“Barracoon," a word derived from barracón (Spanish for "barracks), was used to refer to structures in which Africans were held in African towns before they were sold and shipped to Europe or America. Often referred to as “slave sheds,” they were often simple huts or dungeons beneath substantial stone structures. Many of the people held there, often kidnapped or war captives, died from inhumane conditions; still more were loaded onto ships that would take them to lifelong captivity.
Oluale Kossola was one man detained in a barracoon in Whydah (or Ouidah), Dahomey, before he was sent to the United States. Assigned the name Cudjo Lewis, he was a slave in Alabama from 1860 to 1865, when the Civil War’s end brought his freedom. In 1927, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Alabama and began to interview Lewis. Then age 86, he was then considered “the last known surviving African of the last American slaver—the Clotilda,” writes Alice Walker (xiii) in her Introduction to Barracoon. With the patronage of Charlotte Osgood Mason, Hurston finished the interviews over three months, and then completed the manuscript in 1931. But when Hurston was unable or unwilling to make changes the publisher requested, however, the book remained unpublished until 2018.
In this initial publication by Amistad/HarperCollins, editor Deborah G. Plant aims to stay true to Hurston’s intention. Although she has standardized some of the idiosyncratic spellings, she retains the dialect that Hurston used in recording Lewis’s speech. She also provides ample documentation, including an Afterword, table of the Founders and Original Residents of Africatown (Alabama, where the freed Lewis lived), Glossary, Notes, and Bibliography. These, along with Alice Walker’s Foreword and Introduction, contextualize Hurston’s work with Lewis and many subsequent critical approaches.
Hurston wrote the book to include a record of her interactions with Lewis, or Kossula, as she always called him. She intended her role as interlocutor to be transparent, rather than attempting an artificially constructed autobiographical narrative that omitted or obscured her presence. While some chapters include a bit more framing, the material is generally arranged chronologically into 12 chapters, followed...
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