. Oluale Kossola, renamed Cudjo Lewis by the plantation owner who bought him in 1860, spent three weeks in a stockade (a barracoon) and was shipped to America on the last slave ship, the Clotilda. Born in 1841, he came to America at 19 years of age, was a slave for five years and six months and then was freed by Yankee soldiers on April 12, 1865. In Africa he was one of twelve siblings, the second son of his father’s second wife. In America, he married, had six children, all of whom died as well as his wife before his own death. He converted to Christianity and after a train accident became a sexton in a Baptist church in Africa Town, a.k.a. Plateau, Alabama.

First in July of 1927, then in December and finally 1928, he came to be interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston, cultural anthropologist, investigating ethnographer and author. She had been “sent by Dr. Franz Boas to get a firsthand report of the raid that had brought him to America and bondage, for Dr. Carter G. Woodson of the Journal of Negro History.” Cudjo was then eighty-six and had lived in America for sixty-seven years! Zora let Cudjo speak—in his own time and in his own way. On a doorstep, on a porch, after sweeping the church, after introducing his two great grandchildren and sending them each off with peaches in their hands, Cudjo would talk and remember and Zora would listen, only rarely interposing a question, enjoying a peach, a hunk of watermelon and time together.

These interviews and Cujo’s remembrances are the core of this book, but they are only about half of the entire book. The other half consists of multiple prefaces and introductions and an appendix. The first introduction is written by Deborah G. Plaint. Thereafter follows a preface and introduction by Zora Neale Hurston. In this way material comes to be repeated over and over and over again. There exists an unresolved discussion of whether Zora Neale Hurston had plagiarized information from Emma Langdon Roche's Historic Sketches of the South. While I agree that this had to be included, the many details, rather than clarifying, leave the issue still open to debate. Why Hurston’s book, completed in 1931, was not published is also discussed, the primary reason being she insisted on retaining Cudjo’s original dialect and vernacular. The appendix at the end has assorted stories, the value of which can be questioned.

We hear Cudjo’s story and we hear it in his words, which has great value, but do not mistakenly think you will be given Zora Neale Hurston’s prose. All though the telling is straightforward, a reader / a listener must perceive what this poor man has gone through—the loss of his entire family, the loss of his country and home, the loss of freedom and the horrific memories of the slaughter of his tribesmen and passage over the sea. His words as well as his silences speak.

In print, the dialect could perhaps be hard to follow, but this is not the case when Robin Miles reads the audiobook! I never had trouble understanding the text! The African names were a bit of a blur, since I recognized nothing. The dialect and vernacular does demand one’s full attention while listening. The narration I have given four stars.

This is a story that needed to be told, but the presentation is repetitive, much reads as an academic essay and some information is in fact missing. We are not told when or how Cudjo died. I do not regret having picked this up. My two star rating means it was OK, not bad!

I am off to read, Their Eyes Were Watching God, only now finally made available to me! I gave Dust Tracks on a Road three stars.
Profile Image for Naori.
161 reviews
May 27, 2018
I have thought long and hard on this and I do not feel like I can give this any formal review. This is a case in which I feel I would be trespassing on the author’s words, and by this I mean Kossulo’s, by superimposing any thoughts of my own. There are pieces of history we will never get back. For many of us, this is why we write: to re-imagine the stories of slavery, for instance, because we do not have words to tell us. This is a living, breathing document and should be treated as such. Just like the recordings of the stories of the final survivors of the Holocaust, we cannot rewrite their stories. We can only let their words echo inside of us and understand how they are a part of us, as we are a part of that part of history we created. Such are the words of Cudjo. He says many times in the book that there is no way to understand his life if he doesn’t tell the lives of his forefathers. At one point when Zora gets frustrated with this he retorts, “Where is de house where de mouse is the leader?” (20). This is how we all must understand the unfathomable meaning of this text for us RIGHT NOW. We cannot pretend to care about any of the critical social and political issues of today, we can’t march in the streets, hold rallies, go on social media, start movements - if we aren’t willing to look into our past and see where this is all coming from. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, what you care about or don’t care about, where you live or what age you are. This is a piece of history we can never get back, and this was a historical reality that a great deal of the world participated in, or still does. Everyone needs to read this book. Just simply, everyone needs to read this book. For ourselves, for our own ancestors, for the world we live in today, and for the world that is to come.

And thank you Zora, thank you...
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,737 reviews14.1k followers
August 7, 2018
I chose to listen to this in audio book form, and think it was a great way to hear Cudjos story. The narrator does a fantastic job with the dislect and I felt like I was there hearing Cudjo speak his own story. The last cargo of slaves brought here, at an age, eighteen I believe, that would allow him to remember his life in Africa, and when he was taken. Heartbreaking. Was interesting hearing about his life in Africa, strange of course to my American ears, but that is what it was.

What I didn't like was the beginning, an argument that encompasses the controversy surrounding this story. I felt it was circular, repetitive and the result lacked clarity. The end of the the book was a few more stories where once again it seems the truth is open to debate.

So I give Cudjos story and the telling of it 4 stars.
But taken as a whole, have settled on three.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,346 reviews4,863 followers
May 15, 2023

Though the United States passed the 'Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807', boats continued to deliver abducted Africans to America for more than 50 years. The last shipment of slaves arrived in Alabama on the ship 'Clotilda' in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War.

One of the African men on the Clotilda was Oluale Kossula, also known as Cudjo Lewis, who survived five years of slavery, became a free man, and helped found the black enclave of 'Africatown' (or 'Plateau') near Mobile, Alabama.

In 1927, when Cudjo was in his mid-eighties, he was interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston - the American folklorist, anthropologist, and author. In this book Hurston relates Cudjo's story, much of it in his own words.

