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raceAhead: Zora Neale Hurston On The Last Survivor of the Last Slave Ship

December 20, 2017, 6:54 PM UTC

And now an early holiday gift for history and justice fans.

Nearly 60 years after her death, a long-ignored manuscript by Zora Neale Hurston—writing as an anthropologist, not in her better known role as a novelist—is being published next year.

Barracoon is the story of Cudjo Lewis, a teenager who arrived on the last recorded slave ship to sail to the U.S., in 1860. Lewis, whose African name was Oluale Kossola, was kept in a barracoon—a type of slave pen—for three months before he was forced to sail with 109 other people in the cargo hold of a ship called Clotilda.

We know quite a bit about Kossola’s life already. He was enslaved in Mobile, Ala. by a wealthy ship captain, the brother of the man who owned Clotilda, and who sneaked its human cargo into Alabama in defiance of a federal ban on the importation of slaves in effect since 1808. He worked on the ship for five years before emancipation. Unable to return home to what is now Benin, he stayed in Alabama. After asking for and failing to receive reparations, he established Africatown, in north Mobile, a community that included other Clotilda survivors. There they kept versions of Yoruba traditions alive. He died in 1935, the last survivor of the last slave ship.

But the Hurston lens, rich with cultural observations and compassion, promises to be a powerful one. Better still, she also arranged to have him filmed, making Kossola the only known formerly enslaved person to have a video record.

Hurston is a towering figure in American literature, best known for her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. But before that, she was Barnard College’s first black graduate, a member of the class of 1928. There, she studied with Franz Boaz, known as the “father of American anthropology,” whose work centered on race. It was during this time that she began documenting black life in her native South, recording songs, lore, traditions, histories, and personal stories of ordinary people. She continued her work during the darkest days of the Great Depression, doing in-depth fieldwork for the Federal Writer’s Project, a project of the WPA.

Here is a video clip of Hurston’s fieldwork dating from 1928, the same year she spent two months interviewing Kossola for her book. (It may very well be him in the opening shot, I can’t be sure.) The audio, which was added later, is Hurston herself, recreating the songs that she heard throughout the South, like the types of sing-songy chants that people like turpentine camp managers typically used to wake up other workers. It’s extraordinary. (At the 3:30 mark you’ll find a group of children playing and dancing that will warm your heart.)

You can find more of Hurston’s audio recordings here.

Cudjo Lewis is remembered fondly by many in Alabama, including his descendants. Africatown still exists, sort of. He established a Baptist church, which still holds services. And the Alabama-Benin Trade Forum poignantly maintains the connection between their state and the ancestral home of many of Alabama’s formerly enslaved people.

But Barracoon is welcome news for more than just Alabamans and history nerds.

Hurston was a faithful observer of black life, often controversial, and wrestled mightily to reconcile the “American Negro’s” horrific past with a racist, uncertain future. Yet, she increasingly labored in obscurity and died in poverty. It was writer Alice Walker who helped make sure that Hurston’s work, largely out of print by 1979, remained relevant. “Her work had a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings and that was crucial to me as a writer,” Walker told PBS.

Today, with the rise of white supremacy inextricably linked to a persistent unwillingness to examine our difficult past, Hurston’s work remains as crucial as ever. While I’d have much preferred that Kossola made it back home where he yearned to be—I like to imagine him growing old, raising his kids and engaging in friendly jollof rice smack-downs—his extraordinary life as Cudjo Lewis has much to teach his fellow Americans about ourselves.

On Point

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Now, suppose a Negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit to mankind, but in the fact that the doer was a Negro. Must I not also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable? . . . The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison. . .  If you are under the impression that every white man is an Edison, just look around a bit.
Zora Neale Hurston