Review Roundup: Zora Neale Hurston’s book on one of the last Africans in the Atlantic slave trade
Nearly 90 years after it was first written, Zora Neale Hurston’s series of interviews with one of the last Africans brought to America from the Atlantic slave trade has arrived in bookstores across the country. Barracoon is introduced rather fittingly by Alice Walker, the woman whom we can thank for a revitalized interest and scholarship of Hurston’s work, and her tireless efforts to locate the unmarked grave of the literary icon.
Hurston’s diligent training as an anthropologist her work around Southern and Caribbean folktales come to bear as lets the voice and language of Kossula (Cudjo Lewis) do the work of the telling of the story, in essence allowing him to craft his own narrative, with limited narration of her own.
Below is a brief roundup of some reviews:
NPR‘s Lynn Neary writes: “What happened to him was horrific. He describes in graphic detail the day his village was raided by another tribe. It was a brutal massacre and those who survived were sold as slaves. But Lewis also remembered his village before the massacre, like the day he saw a group of young girls in the market and admired their jingling jewelry — then bemoaned the fact that he was too young to marry.”
The editor of Barracoon, Deborah Plant spoke to Neary at length about the book and particularly about Lewis’s language. A particularly telling quote emerges from this conversation: “Being taken away from everything you ever knew, never to see it again, never ever to know what became of your family, your community. That’s terrifying, it’s traumatic, it’s heartbreaking… So often in the interview process, he would weep, or he would be so lost in the memories of what happened to him, he could not speak… It made me feel incredibly connected to him, because I saw patterns in his speech, words that he used that my grandparents used. It really felt like a coming home.”
In a companion review of Slave Old Man, The New York Times‘s Parul Sehgal grounds her review of both works in the tradition of the oral history, or an oral rendition of a narrative story. She uses a quote from Patrick Chamoiseau to perfectly illustrate Hurston’s modus operandi: “You can’t go to a library and find out what really happened in Martinique. You have to go to the oral tradition. For the people who were dominated, there is no history, no past. These people don’t have a voice. The Europeans tell our story. So you have to go to the storyteller.”
Sehgal later says of Hurston’s work in Barracoon: “Hurston herself is present only at the edges of the narrative, but she is unmistakable. She is most beloved for her novels, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she was also a gifted folklorist, and the qualities that distinguished her are on display in this early work: her patience, persistence and charisma; her ability to read her subjects; her tact. She has an unerring instinct of when to push Lewis — and when to slip away and leave him to his memories. She brings him gifts and company. They talk over ‘a marvelous mess of blue crabs,’ ‘excellent late melons’ and huge quantities of clingstone peaches.”
Constance Grady’s review of Hurston’s posthumous work establishes that it was Hurston’s insistence that whatever was to become of this set of interviews, she would not have her work recolonize the dialect. Remarkably for a slave narrative of sorts, Lewis’s time in bondage only takes up about nine pages of Hurston’s work.
Grady speaks to the haunting quality of Barracoon‘s subject matter, the trauma of the hold and the middle passage when she writes: “Kossola lives a full life in Africatown — he marries and has children and becomes a sexton in the town church — but his narrative is permeated with pain and sorrow and loneliness. He pauses frequently to weep. ‘I so lonely,’ he tells Hurston when he recalls how his wife and children died. ‘How does one sleep with such memories beneath the pillow?’ Hurston asks of Kossola. Barracoon breathes life into those memories — of the horrors of abduction, of Middle Passage, of slavery, of the Jim Crow South — and makes them so real and so present that they would trouble anyone’s sleep.”
It sounds like Barracoon deserves a place not only on our bookshelves but in our hearts. As we read it, may we remember those of us in our own families who do not sound much differently from Kossola, who speak in “bad” grammar and who love watermelon and peaches and to tell stories about their own hard lives. My only regret is that this book was not released while its author could still enjoy the fruits of her loving labors.