Cudjo Lewis

Zora Neale Hurston


Cudjo describes his ancestry and his early life in the African village of Takkoi, where he was happy with his family and friends. Then, when Cudjo was 19, his village was invaded by warriors from nearby Dahomey, who killed some residents and kidnapped others to sell to white slavers. "De King of Dahomey, you know, he got very rich ketchin slaves. He keep his army all de time making raids to grabee people to sell."

The scene Cudjo describes is horrific: "Dey got de women soldiers too and dey run wid de big knife and dey ketch people and saw de neck wid de knife den dey twist de head so it come off de neck. Oh Lor', Lor'! I see de peoples gittee kill so fast!

Cudjo's village was located in what is now Benin

The white slavers housed the Africans in a barracoon near the ocean, until 65 men and 65 women were loaded onto the Clotilda and brought to Mobile, Alabama. There they were split up among the slavers, who kept some Africans for themselves and sold the others. "We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama."

A barracoon

Cudjo talks about his life as a slave, which was difficult for several reasons. The work was very hard and the new African slaves didn't mesh well with those already living in the country. "In night time we cry, we say we born and raised to be free people and now we slave. We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis. It strange to us. Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say. Some makee de fun at us.”

After emancipation, a group of freed slaves - who couldn't raise the money to return home - established Africatown ("We call our village Affican Town") near Mobile, Alabama. Cudjo married a woman named Seely, 'unofficially' at first, then - after they joined the church - with a proper license. "So den we gittee married by de license, but I doan love my wife no mo' wid de license than I love her befo' de license. She a good woman and I love her all de time.

Shacks in Africatown

Africatown is now a tourist attraction

Cudjo and Seely had six children (fives boys and a girl). "Oh, Lor’! Oh, Lor’! We so happy. We been married ten months when we have our first baby. We call him Yah-Jimmy, just de same lak we was in de Afficky soil. For Americky we call him Aleck."

Along with other residents of Africatown, Cudjo sought to educate his offspring. “We Afficans try raise our chillun right. When dey say we ign’nant we go together and build de school house. Den de county send us a teacher. We Afficky men doan wait lak de other colored people till de white folks gittee ready to build us a school. We build one for ourself den astee de county to send us de teacher.”

Residents of Africatown

Cudjo's children had a difficult time living in America. "All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey. Derefo’, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time.....When dey whip de other boys, dey folks come to our house and tellee us, “Yo’ boys mighty bad, Cudjo. We ’fraid they goin’ kill somebody.”"

This violence may have contributed to some of the children's unfortunate ends.

One son was killed by a law enforcement officer. "Somebody call hisself a deputy sheriff kill de baby boy now.... If my boy done something wrong, it his place come ’rest him lak a man....He have words wid my boy, but he skeered face him. Derefo’, you unnerstand me, he hidee hisself in de butcher wagon and when it gittee to my boy’s store....Dis man, he hidin’ hisself in de back of de wagon, an’ shootee my boy."

A second son was hit by a railroad train, but the company offered no compensation. (A lawyer later helped Cudjo sue for recompense, but Cudjo didn't see a penny of the money.) Of the four remaining children, three died of illnesses, and one mysteriously disappeared.

When Hurston interviewed Cudjo, Seely had also been dead for 20 years, perhaps from a broken heart.

It's clear from the book that Cudjo had a very difficult life, traumatized by the barbarity of slavery and devastated by its subsequent consequences, including discrimination, bigotry, and aggression towards the communities and families of black people. Cudjo's story is both moving and disturbing, and demonstrates how some things in the United States haven't changed enough.


To earn Cudjo's goodwill, Hurston would bring him Georgia peaches, watermelon, and once a Virginia ham. Over the course of many visits, Hurston also helped Cudjo clean the church where he was a sexton, worked in his garden, and drove him to buy crabs.

Hurston notes: “I had spent two months with Kossula, who is called Cudjo, trying to find the answers to my questions. Some days we ate great quantities of clingstone peaches and talked. Sometimes we ate watermelon and talked. Once it was a huge mess of steamed crabs. Sometimes we just ate. Sometimes we just talked. At other times neither was possible, he just chased me away. He wanted to work in his garden or fix his fences. He couldn't be bothered. The present was too urgent to let the past intrude. But on the whole, he was glad to see me, and we became warm friends.”

Cudjo in his cabin

The end of the book contains Cudjo's recitation of several African folktales, which are sly and amusing.

This is an interesting book, recommended to readers interested in African history, slavery, and anthropology.

You can follow my reviews at https://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot....
Profile Image for Raymond.
338 reviews247 followers
April 4, 2023
"The present was too urgent to let the past intrude." -Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston's posthumous book is very good. Cudjo Lewis tells his story to Hurston about his life in Africa, being sold into slavery, the Middle Passage, life as a slave, and his life after obtaining his freedom. I found Lewis' story captivating, I enjoyed reading it in his own words and dialect. His constant "you unnerstand me" made his storytelling more genuine. At times I felt like I was there as he was telling Hurston about his journey.

There were three episodes that spoke the most to me:

1. After he gained his freedom, Cudjo and his friends asked their former master for land: "Cap'n Tim, you bought us from our country where we had lan'. You made us slave. Now dey make us free but we ain' got no country and we ain' got no lan'! Why doan you give us piece dis land so we kin buildee ourself a home?" This quote made me think about the debate over reparations then and now.

2. In this episode Cudjo references the challenges his children faced: "All de time de chillun growin' de American folks dey picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillun ig'nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey." This quote reminded me of the negative stereotypes Americans still have of immigrants especially from Africa.

3. In this episode Cudjo references one of his son's interaction with a police officer: "He shootee my boy in de throat. He got no right shootee my boy. He make out he skeered my boy goin' shoot him and shootee my boy down in de store. Oh, Lor'!" This quote, not surprisingly, reminded me of the current issues between young Black Americans and the police.

