man in shadow looking up

When I saw that the great Zora Neale Hurston had a new book out—her being deceased being not at all an impediment to this, and perhaps even, sadly, a furtherance—I rushed to buy it.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” is very different from the other work I have read by her, the superb literary novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Barracoon is an anthropological work of nonfiction, and the making and publishing of it is quite a story in itself, covering vast tracts of space and time.

The slave trade was officially abolished by the U.S. in 1808. Despite this, ships were still making their way to the West African coast to trade goods for people as late as 1860—more than 50 years after the slave trade had been outlawed, and only one year before the outbreak of the Civil War. During this time, Africans on the coast were still raiding interior villages, capturing people, and housing them in barracoons—the term means “stokade”—to be sold as the slave ships arrived.

The last known slave ship, the Clotilda, sailed in 1860. The hero of Barracoon, known as either Cudjo (his American name) or Kossula (his African name), was captured at age 19 and survived the middle passage on that last slave ship. He was enslaved in the U.S. until the end of the Civil War in 1865, which occurred only a few years later. When he was freed, he lacked the resources to sail to Africa, to which he very much wanted to return.

Fast forward more than 50 years to 1927: Zora Neale Hurston, having learned that the now 86-year-old was the last known living person who was born in Africa and sold into U.S. slavery, visited him at his home in Alabama and recorded his story.

Hurston completed her manuscript in 1931. However, she could not find a publisher that did not wish her to make drastic changes with which she did not agree. When she died in 1960, the manuscript was still unpublished. Fast forward more than 50 years (again!) to 2018: Her book is finally published, and the voice of Cudjo/Kossula—the voice of someone who experienced the middle passage as a person sold—is finally being heard. This is vitally important and amazing because, as Hurston explains in her introduction, there are countless texts about the slave trade written by people in power, but not by people they exploited:

“All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.”

Now, this year, after so many 50+ year intervals, we finally have some words.