Summary

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“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.

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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 But when Hurston was unable or unwilling to make changes the publisher requested, however, the book remained unpublished until 2018.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 by Hurston’s appendix of cultural materials, including “Stories Cudjo told me.”

Spanning the 1840s, before Kossula was captured, until 1927, when Hurston concluded the interviews, the narrative covers his entire adult life. A Yoruba from what is now Nigeria, he tells of his chiefly grandfather and his own marriage; rituals, ceremonies, and warfare; and the attacks by people of Dahomey (including their infamous female warriors) that led to his capture.

He also relates his passage on the ship Clotilda (after the slave trade to the United States was abolished), and his work as a slave on Mississippi river boats until he and other slaves were liberated in 1865. The remainder of the book covers his life as a free man, beginning with him and the others' initial tasks of social organization. Settling in an area of formerly enslaved people called Africatown, he married a woman named Seely, and they had six children. Among the incidents he narrated are his injury from a streetcar accident, after which he successfully sued the company; serving as a deacon of his church; a train accident that killed one of his sons; and the subsequent death of another son and, finally, his wife.

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