I read that this book was never published initially because publishers did not like Cudjo's dialect and they wanted Hurston to write it in more refined English. It probably was for the best that she did not change the dialect because the essence of Cudjo's story would have been removed. Sometimes the best books are those that are newly discovered years after it was written so that we in the current time and get an unaltered view of the past.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
789 reviews1,186 followers
December 3, 2018
“We cry ’cause we slave. In night time we cry, we say we born and raised to be free people and now we slave. We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis. It strange to us."

Well, what to say.... I'm ambivalent about this one. The part Zora Neale Hurston actually wrote is beautiful and raw and touching. In 1927, she interviewed Kossula (Cudjo Lewis), then 86 years old, who was one of the last black slaves brought to America. He, along with 100-some others, was smuggled into the United States, after it became illegal to do so. He was enslaved for 5 1/2 years until the abolition of slavery.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo is Kossula's story. I love that Ms. Hurston used his dialect. For some, this makes it difficult to read. I, however, think it adds so much to the account. Kossula becomes real in a way that I don't think he would be if it was told in every day English. You feel his pain, his longing for his home in Africa, his confusion as to why he was stolen and brought here. It breaks your heart to read. Through a period of interviews, Kossula related his story to Ms. Hurston, beginning with the history of his grandfather and some of the customs of his people. He then relates how a rival tribe captured and sold him to white slave traders. He talks briefly about his time as a slave, and then some of his life afterwards. Such a tragic, sad story, full of so much pain and suffering inflicted on countless numbers of Africans.

The reason I'm not giving this book 5 stars even though I love the way Zora Neale Hurston tells Kossula's story is that it is incredibly brief. There is a foreword and an introduction which I think added to story by providing context. The story itself ended all too abruptly a bit over half way through the book. I was very disappointed as I hadn't realised that it was so short. The rest of the book is an afterword by the editor of the book, a glossary (that I don't think was needed), a bibliography, further notes, and a couple of African tales Kossula told to Ms. Hurston. It felt as though the editor was just trying to make it book-length in order to get it published, with all the inclusions.

I'm very glad I read it, and I'll be thinking of Kossula for a long time. However, I'm disappointed and feel cheated (I know, silly, but I think this is something a lot of book-lovers can relate to at some point) that it was so brief and yet the book seemed like it would be longer. Perhaps if I'd realised ahead of time that half the book was written by others, I wouldn't feel so disappointed by its brevity.
Profile Image for Mari.
705 reviews5,068 followers
June 25, 2020

Why you may not like this book: Reviewing non-fiction is always strange to me and even more so when you consider the topic of this book. Imagine reviewing this like you would any other story, when as Hurston says herself, there are so few stories told from this point of view. "All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold."

I think this will be a difficult book to get through if you are more concerned with the ease of your own reading experience; that is if you are focused on the dialect, with the format, with getting through an introduction. I think if you enter it expecting something of a classic narrative structure you will be let down.

Why I loved this book: I was gutted while reading every word of this. I realize that some of the details are not entirely accurate, but again, that's missing the point of what this does: give Cudjo the chance to share his story in his own words. I think Hurston did a good job acknowledging her role and presence in the story, framing the circumstances under which she received these words, but ultimately maintaining the integrity of Cudjo's story. There is a heck of a lot of pain here, and a truly heartbreaking and still timely reminder that just because something is against the law doesn't mean that it doesn't still happen.

It's hard for me to further put into words why this hit me the way it did, but I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. It deserves to be read.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,242 reviews534 followers
January 27, 2019
How to rate and review a book that has no real comparison or companion, that has been my quandary since finishing Barracoon. The rating is for the very fact of its existence, for Zora Neale Hurston’s truly wonderful and difficult work of taking down Cudjo Lewis’s story of childhood, capture, sale to slavers, and transport across the Atlantic on the last slave ship to reach the United States in 1859, and of his life after the freedom granted during the Civil War up to the 1920s.

As Kossula (Cudjo Lewis’s approximated birth name) tells his life story to Hurston, we learn details of the history of the area of Africa in which he lived, the facts of black Africans selling those they had defeated in war to traders from the Americas, life in Africatown, Alabama (all like Cudjo, from that last ship), a glossary providing detailed information on major people and events in the biography, and extended notes.

There are are scholarly issues discussed in some of the introductory material that may add to why this material has not been published sooner, a question of plagiarism in aspects of this work from an earlier historical report. This is discussed from many viewpoints and ultimately appears, if memory serves, may have been an oversight in an article not finalized by the author for publication. Since she has written many other works without this issue arising, it would appear that the decision has been made that this work needed to be published.

On another note, personally, I didn’t have difficulty reading Cudjo’s dialect, as written down by Hurston. But I know that many have enjoyed listening to this book rather than reading it. I do recommend you try it in one form or the other.

Postscript: another note re this late publication. Apparently, Hurston attempted to have this piece published in the 1930s. At the time, the publisher wanted Hurston to translate Lewis’s dialect into standard English. She refused as this would have denied the essence of his identity. It was not accepted for publication.
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,377 reviews1,435 followers
January 28, 2019
Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Oluale Kossola before he died in the 1930's to create this first-person narrative by one of the last people to be transported to the United States through the middle passage. It is interesting in that, among the existing records of that period in time, it is written from the perspective of someone who lived slavery rather than perpetuated it. It wasn't written with an agenda. It is a record of a history.

It is a story of a culture and a life lived far from home and family because of human greed.

"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." pg 17

Hurston records Kossola's responses to her questions phonetically, which makes you feel like you're sitting there with her, listening to the remembrances of Kossola as he says them.

In the introduction by Deborah G. Plant, she captures this feeling: "The narrative space she creates for Kossula's unburdening is sacred. Rather than insert herself into the narrative as the learned and probing cultural anthropologist, the investigating ethnographer, or the authorial writer, Zora Neale Hurston, in her still listening, assumes the office of a priest." pg xxv

I think, as someone looking back, it's important to understand the transportation of slaves into the U.S. was made illegal in 1808, fifty years before Kossula was taken from his home. It's a piece of American history that has been almost entirely forgotten.

