Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave, by Zora Neale Hurston, HQ, 171 pp, €10.99, ISBN 978-0008297664
Anne Enright recently said of the Irish-American writer Maeve Brennan: “[she] didn’t have to be a woman to be forgotten, but it surely helped”. The same could be said of the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), whose extraordinary fictional and anthropological works of the 1930s disappeared into obscurity until revived by feminist scholars in the 1970s. Alongside the better-remembered male writers Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, Hurston was a significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance, though her work was less concerned with the urban “New Negro” than with the rural black subject whose experience she documented alongside her mentor, Franz Boaz, the founder of American anthropology. Her ethnographic scholarship considered the chains that link African, Caribbean, and African-American culture, and she frequently turned to her own home town of Eatonville, Florida for material. She is best-known, however, for her fiction, in particular for her remarkable 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which tells the tale of Janie Crawford, an African-American woman born in the aftermath of slavery who must contend not only with white oppression but with black male dominance as well.
In Hurston’s novel, the black characters are neither heroes nor victims, but people. In her preface to a recent edition, British author Zadie Smith describes the book’s great strength as its ability to show the reader that “Negroes are no better nor worse” than anyone else. But for black intellectuals at the time, this was the novel’s unforgivable flaw. For these critics, African-American protagonists must be either moral and erudite exemplars there to refute the anti-black propaganda of white racists or deeply compromised characters whose human weaknesses are readily explained by the deforming nature of slavery and bigotry. Published in the same year as Their Eyes Were Watching God, novelist Richard Wright’s “Blueprint for Negro Literature” demanded that “every short story, novel, poem, and play… carry within its lines, implied or explicit, a sense of the oppression of the Negro people”. For Wright, Hurston fails to depict this reality; worse still, as he noted in his excoriating review, she addresses her book not to the “Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy”.
Far from making obvious the linkages between white rule and black lives, throughout most of Their Eyes Were Watching God white characters are entirely absent. This technique (one that anticipates the fictional worlds of Toni Morrison) allows Hurston to study her black characters in relation to themselves, and not simply in how they react to the malevolent economic and social restrictions imposed on them by the ruling class. White figures do bookend the novel, with Janie’s slave-born grandmother working under the protection of a white family at the outset, and Janie herself standing trial in front of a white judge and jury at the close. This scene must have particularly infuriated Wright, as instead of using it as a platform to highlight the gulf between American ideals and reality, as he was to do three years later in Native Son (1940), Hurston has Janie acquitted of all charges. And yet the relative lack of white voices in the book does not mean that the debilitating ideologies of white supremacy are also missing, as it is evident throughout that African Americans have internalised its fundamental maxim ‑ white equals good; black, bad ‑ and created their own hierarchies that mirror those upheld by their former masters. “Ah can’t stand black niggers,” one light-skinned African-American woman disquietingly confides in Janie, “We oughta lighten up de race”. Hurston is not only fascinated by the tensions between races, but those found within them as well.
By denouncing Hurston for her seeming failure to illustrate black political and social disenfranchisement, Wright himself fails to recognise that the rendering of black women’s lives is a manifestly political act. In a resonant speech, Janie’s grandmother sets forth not only the pecking order of race, but that of gender too:
de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so far as Ah can see.
For her grandmother, the only way to mitigate this life of burden is to see that the sixteen-year-old Janie is married to an old black farmer who owns his own land. Janie, however, flees this life of rural labour into the arms of Jody Starks, an up-and-coming representative of the new black middle class. The pair travel to Florida, where they find an all-black town (not unlike the one in which Hurston herself was born), where Jody opens a general store and soon becomes mayor. Yet as the years go by, Janie realises that in leaving the farm she has merely swapped one form of servitude for another; for the bourgeois Stark his wife is not a work mule but a show pony. Janie escapes this marriage by outliving Stark, and then meets Tea Cake, a younger man who entices her to leave the township and work with him down on the “muck”, a swampy no man’s land where sugar cane is grown. And for the first time in her life, Janie finds something sweet. There the pair live as equals, and Janie comes to knowledge of herself, as Zadie Smith puts it, “in and through another person”. No novel better explores black individuality in the first half of the twentieth century. And yet it was forgotten, along with Hurston herself, until novelist Alice Walker began a campaign of revival in 1975, which led to the novel’s republication in 1978.
