Review: Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading "Gods of the Upper Air" earlier this year, I wanted to learn more about or read something from Zora Neal Hurston. I found her to be one of the most sympathetic people portrayed in that book.

This book, Barracoon, was published posthumously and is based on her interviews with Cudjo Lewis (African name Kossula) who was then thought to be the only remaining American who had survived the Middle Passage. His entire village in Africa was captured for slaving and he come across to America with many of his fellow villagers in the Clotilda, the last known slave ship that arrived in Mobile in 1859, more than 50 years after the importation of African slaves had been outlawed.

I listened to the audiobook version of this book and I found it fascinating and the story of Kossola's life profoundly sad. The book is written in "the vernacular", meaning that Hurston, a trained anthropologist, recorded Cudjo's story using the language he spoke in the manner he spoke it. She felt his manner of speaking was an important part of his story and refused when requested by potential publishers to modify it into standard English. Listening to the Robin Miles reading really helped bring Cudjo's tale to life for me - she did a fantastic job.

Roughly half the book is Kossola telling his tale to Hurston. There is a lengthy introduction giving background on Hurston and her work in Mobile. Having come to this book from reading the "Gods of the Upper Air" I found this part interesting, though others may not. The end of the book is a set of African tales that Kossola told Hurston, that are not part of his life story but are likely added by Hurston the anthropologist as a way of adding some detail regarding Kossola's cultural background.

Hurston's decision to have the book written in the vernacular, and in telling a tale that acknowledges the role of Africans in the slave trade (Kossola's village was captured by forces of the prince of Dahomey, and their treatment by them was brutal) are reasons often given for why the book did not find a publisher until after her death. NPR did a piece on this that may be of interest to others who read this book -