"Of the thousands of Africans smuggled into American after 1808, only one man was held accountable and hanged, and even he died proclaiming his innocence." pg 132

In Barracoon, not only are we given the story of Kossula's transportation in life in the U.S., but also, he shares fascinating details of his life in Africa. There's information about the justice system, social structure, rites of initiation and more.

In addition to his life story, Kossula shares fables he created to share his feeling of loss about his family as he outlived all of his children and wife. I enjoyed this folk lore part of the book the most.

There's some controversy surrounding this book. Apparently, Hurston published a magazine article about Kossula early in the last century and was accused by later scholars of plagiarism.

"Of the sixty-seven paragraphs in Hurston's essay," Hemenway relates, "only eighteen are exclusively her own prose." pg 120

The text in question is Emma Langdon Roche's Historic Sketches of the South, that was published in 1917. The full text is available from the U.S. Library of Congress and can be accessed online. That's how I read it and was able to see some of the similarities in the writing.

However, the interview portions of this book, written in Kossola's distinctive style of speaking, are entirely unique. As the editor of this book points out, Hurston was never accused of plagiarism in her works after writing about Kossola and it was very early in her career. We all make mistakes.

Recommended for any readers interested in history. Barracoon is a treasure.
Profile Image for Petra.
1,123 reviews12 followers
May 19, 2018
Cudjo Lewis's life story is important. He was brought to America illegally, at the tail end of slavery. His owners kept him and his shipmate slaves "secret" between them, using their labours for about 6 years before slavery was abolished. These people were then abandoned to a life in America, a place they did not see as home, with no way back to the home they wanted to return to.
Free life in America was hard on African-born freed slaves. They were shunned, it seems, by both White & Black Americans. This is a side of slavery that I personally had never thought of: the plight of the last slaves who always remembered another life.
Cudjo's story was horrendous from the treachery he experienced from other African tribes who benefitted from the slave trade to his attempts at living in America as a free man.
He's a quiet man. He went through horrible times. He lived a long life, always yearning for "Affica".
Profile Image for Monica.
593 reviews622 followers
August 14, 2018
The hard task here is to remain impartial in regarding this book.  To be able to take the book as it is without considering the great historical reference and the gravitas of the writer Zora Neale Hurston.  Is it possible to separate how/what to ingest was written from the people who both wrote and were written about?  I don’t know.  The publication of Barracoon was a huge literary event. 

I do think it was a very interesting discussion of the life of a man billed as the last "Black Cargo". What a dubious distinction. Oy. America has lots of soul searching yet to do on slavery, but it turns out…so do Africans--which by the way is not news to most African-Americans. Kossula's story is sad, gloomy and morose. It's sometimes a tough lift to try to understand how some humans survive such misery. It's clear that Kossula missed his home, but in this tale, he wasn't taken from his home by white men. His village was destroyed and he was sold to the white men after his village was slaughtered. His world was decimated before he was taken prisoner. Strangely, it made his tale of enslavement anti-climactic. In fact, my perception was that he was not that miserable as a slave. In fact, he even viewed one of his white slavers as just. The book simply didn't cover much about his enslavement and what little it did cover was not horrific in his description. He was enslaved for 4 years and lived through the reconstruction. Still valued little by society, he and his family endured countless, callous indignities. Kossula outlived his wife and all but one of his children. I think what I admired most is Hurston's style of letting the interview subject take her where they wanted to go. I liked the relationship that Hurston portrayed here. They say home is where the heart is. It's obvious Kossula "lived" in Africa. His stories of his life in America were not near as detailed nor was he as enthusiastic in the telling, though it is where he spent most of his life by far. There was a strange detachment from his life in America. There was a lot of controversy over the dialect and whether or not Hurston plagiarized from other articles of the time. I don't particularly care. I know Hurston died destitute buried in an unmarked grave with her brilliance underappreciated. I believe her!! As for Baracoon, it's an earnest effort. Marketed as something that it wasn't, I was disappointed that there wasn't more about his time in slavery and reconstruction. There just wasn't much insight for me from his experiences in America.

4 Stars because for me Hurston can do no wrong. But if this were content based, the rating would be lower…

Read on kindle.
Profile Image for Renee .
141 reviews12 followers
May 1, 2018
I was deeply engrossed in this slave narrative based on Hurston's interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the presumed last living African held captive and taken to America to become a slave in 1860. While the work is heavily prefaced with discourse on Hurston's process of coming into the writing of this novel (and claims of plagiarism), Cudjo's story itself is only 94 pages. The tail end of the book contains an extensive appendix with stories, endnotes, and other items pertinent to the work.

Emotionally, I despaired at Cudjo's longing to return to his native land and be among people he knew and loved. His parting from all that was familiar made me sick to my stomach--it is truly unfathomable. Academically, I imagine this work will become an essential piece--if not in its entirety, then in excerpt-form--in high school and collegiate classrooms across the world.

Hurston composed the work based on her interviews with Cudjo Lewis between 1927-30 and was never granted publication in her time because publishers felt the use of vernacular would be off-putting to readers; a sentiment she obviously did not agree with, as she refused to change the work in order to achieve publication. I'm grateful to Harper Books for publishing Hurston's work posthumously, and for sending me an advance copy in exchange for this honest review.

Full review can be found here: littlereaderontheprairie.wordpress.co...
Profile Image for Cherisa B.
501 reviews40 followers
November 9, 2022
An anthropologist and ethnographer, Hurston modeled the aim of these disciplines with this work, and what a treasure and eye opener it is. She visited and spoke with the last survivor known to have been kidnapped from his home in Africa, transported across the Middle Passage to Alabama on the ship Clotilde, and illegally sold into slavery. Five or six years later he was told by Union soldiers i(April 1865) that he was free. Love, life, loss, injustice, the story and the effort Hurston took to bring it forward are all of a piece.

