11. A biography: Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
List Progress: 21/30
1927 was less than one hundred years ago. It was also when author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston conducted her interviews with Oluale Kossula, also known as Cudjo Lewis, who was the last survivor of The Clotilda, the final slave ship to bring people from Africa to the United States. Kossula provided Hurston with a rare account of life coming from Africa, living as a slave, and making a life in America after the Civil War, and added a perspective to the black American experience that was so rarely recorded in American history.
Kossula was nineteen years old when he was captured from his home in the Banté region (modern-day Benin) and sold to white traders from Alabama. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade had been officially outlawed in 1808, but illegal ships were still bringing people over through this final voyage in 1859. He lived as a slave for five and a half years, until the Civil War ended his enslavement, and he and the other survivors of the Clotilda were left abandoned in a foreign country. They built their homes into a community called Africatown, and Kossula was one of the last original founders when Hurston interviewed him in 1927. Kossula and his wife had to navigate life in the postbellum South as part of a distinct community: discriminated against by whites, but not integrated into the community of American-born blacks. His is a vital part of the larger slavery narrative in America, and it is a shame that Hurston’s finished biography was not published until 2018, 58 years after her death and 83 years after Kossula’s.
The tone of Barracoon is fairly relaxed, despite the heavy subject matter. Hurston includes herself in the narrative, describing her meetings with Kossula and how they got along, including the times he was frustrated with her or didn’t feel like talking. She transcribes Kossula’s accent for all of his parts of the story, and while it took a bit to get used to reading, it was a really interesting bit of immersion. I had to interrogate my own prejudices, my assumptions about people who speak with those accents, and that felt like a needed bit of introspection. Reading Barracoon feels like you are there with Zora and Cudjo, walking back through history while eating peaches on his front porch. It is a narrow slice of history, an exploration of this one man and one community’s existence, but it speaks to much larger realities along the way. This is a book I would highly recommend for anyone looking to learn about American history, black history, and the human costs of the bloody foundations of our country, from the mouth of someone who was there.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.