Now, forty years on, another of Hurston’s lost books has found its way into print. Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave, is a non-fiction account of Cudjo Lewis, the last living slave in America to have been trafficked from Africa, whom Hurston befriended and interviewed in 1927. Though the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808, slavery in the United States continued to be legal until the end of the Civil War in 1865, and thus their continued to be a market for illegal slave shipments for fifty years after the trade’s abolition. In 1860, a trio of Alabaman gentlemen decided to rig out a slave ship and set sail for Africa. There they negotiated the purchase of over a hundred men and women including Cudjo, who had been captured from surrounding tribes by the kingdom of Dahomey (in present day Benin), before returning to the American South, dodging British and American patrols on the way. Safely back in Alabama, they put their new property to work, the women picking cotton and the men cutting and transporting lumber along the river. The slaves continued like this for the next five years, until, one day, a boat full of Union soldiers passed by and told them that they were free. Cudjo ‑ who like so many of those who came to the United States in the nineteenth century was given a new name, exchanging Oluale Kossola for something more pronounceable on American tongues, encapsulates then in his single life the story of many generations of African Americans, from capture, to middle passage, slavery and emancipation. Yet his tale does not stop there, for his postbellum life would also symbolise the myriad disillusionments and humiliations of African Americans between the end of the Civil War and his death in 1935.
When first freed, Cudjo and the other Africans attempt to make their way back to Africa, but are foiled by lack of funds. They then form Africa Town, a community built with land (gallingly) bought from their old masters. Here, Cudjo marries and has five children. But over the course of twenty years all die, either by accident, disease, police shooting, or other violent attack. The grief with which Cudjo and his wife react to these losses is as raw as a scourged back: “My wife lookee at my face and she scream and scream and fell on de floor and cain raise herself up. I runnee out de place and fell on my face in the pine grove.” At the same time, these calamities provoke in Cudjo a contemplative poetry: “We so lonesome, but we know we cain git back de dead. When de spit goes from de mouf, it doan come back. When de earth eats, it doan give back.” How much of this lyrical prose is Cudjo’s ‑ himself a formidable teller of stories, histories, and parables ‑ and how much Hurston’s has been a matter of debate among literary scholars. She opens the narrative, “This is the life story of Cudjo Lewis, as told by himself”, deliberately echoing the nineteenth century tradition of slave narrative exemplified by the autobiography of escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. However, her role is not merely that of scribe, as she tells us: “The thought back of the act was to set down essential truth rather than fact of detail, which is so often misleading.”
By documenting Cudjo’s dialect rather than converting it into “standard” English, Hurston opened herself to censure from black reviewers who accused her of perpetuating the racist parlance of black minstrelsy, and to bafflement from white publishers who refused to publish the book. Yet it also lends her version of Cudjo’s story a sense of compelling immediacy and authenticity. JM Synge, another writer with anthropological tendencies condemned by his contemporaries for his unadorned presentation of peasant life, said of his The Playboy of the Western World: “Anyone who has lived in real intimacy with the Irish peasantry will know that the wildest sayings and ideas in this play are tame indeed, compared with the fancies one may hear in any little hillside cabin.” Synge did not despise this rural patois as some degenerate mix of a dying Irish and lifeless English, but rather celebrated its hybrid artistic potential; nor did he feel the need to overturn British clichés of the stage Irish by creating paragons of ethnic virtue. So too with Hurston, whose depiction of the nuanced inflections of everyday African-American speech did not revive anti-black stereotypes but rather revealed a puissant oral literature. Hence, while Hurston allows Cudjo tell his own story, in his own words, this is not to say that there is nothing of her in the book. As Synge tells us, all art is “collaboration”.
The editor of Barracoon, Deborah G Plant, has brought together a useful array of contextual material to frame Hurston and Cudjo’s narrative, including a detailed glossary, a robust scholarly afterword by herself, and a moving introduction by Walker. Walker is attuned to the book’s complex and problematic subject matter: “one understands immediately the problem many black people … had with [Barracoon]. Who could face this vision of the violently cruel behaviour of the ‘brethren’ … who first captured our ancestors?” She goes on to say, “we have suffered so much from this [lie]: that Africans were only victims of the slave trade, not participants”. In his autobiography, the political activist Malcolm X describes his early vision of the “dark continent”, as learned in the deeply racist American public education system of the 1930s and ’40s: “My image of Africa, at that time, was of naked savages, cannibals, monkeys and tigers and steaming jungles.” He later sought to counteract this with myths of erstwhile black glory, dignity, and power. Cudjo’s tale complicates either simplistic vision of Africa, as either paradise or the abyss. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s grandmother wonders whether there is a place “off in the ocean where de black man is in power”; in Barracoon, Hurston shows us such a place, and, with sad irony, suggests that it is not wholly unlike America. In what must have engrossed the anthropologist and dismayed the feminist in Hurston, Cudjo tells her that in his tribe husbands rule absolutely over their wives, while young women are bought and sold like livestock (they are even fattened up in specially designed “fat-houses” for two years before marriage). Yet Africa too had its formidable women, as Cudjo learns to his horror when the Dahomey army ‑ made up in part of ferocious women warriors ‑ streams into his village to mutilate, decapitate or enslave his tribe.