My edition included an essay by Alice Walker and that too was a great addition. Searching for Hurston’s grave, we learn she died impoverished and was buried in an unmarked grave. Walker’s essay on looking for this grave, and speaking with a few people who actually knew Hurston, works as both metaphor and echo. Telling Hurston’s story reminds us of who she was, and looking for an unmarked grave recalls how this nation has tried to bury the black story and the contributions of its black population.

A well done edition with lots of blurbs and excerpts of reviews that tell a story in themselves of Hurston’s work and value.
Profile Image for Chris.
735 reviews97 followers
February 23, 2021
Fascinating read! Hurston interviewed Kossula/Cudjo Lewis in 1927 when he was 86 y/o, but this bio wasn't published until 2018. Apparently there was some pushback from both publishers and the elite of the Harlem Renaissance to the book from both a substance and presentation style aspects. There is a foreword by Alice Walker and an Introduction by Deborah Plant, an African American literature and Africana studies scholar which brings more context to the history, Hurston herself and Kossula/CudjoLewis and his life and legacy.

Although the U.S. in 1808 abolished the international trafficking of people there was still those willing to participate in an illegal slave trade. Kossula was in the last known transport on the Clotilde of Africans to be sold into slavery in 1860. He was 19 years old. This is his story. He talks about his ancestry & life as a member of the Yoruba people, in an agricultural community; the brutal attack on his home by another tribe, his capture, transport and relatively short time he spent as a slave (5 yrs) before he was freed. He was a founder of Africatown (Plateau) in AL . His story is heartbreaking both before and after slavery. The loneliness he felt for his country and people never left him throughout his life. He described his feelings when the captured were getting ready to leave the barracoon where they were held awaiting transport. We all lonesome for our home. We doan know what goin' become of us, we doan want to be put apart from one 'nother.
This feeling never seems to leave Cudjo no matter who many years he had now spent in the U.S.

We cry 'cause we slave. In the nighttime we cry, we ssy we born and we raised to be free people and now we slave. We doan know why we be bring 'way from our country to work lak dis. It strange to us. Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folks but dey doan know what to say. Some makee de fun at us.

This is a short book and well worth spending time in its pages going through life with Cudjo.
Profile Image for Tia.
777 reviews258 followers
June 3, 2018
Books about Slavery and WWII are my jam. I've read a lot about slavery. I think this maybe the reason I didn't love or enjoy Barracoon. It's definitely not what I thought it would be. The narration was great and I actually couldn't imagine reading it with the vernacular of Cudjo Lewis. Is this a great introductory read? I think so. It just wasn't for me. I found nothing new here.
Profile Image for Lulu.
844 reviews111 followers
June 5, 2018
Wow! Kossulo’s story is touching and heartbreaking. I felt as if I was sitting there with him and he was personally telling me his story. There isn't much that needs to be said, go read it.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,599 reviews192 followers
July 10, 2018
Fascinating and heartbreaking, Kossula relates his traumatic experience in his youth of his village being slaughtered and he and other youths being sent into slavery in the US. Zora Neale Hurston spends many days listening to Kossula's stories, and other days letting the man simply get on with his chores as she gained his trust.
The "interview" section of the book is prefaced by some background on Hurston's reasons for engaging Kossula, as well as Hurston's ambivalence to the academic approach. And there are stories, related by Kossula, that end off the book. I found the stories interesting, and imagined he had related these to his children and grandchildren.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,468 reviews563 followers
September 5, 2021
[3.4] The story of Cudjo Lewis as told to Zora Neale Hurston is a valuable addition to our history. I listened to it on audio and had no trouble with the dialect. His memories of Africa are particularly vibrant although he speaks little about his life as a slave. Cudjo's story is very brief - just a slender few dozen pages in the center of introductions, prefaces and appendixes. With all the buildup, it felt incomplete.
Profile Image for Cosimo.
416 reviews
August 31, 2020
In parte uomo, in parte libero

“Abbiamo guardato, e guardato, e guardato, e guardato, e l'unica cosa che abbiamo visto era l'acqua. Da dove eravamo partiti, non lo sapevamo. E dove andavamo non lo sapevamo”.

Zora Neale-Hurston, antropologa e letterata, allieva di Franz Boas e incoraggiata da Charlotte Mason, scrive che “il commercio degli schiavi africani è il capitolo più tragico della storia dell'umanità”. La sua storia racconta il viaggio della Clotilda nel 1858, l'ultima nave negriera con un “black cargo”, sulla tratta atlantica, dopo 364 anni di schiavismo, che nel complesso coinvolse il movimento e la deportazione di 60 milioni di individui, per i quali ci furono fame, soffocamento e pestilenze; qui, in modo originale, le parole vengono non dal venditore, ma da chi è stato venduto, ed è cosa assai rara: è la voce essenziale di quell'umanità in catene, la «moneta africana», l'«avorio africano». Il racconto etnografico unisce la testimonianza diretta di Cudjo Lewis, alias Kossula Oloualay, yoruba che visse fino a diciannove anni nell'odierna Nigeria e fu preso nel golfo di Guinea, e che l'autrice incontrò nei pressi di Mobile nel 1931, con una collazione dal testo di Emma Langdon Roche Historic Sketches of the South (1914), lavoro editoriale e conoscitivo in continuità di Hurston, generando un manoscritto che fu oggetto di controversia accademica. Alice Walker, nella prefazione, ci ricorda quanto sia prezioso, tra i tanti meriti di questo testo, restituire il peso della verità alla storia, dove c'era una bugia che tanto ha fatto soffrire la cultura africana: l'idea che gli africani siano stati soltanto vittime, e non anche corresponsabili del commercio di schiavi; uomini donne e bambine, che appartenevano all'Africa, furono catturate e sottratte alla loro esistenza da chi voleva, incitando alla guerra e aizzando le tribù una contro l'altra, solamente arricchirsi in modo avido e indossare la gloria del potere. Per questo, oltre che per il suo contenuto, Barracoon risulta essere una lettura tragica e straziante, senza giri di parole. I bianchi, crudeli e indifferenti, arrivarono in Africa e razziarono intere comunità, provocarono sanguinosi massacri e transitarono gli esseri umani dalla natura di persone a quella di oggetti, di bestiame, di macchine; i re indigeni fecero accordi disonesti e immorali e costruirono prigioni, spietati. Hurston permette così al lettore di comprendere il senso di disperazione intimamente connesso all'evento del maafa: il disastro e il modo in cui gli individui reagiscono ad esso, lo sradicamento e lo sfruttamento onnicomprensivo, l'incessante devastazione e saccheggio della terra africana, il sistema di lavori forzati che è antesignano di quello carcerario; e insieme, il senso di tragica perdita, il desiderio di legami parentali e culturali, la percezione di mutilazione, separatezza, solitudine esistenziale. Gli africani, quando compresero che non sarebbero mai più tornati a casa, ebbero la forza di unirsi nella libertà e nel 1866 crearono Africa Town, oggi Plateau, laggiù nei pressi del fiume Alabama, e vissero finalmente nell'amore e nella consapevolezza, nel dolore e nella promessa.

