BOTTLED: Zora Neale Hurston and “Barracoon”

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Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” Zora Neale Hurston’s account of the last Middle Passage survivor, was published this spring, 87 years after The Harlem Renaissance author completed it in 1931.

Barracoon is the story of how over 100 people were sold into slavery after slavery was declared illegal, their lives destroyed over a bet.

Zora Neale Hurston in photo by Carl Van Vechten, circa 193Barracoon is the story of how over 100 people were sold into slavery after slavery was declared illegal, their lives destroyed over a bet.

Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Alabama steamboat captain, shipyard owner and owner of the ship “The Clotilda,” bet a Yankee from New England that even though it had been illegal to import slaves since 1807, he would be able to smuggle them into the United States despite the fact that slavery was over.

One man lived to tell about it. Zora was there to listen.

As a social scientist, Ms. Hurston carefully documents her work, yet it is a story, nonetheless.

What a splendid opportunity this gives us to peek inside the belly of the beast and see what the transition from freeman to slave to freeman was like from the slave’s perspective. From the eyes of a man whose life was so tragic that it is difficult for many of us to read without wincing or swelling up with emotion. Yet, he persevered and gave us a firsthand look into the bowels of the slave system. With this insight, we all can see the basis upon which America was built.

In 1927, Ms. Hurston, a young, unpublished student of anthropology, took a research trip to Plateau, Alabama, also known as “Africa Town” since it was founded by these Africans from an illegal slave ship, who were eventually set free.

Through the voice of Kossola, the African name for Cudjo Lewis, the griot of the story, we learn that a whole community of slaves were discovered, by chance that slavery had ended and that they were free, after having worked for over five years without knowing that they were no longer captives.

Ms. Hurston pulls the painful story out of Kossola.  Kossola tells us of the soldiers, both men and women, who came to their village and swooped them up.

“Derefore, you unnerstand me, dey come make war, but we doan know dey come fight us. Dey march all night long and we in de bed sleep. We doan know nothing.”

“It bout daybreak when de folks dat sleep git wake wid de noise when de people of Dahomey breakee de Great Gate.  I not woke yet. I still in bed. I hear de gate when dey break it. I hear de yell from de soldiers while dey choppee de gate. Deerfore, I jump out de bed and lookee. I see de great many solders wid French gun in de hand and de big knife. Dey got de women solders too and dey run wid de big knife and make noise. They ketch people and dey saw de nek lak dis wid de knife, den dey twist de head so and it come off de neck. Oh Lor’ Lor’.”

“I see de people gittee kill so fast! De old ones dey try run ‘way from de house but dey dead by de door, and de women soldiers got dey head. Oh, Lor”!

 “No man kin be so strong lak de women solders from de Dahomey

Cudjo wept sorrowfully and crossed his arms on his breast with the fingers touching his shoulders. His mouth and eyes wide open as if he still saw the gruesome spectacle.

He talks of his journey on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to kidnap human beings and haul them across the Atlantic under inhuman circumstances.

“De boat we on called de Clotilde. Cudjo suffer so in dat ship Cudjo doan know, seem lak it move all de time. One day de color of de water change and we see some islands, but we doan come to de shore for seventy days.”

Over casual days blanketed by the warmth of sunshine and fed by fresh juicy peaches, Kossola drips out story after story about his African family, his capture, his own family and how his community was formed. Sometimes he is forthcoming, sometimes he holds back. He is always elegant.

It is pleasing to see the ever-playful, ever-amusing Ms. Hurston stick to her scientific side and not give opinions or comments on Kossola’s narrative.

Barracoon is neither playful nor amusing. Often, history is written by the winners, not Barracoon. It is an historical account of slavery from the point of view of the slave. It should be a part of every American history curriculum; it should be placed right next to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of The United States.”