What emerges from Hurston’s work is the sense that there is no singular African-American identity to which one can loyally belong. Rather it is amorphous, made up of myriad groups, distinct in regional origin, dialect, tradition, education, politics, religion, and local allegiance. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cudjo’s ceaseless conflict with former slaves born in America, who mock the newly arrived Africans as uncivilised and beat his sons for their supposed wildness. In many ways, Cudjo’s story can be read in tandem with other migrant literature from, for instance, the Irish and Jewish canons: he misses his homeland, he struggles to integrate with the native community, he creates a patchwork creole to communicate, and he attempts to provide a better life for his children. Yet in this last endeavour especially he is most radically different. His ever worsening fate is the diametric opposite of that of most immigrant groups, who over generations climb the social ladder to reach the American dream. For Cudjo, what he finds instead is an American nightmare.
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the philosopher WEB Du Bois wrote of the deep ambivalence at the heart of African-American existence: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others … One ever feels his two-ness ‑ an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Yet for Cudjo, as a forced migrant, survival in America demands a triple consciousness, the need to see himself not only from his own African point of view, but simultaneously from black and white American perspectives as well. Added to this is the fact that he only learns of the concepts of blackness and whiteness when he reaches America. As his twenty-first-century fellow West African Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues in her novel Americanah (2013): “Dear Non-American Black, when you … come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now.” America makes Cudjo black, and despises him for it.
In Barracoon, Hurston records the testament of one man as he endures the tumultuous history of Africa, America and the space in between. She writes down what might have otherwise been lost with the heirless Cudjo, and in doing so gives voice to the millions of Africans who lived and died in the barracoons (slave prisons) of the west coast of Africa, on the Atlantic slave ships, on the plantations of the American South and as a result of the persistent racism of twentieth century America. In doing so, she attempts to balance out the vast disparity between the recorded narratives of the powerful and the powerless. As she marvels at the historical documents she studies, “[all] these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold”. She gives a human face to the cold, unfathomable statistics of the slave trade, with millions trafficked to the Americas, and millions more dead en route. In Between the World and Me (2015), essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates vividly warns his son of the dangers of modern African-American life: “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” In Barracoon, Cudjo attempts to assimilate the warring elements of his identity, split across two continents, by providing his children with names for the Old World and the New: “One name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crocked to call.” Yet, like him, they are at home in neither place, and do not thrive in America’s rich soil but instead are buried in it.
Their interviews over, Hurston leaves this proud and isolated figure to his “house full of thoughts”. Later she would reflect on him: “he still had that tragic sense of loss. That yearning for blood and cultural ties. That sense of mutilation.” She tells us the story of a man, ripped from everything he knows in Africa, only to have everything he knows in America torn away from him as well. The end of servitude is only the beginning of his trials. Yet for Frederick Douglass too, his famous narrative does not end with the escape from slavery; rather the climax is his speech to a group of abolitionists. Thus, freedom is not only physical freedom from slavery, but the spiritual freedom granted by writing oneself into existence: “You have seen how the man becomes a slave; now see how the slave becomes a man!” It is fitting then that Cudjo’s life’s story ends with his recording of it. In one of his tales of Africa, Cudjo recounts to Zora a parable of when two tribes meet. Such assemblies require translators, or, as he calls them, “word-changers”. In Barracoon, Hurston acts as Cudjo’s word-changer, translating his experience for American ears, white and black. Yet, clearly, for many years the wound was too raw, the flesh too frayed, and the bones too exposed. That this book, written ninety years ago, reverberates with so many of contemporary society’s ills ‑ economic exploitation, virulent racism, the death of young black men at the hands of police ‑ shows us that the legacy of slavery remains deeply inscribed on the American heart and soul.
Dan A O’Brien is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin, where he is currently completing his first book on the intertwining fiction of Philip Roth and Edna O’Brien. He is co-editor of two other books, Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture (forthcoming Syracuse University Press, 2018), and New Voices: Contemporary Jewish American Literature (Open Library of the Humanities, 2018).