“Sono sicura che non teme la morte. Nonostante il lungo sodalizio con la cristianità, è troppo pagano nell'intimo per farsi spaventare. Ma davanti all'altare del passato trema ancora d'angoscia”.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,078 reviews712 followers
October 18, 2021
Barracoon is an interview record of the memories of Cudjo Lewis who is believed to be the last living person captured in Africa and brought to America on a slave ship. Lewis was captured in 1859 by Dahomey warriors, sold to American slavers, and illegally shipped to Mobile, Alabama (importing slaves to the USA had been outlawed in 1809). He was 19 years old when captured and was approximately 91 years old when interviewed in 1931.

He recounts how his village was wiped out by the Dahomey warriors and those who were deemed too old or weak to be sold as slaves were beheaded, and during a multi-day trip to Dahomey territory the decapitated heads were preserved by smoke curing which cut down on the odor and allow them to be kept as trophies. This smoking process was done within view of the live captives including Kossola (Lewis' African name).

Once in place as a slave in the States, Cudjo Lewis described being called a "heathen" by the other slaves. It hadn't occurred to me before that there might be a cultural rift between the slaves born in the states and those recently arrived from Africa, but it makes sense that there would be. By 1859 virtually all the other slaves living in the States would have been born in North America and spoke English as their first language. Lewis and others of his group of contraband slaves from Africa would have been extreme minorities. Also, the existence on this group of Africans had to be kept a secret so they couldn't be auctioned off in public. Therefore, five years later after the Civil War ended and they were freed, they were still living in the same general vicinity and they were able to establish "Africatown," a community founded and run by Africans. That's where Lewis spent the rest of his life.

A substantial portion of the book consists of his account of his life and family experiences living in Alabama since the Civil War. He and his wife had six children, and he tells of the deaths during those many years of his wife and three of his children. He still seemed to have vivid memories of Africa, and said that he hoped his words would be published and that somebody in Africa would read them and say that they remembered him as Kossola—his African name.

Cudjo Lewis was interviewed by the author Zora Neale Hurston who is best known for her book Their Eyes Were Watching God. She tried to publish Barracoon in 1931, but the only publisher to consider it insisted that it not be written in southern black vernacular. She refused to make modifications, and it had remained unpublished. Hurston died in 1960, and administrators of her estate in a search for unpublished material came across the manuscript and decided to publish this year.

The following link is to a NYT article about finding the remains of the ship "Clotilda" believed to be the last ship that brought slaves to the USA. Cudjo Lewis was one of those slaves.

The following link is to an excerpt from Barracoon:
Profile Image for Betsy Robinson.
Author 9 books1,037 followers
July 13, 2018
This is a short book—171 pages and a lot of that is front and back matter (I didn’t read much of this)—but the pain and trauma-on-top-of-trauma quotient is so high it takes a while to read in whatever spurts you can tolerate. It is the life story of Kossola, the last living slave abducted from Africa after other Africans plundered his village, brutally beheading people, to catch human beings to sell to the thriving but illegal slave trade. “Barracoon” is the word for the barracks the captives were locked in pending their trip as “black cargo” to the United States.

This is the story of American slaves and their descendants, but it is also a study of how we humans destroy ourselves—all of us: Africans kill and enslave Africans; White people work and brutalize Africans; American-born Black people disparage African-born “savages” once they are free men; White men kill unarmed free Black men with impunity; it goes on and on and on. When greed and ego and power become seductive enough, when we feel insecure and need a scapegoat, we dehumanize others and turn them into objects—a commodity deemed stupid, inferior, and without dignity—to justify our heinous actions against them. Slaves, Jews, immigrants, pick your example; they’re everywhere unfortunately. And the irony is that Kossola, and probably others like him who actually survived their living deaths, are probably so much stronger and more resilient than the majority of people. Certainly me—I’d have been dead before I was taken out of my African village.
Profile Image for Andre.
522 reviews141 followers
May 26, 2018
This is an important and fascinating historical document. It is rare that we have a narrative of one who remembers and recounts the journey from Africa to America, from free person to enslaved man. So, Zora Neale Hurston writing and working as a folklorist and cultural anthropologist took interest in the story of Kossula, the last surviving individual from the last slaving ship that touched down in Alabama in 1860, the Clotilda.

Here we have the remembrances from the perspective of the captive. As Zora says; “All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the “black ivory,” the “coin of Africa,” had no market value. She was on a mission to give value to the words of the sold and she did just that over a series of conversations with Kossula.