Some literary people are getting hung up on if Zora “lifted” information from primary sources, what was actually said and what was “created.” Those people are putting their energies in the wrong place. Barracoon is a story, not a textbook. Did Kossola embellish his stories as he told them to Zora? Did Zora embellish Kossola; stories to make them more pungent? There is no way of knowing. What we do know is that nobody asked Melville about the sailors’ diary he cribbed from, not a word is mentioned about Harriet Beecher Stowe and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Margaret Mead is still heralded as an accomplished anthropologist despite the haze of ambiguity surrounding her work; yet Zora, because of her personality (I think), is chastised for bringing something to light which was gathering dust in a museum.

It is easy to see why Zora became so disenchanted with the progress of her works. Imagine how one must feel after having written such a remarkable tome, to have people not want to publish it, not want it to disseminate this information for everyone to read.

Some publishers said that they woulda, coulda, shoulda published it but the dialect was too difficult to understand. Some were more truthful and just outright refused it.

Some might say that a piece which excoriates the origins of our nation was too advanced for readers of that time. Had the information in this book become mainstream, the image of “America The Beautiful” would have been tarnished. Perhaps, had it become mainstream, an honest look at the history of this country would have started a movement of mending fences almost 100 years ago; maybe not. Excluding people from history, from written history, from being a part of the fabric of America is dangerous business and that is what this country has chosen to do. Instead of embracing this book for the priceless knowledge it imparts, the establishment tried to cover it up, why?

This country was not founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it was not founded by people fleeing for religious freedom, it was founded on greed, pure and simple.

So, when Zora talks about “the universal nature of greed and glory,” she breaks those lofty Americanisms which we all learned in school. She scares us. That is what she does in Barracoon.

The more we hear of Cudjo’s life, his being kidnapped and sold at the age of 19 in Africa, his passage over in a ship which knew it was carrying illegal cargo, his not learning of his freedom until five years and six months after slavery was over, the more we see how wretched the moral compass of this country was.

Zora was saddened by the fact that, through Cudjo Lewis, she learned that there was Black-on-Black crime at that time. “The inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was: My people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on…that white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the African and lured them aboard ship and sailed away.” She lamented.

Man’s inhumanity to man has been going on for some time. There are some facts that might have made Zora feel better. The Africans who sold other Africans into slavery did not know what kind of slavery existed in America. Americans from Europe had “chattel slavery,” which is slavery for life, in perpetuity with no rights.

In Africa, a slave could own land, get married, even own other slaves or work in government administration. They could become free after a period of time. Some narratives of people who were slaves both in Africa and America such as Ottobah Cuguano, remember “being well-fed …and treated well.” Sometimes they were taken for a debt payment or POWs. The key thing here is that it was a system with human proportions.

The other thing which might make Zora feel better and which Cudjo brings up is that the slavery thing was mostly wealthy Africans enslaving poor Africans. What ethnic group doesn’t do that? Was it not the wealthy Jews of Germany who aided in Hitler’s heinous “solution?” Did the poor Mafia members attack the wealthy ones? Did the English Shanghai kids from Eaton? I think not.

Cudjo Lewis outside his home in Alabama in the 1930s. Considered to be the last surviving victim of the Atlantic Slave Trade between Africa and the United States, who was born in what is now modern-day Benin Republic, Cudjo Lewis was originally named Kossula. He was 19 years old when members of the neighboring Dahomian Tribe captured him and took him to the coast. There, he and about 120 others were sold into slavery and crammed onto the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the Continental United States. Clotilda arrived in America just a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. The International Slave Trade was outlawed in America officially in 1808, but the final recorded shipment of enslaved Africans to US shores were brought into the states secretly by the captain of the schooner Clotilda. Cudjo Lewis and other Africans established the small community of Africa Town (also known as Plateau), three miles north of Mobile, Alabama, in 1860. Cudjo Lewis died in 1935. (Photo: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.)

Cudjo’s language is so lyrical and poignant that it’s easy to think that Zora touched it up a bit. But as far as I can see, what she didn’t take down word for word she unearthed in the Mobile Historical Societies’ dusty records including “The Voyage of Clotilda” (sp) or “Historic Sketches of The South” by Emma Langdon Roches’ historical accounts which are still languishing in underused stacks covered in dust.

It is really insulting to Cudjo to assume that because he was undereducated, he was not bright enough to speak in poetic language which touches the heart.

