Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291
Hurston opens her anthropological study with justification for interviewing Cudjo Lewis: "Those who justified slaving on various grounds have had their say . . . All these words from the seller , but not one word from the sold" (5-6). She ends her introduction with a more pointed question: "How does one sleep with such memories beneath the pillow" (16).
In the first chapters, Hurston seeks to get Cudjo to confide his captivity narrative to her. As he goes back into his memories, he seems to relive the trauma of his capture in Dahomey:
Kossula [Cudjo's African name] was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. (49)
Much of the work is about the act of bringing back from the past these dead memories before they are completely forgotten by the people who made the Middle Passage journey.
The middle of the book details Cudjo's life, first as a slave and then as an emancipated man in Africatown. His marriage, the death of his children, and then the death of his wife are told with simplicity but not without sorrow. Hurston weaves into this narrative the process of her work as well:
Sometimes we just ate. Sometimes we just talked. At other times neither was possible, he just chased me away. He wanted to work in his garden or fix his fences. He couldn't be bothered. The present was too urgent to let the past intrude. (99)
All the same, Hurston persists, knowing that Cudjo's past and her ability to preserve it were limited by time. Hurston ends the narrative properly with a haunting line:
But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.
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