“I had met Cudjo Lewis (his American name) for the first time in July 1927. I was sent by Dr. Franz Boas to get a firsthand report of the raid that had brought him to America and bondage, for Dr. Carter G. Woodson of the Journal of Negro History. I had talked with him in December of that same year and again in 1928.” The book is written in the vernacular dialect style and it takes a bit to get used to the rhythm, but once you fall in, you will remain locked to the page. I’m guessing Nora was aiming for authenticity and trying to present Kossula to the world the exact way she was hearing it. This might account, in some small way for the time between writing and publishing. The book was completed in 1931 and has just now, almost a century later been published. At least one publisher asked for Kossula’s life story in “language rather than dialect...... Hurston would not submit to such revision.”

Although slave narratives are in publication, Kossula’s story takes us from his African home through three weeks in the barracoon (essentially a holding hut for the captives before they were loaded onto ships) to 45 days at sea and then dry land in Alabama. He spent five years in bondage before emancipation came. The majority of slave narratives in print detail their bondage here in America but rarely, if ever? have we had an intimate look from the motherland to America.

Through these conversations, you can glimpse the culture and ways of being.

“De ole folks, you unnerstand me, de wise ones, dey go out in de woods and gittee leaves—dey know which ones—an’ mashee de leaves wid water. Den dey paint de dead man all over wid dis so he doan spoil till de king come. Maybe de king doan git dere till de next day. When de king come, my grandfather, he come wid him. “Befo’ anybody see de king, we know he is almost dere, because we hear de drum.”

The capture is given a detailed accounting but the middle passage is not discussed in depth, perhaps due to the harshness of memories. One thing that Kossula makes abundantly clear is the sense of loss and longing he always felt for his home. Deborah Plant does a masterful job setting the stage in her informative introduction that gives depth surrounding this project. There was some talk of plagiarism because Zora didn’t properly cite some sources she used for some of the folklore backgrounds. Seems to be, much ado about nothing.

Zora’s talent as a writer was already shining as the reader will see here. This book was completed in 1931 and Her Eyes Were Watching God wasn’t published until 1937, her most famous work. This is a work that belongs on every shelf. Even the appendix and glossary contain valuable tidbits. “In spite of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the people on the continent, Europeans and Americans referred to them, collectively, as “Africans.” This resulted in the belief that “‘Africans’ sold their own sisters and brothers.” I think it’s important for the discussion of slavery that we make clear and conscious distinctions between perpetrators, collaborators, and victims. Five stars! Thanks to Edelweiss and HarperCollins for an advanced ebook. Book drops on May 8, 2018.
Profile Image for Maxine.
1,248 reviews43 followers
March 3, 2018
His name was Kossola, but he was called Cudjo Lewis. He was the last surviving African of the last American slaver-the Clotilda

Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ is a previously unpublished work by author Zora Neale Hurston. Although she is best known for her works of fiction, in this book, she writes ‘as a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and folklorist’. In 1927, Hurston spent three months in Plateau, Alabama interviewing Cudjo Lewis, 90, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. Hurston records much of Lewis’ story in his own words and dialect as he talks of his capture in 1860 by another African tribe; his sale to and detention by American slavers in a barracoon, an enclosure used to detain slaves; his transport to the United States with more than a hundred other people on the Clotilde, the last American ship to conduct this ‘illegitimate trade’; the horrors of his five and a half years as a slave ‘from 1860 until Union soldiers told him he was free’; and his life after, the desire for land, the building of Africatown, the lives and deaths of his wife and children, and his constant sense of loss and yearning for his home in Africa.

Lewis is a born storyteller making his story fascinating, often horrifying, and poignant. Despite his age, his memory is excellent and, as Deborah G. Plant points out in the introduction, if he gets minor details wrong, his story overall matches objectively known facts. Hurston intersperses his tale with comments about their relationship, the gifts she brings him, the food they share, her growing respect for him, and his emotions as he remembers the life that was stolen from him. She tells it all with compassion and empathy.

Barracoon is an important work by one of America’s most important writers. It provides a rare and powerful glimpse at the true horrors and tragedy of slavery as experienced by someone who lived through it.

Thanks to Edelweiss+ and Amistad for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review
Profile Image for Mariah Roze.
1,020 reviews923 followers
September 12, 2019
"In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation's history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo's firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.
In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo's past--memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.
Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo's unique vernacular, and written from Hurston's perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture."
Profile Image for Julie.
161 reviews26 followers
February 9, 2021
It blows my mind that this wasn't published when the author was alive. It saddens my heart greatly that it wasn't published in the subject's lifetime. To have the narrative of a former slave from the last slave ship to America is important. To have that narrative from a man that was nineteen when he was transported to America from Africa and was still a young man when he was freed after 5-1/2 years as a slave is unique. Middle Passage accounts from a slave's point-of-view are rare.

A publisher was willing to publish Hurston's book but only if she edited out the dialect. She refused and after you read his story, you'll understand why. You can hear his voice from near a century ago. That would have been lost if she had done what the publisher wanted. I'm glad he didn't have one more thing taken from him. I felt a great sense of duty to bear witness to this man's life, to give him my full attention. I found myself wanting to, needing to, read the subjects words aloud because reading them in silence didn't seem like enough.

The title refers to the place future slaves were held after being kidnapped by their countrymen and before being sold and transported to America or Europe or elsewhere. I didn't know that Europeans and Americans emulated the Portuguese model of procuring slaves.