When Zora pushes him to be more current–“But Kossola (Cudjo’s African name), I want to hear about you and how you lived in Africa,” he comes back at her with “Where is de house where de mouse is de leader?

“In de Affica soil I cain tellee you bout de son before zi tellee you bout de father; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father (et te) till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, now, dass right aint it?”

His prideful stories of his band of the last slaves to immigrate and how hard they worked to form a co-op to buy land and develop a community are inspirational. Seldom do we hear stories of Black people banding together to create a society that they control.

And Cudjo himself knows how valuable his information is to Zora, that’s why he can occasionally afford to be standoffish or to string her along, he knows she needs his knowledge. We all do.

Because Cudjo’s story was not told in the same manner as Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyon or any of the folk heroes we learned in the traditional school curriculum, we have missed out on learning the culture and mores of a very accepting society.

“In de compound I play wid all de chillum my father got.” He goes on to say how much fun they had playing as an extended family.

It must have been difficult for Zora to write this book strictly by the numbers. She absents herself, her sense of humor, her personality from the historical facts.

Some critics have gone out of their way to be catty and point to the negative aspects of the piece. We must not lose sight of the fact that Zora is the only one to bring this story to light. There may be other stories just as good, but nobody else wrote about them and if they are buried now, then go after the primary information which still exists and write it yourself. Why make Zora the “onliest?”

It is easy to put down Zora because of the antics in her personal life. Zora oftentimes “acted a fool” just to get over. It was a way of getting white people to accept her.

Her raucous laugh and thigh-slapping conduct was a great embarrassment to intellectual Blacks at the time, but it was her way of surviving. She was one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance despite all of the setbacks. If people had taken this work seriously which she wrote when she was quite young, imagine the volume of work she could have put out in later life.

Imagine how history books could have given a full picture of the period. Imagine how generations after generations of people would have had pride in knowing how much their ancestors had contributed to this country.

A simple bet allowed Timothy Meaher to bring about unspeakable pain to people who are still hurting today, many generations later.  No harm has come to him or his family in all these generations. His story shows us how privileged a white life can be. Cudjo’s story shows us how noble a Black life is.    _________________________________________________________

Note:

My mother, the poet Helene Johnson, and my aunt Dorothy, Dorothy West, the novelist and short story writer, subleased Zora’s Harlem apartment when she went away on this trip.

The girls were staying at the Harlem Y and somehow Zora talked them into taking her place while she was away.

The girls leapt at the opportunity to live in Harlem, they lied to their parents, kept their room at the Y and moved into Zora’s residence. Zora explained that she would be away for months and that she needed to have three months’ rent in advance. The girls gave it to her. She left and the girls had their first night unchaperoned in NYC.

The next night there was a knock at the door. It was the landlord. Zora owed three months’ rent and was about to be evicted. The fact that she was out of town did not cut any ice with the landlord. So, the Boston girls paid up the back rent assuming there was some sort of error which Zora would correct when she returned. Because of Zora, they became true members of the Harlem Renaissance and it was worth it, no matter the price.                                                ___________________________________________

Helene, Dorothy and Zora

My mother, the poet Helene Johnson, and my aunt Dorothy, Dorothy West, the novelist and short story writer, subleased Zora’s Harlem apartment when she went away on this trip to Alabama.

The girls were staying at the Harlem Y and somehow Zora talked them into taking her place while she was away.

Helene and Dorothy leapt at the opportunity to live in Harlem. They lied to their parents, kept their room at the Y and moved into Zora’s residence.

Zora explained that she would be away for months and that she needed to have three months’ rent in advance. The girls gave it to her. She left and the girls had their first night unchaperoned in NYC.

The next night there was a knock at the door. It was the landlord. Zora owed three months’ rent and was about to be evicted. The fact that she was out of town did not cut any ice with the landlord. So, the Boston girls paid up the back rent assuming there was some sort of error which Zora would correct when she returned.

Because of Zora, Helene Johnson and Dorothy West became true members of the Harlem Renaissance and it was worth it, no matter the price. – ARM