Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In 1927, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, two of the towering figures of the Harlem Renaissance, set out in a car to tour the South so that Hurston could gather both folktales and the stories of black lives. The two were good friends at the time, though they later had a bitter feud over authorship of a play. They were bankrolled for their journey by Charlotte Mason, a wealthy and eccentric white woman who wanted to recover the "purity" of black "primitivism."
Hurston and Hughes travelled to Mobile, Alabama, in search of Cudjo Lewis, believed to be the last living African to have been born in Africa, then sold into American slavery. Since bringing slaves into the country had long been illegal when Lewis was captured, the slave ship Clotilda, which brought slaves to America in 1859, had to be secretly financed. Lewis describes some of the journey as follows:
Soon we git in de ship dey make us lay down in de dark. Dey doan give us much to eat. Me so thirst! Dey give us a little bit of water twice a day. De water taste sour.
Lewis, because of the Civil War, was only a slave a few years before becoming part of a community north of Mobile called Africatown. Hurston sought him out in his shack and interviewed him. She would interview him again that year and the following year. These interviews became the basis for Barracoon, which Hurston wrote in 1931. However, in part because Hurston refused to rewrite it out of dialect, it didn't get published until 2018.
While the dialect can be difficult to read, it shows Hurston's tenacity in trying to capture the spoken English of a former slave who learned the language in the 1860s. Arguably, Hurston captured something valuable that could have been lost had she complied with demands to write the book in standard English. If only she could have brought a tape recorder!