Hurston interviewed Oluale Kossola in the late 1920s at his windowless home in Alabama. He was called Cudjo Lewis in America. The thing that struck me about his story were many including the circumstances of his horrifying capture, transport, enslavement, and his life as a former slave. But the thing that really got to me was how much he wanted to go back home to Africa. He asked the man that transported him to America to take him back home to Africa and was treated as crazy for even asking since, in his former master's eyes, he practically stole his property by not being his slave any longer. He decided to save money to get back to Africa but soon realized being exploited wasn't such a great moneymaker, so he decided to stay (or rather conceded). He along with others founded their own town based on life in Africa. Imagine that, an African town with only those originally from Africa in Alabama.

It's worth noting, as unsavory as it was, slaves were many slaveholders biggest assets after land. The loss of slaves broke a lot of people financially. It's why George Washington struggled with it. He knew it was a black mark on his legacy but he knew it would break him financially to set all his slaves free while he was alive. In the end pragmatism won out. Even when considering to make slavery illegal he knew it would break the fragile nation just birthed. He was right, the Civil War nearly did break our nation nearly 80 years later. Though one could argue that saving a country built on the backs of slavery maybe wasn't worth saving. Perhaps we needed to break so we could build into something different, something closer to the promised land we brag about being but have yet to reach. Though there's always a chance of flipping into something worse. We could very well have a continent of countries instead of states, some of which had slavery still. It sounds far-fetched until you look at those who still proudly wave the Confederate flag and hold sacred the monuments of those that fought to keep the institution of slavery alive. These seem to be the same people that claim slavery was so long ago and that everyone should just get over it. Remember the soldiers that fought to keep slavery but forget the slaves is the gist. P.S. Forget the largest forced migration in the history of the world.

Kossola lived through his birth as a free man in West Africa in 1841 to experiencing slavery in a strange land and then freedom with the baked-in prejudice of Jim Crow's disingenuous but constitutionally protected "separate but equal" nonsense to seeing the dawn of a new century that included a world war and the Great Depression.

Throughout the rest of his life he was lonely for his people. He hoped Hurston's book would reach those that had known him in Africa so they would know what happened to him. That separation haunted him. It haunts me too after reading this book.

To think that importing slaves into America was illegal decades before Kossola was born and still he and others met the horrible fate of slavery. It was a hangable offense but that didn't quell demand or the desire to fill that demand. A demand that native dark-skinned Kings were more than happy to oblige.

It's horrific to hear the mayhem that ensued in the predawn raid when Kossola's townspeople awoke to female warriors slaughtering them. It gets worse from there with decapitated heads of family and friends banging about the belts of the warriors as Kassola and others that survived the massacre were bound together on their march to a fate they couldn't possibly imagine.

You go into the narrative knowing the story of his capture. At first I was wondering why the editor was giving so much away in the introduction but once I got into the narrative I was grateful for the help in understanding everything. The narrative Hurston left us is very slim, only about one hundred pages. The afterword is also not to be missed. There is more dialog from the subject as well as games he played in Africa as a child and other information. The historical info after that adds another layer. I recommend not skipping anything.

The part where Kossola tries to navigate freedom is important to spend time with. Really try to imagine being a slave one day and the next being free in a strange hostile land. Slave holders had zero obligation to help their former slaves acclimate to freedom. Imagine being told to go free and you have no money or connections or family or work history except as a slave. You are looked at as stolen property or a traitor. Where the fuck do you even start? The economy sucks and no one wants you unless you work super cheap and even then no one trusts you or truly values you as a human being as much as they valued you as a thing. Imagine how you would navigate that terrain. Seriously, where to start? Add to that a legal system that doesn't have your back and people that want you to go back to Africa or into the new plantation called the penitentiary. Where the hell do you start? Everything you ever had and everyone you ever knew growing up is dead or long gone and the only people you can maybe trust are in the same boat as you. How do you start your new life?

Kossola figures it out. He helps found a town, marries, and has children. But the tragedy continues. Oh the tragedy continues. Some could have happened to anyone and some only because of prejudice. It's just beyond comprehension what this gentle soul endured. When he talked about his wife dying he said: "De wife she de eyes to de man's soul. How kin I see now, when I ain' gotte de eyes no mo'."

Hurston seemed sad to say that final goodbye to Kossola. I'm sure she couldn't help but know he was going back to his home to be alone. He talked about being lonely all the time. Hurston ended with: "I am sure he does not fear death. In spite of his long Christian fellowship he is too deeply a pagan to fear death. But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past."

When embarking on this story, Hurston bemoaned when it came to historical documentation of slavery: "All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the black ivory, the coin of Africa, had no market value."

When juxtaposing this story next to current events it starkly renders the reality of how dark-skinned Americans have been wrestling with sovereignty over their own bodies since slavery. Ending slavery didn't end this reality.

No one was ever held responsible for the crimes against Kossola. Only one man was ever held accountable for illegally importing Africans after it became illegal in 1808. One. Only one man and as he headed to the gallows he still declared he had done nothing wrong. He believed it as did most others in power, thus only one token guilty man in a sea of many, including the men that stole Kossola out of Africa.

One thinks about the border and the calls today to "build the wall" in the name of keeping immigrants from flooding in. Ironic as hell considering America is responsible for the largest forced migration in human history via the slave trade. Americans are responsible for atrocities of African tribes against other African tribes because of American demand for slaves. Atrocities that would make many drug lords or serial killers seem tame in comparison. Without the demand, it wouldn't have been so appealing and profitable.

The same thing can be said of drugs coming over the border. For some reason people want to condemn those working for the drug trade instead of Americans who demand the drugs. No one brings drugs (or slaves) over the border unless there is a demand to be filled. No one is that stupid. We want the drugs so the drugs come. We wanted slaves so the slaves came. We are so busy demonizing those that supply what we demand, that we are blind to our part in it sometimes.

This book is a must read.
Profile Image for Scott  Hitchcock.
779 reviews224 followers
August 5, 2018

Parts of this only a sociologist could enjoy and the other parts were obtuse. It really didn't give the feeling of what it was like being stolen/sold from Africa and the experience of freedom lost.
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