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Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave Audio CD – Audiobook, May 8, 2018
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Here we have the remembrances from the perspective of the captive. As Zora says; “All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the “black ivory,” the “coin of Africa,” had no market value. She was on a mission to give value to the words of the sold and she did just that over a series of conversations with Kossula.
“I had met Cudjo Lewis (his American name) for the first time in July 1927. I was sent by Dr. Franz Boas to get a firsthand report of the raid that had brought him to America and bondage, for Dr. Carter G. Woodson of the Journal of Negro History. I had talked with him in December of that same year and again in 1928.” The book is written in the vernacular dialect style and it takes a bit to get used to the rhythm, but once you fall in, you will remain locked to the page. I’m guessing Nora was aiming for authenticity and trying to present Kossula to the world the exact way she was hearing it. This might account, in some small way for the time between writing and publishing. The book was completed in 1931 and has just now, almost a century later been published. At least one publisher asked for Kossula’s life story in “language rather than dialect...... Hurston would not submit to such revision.”
Although slave narratives are in publication, Kossula’s story takes us from his African home through three weeks in the barracoon (essentially a holding hut for the captives before they were loaded onto ships) to 45 days at sea and then dry land in Alabama. He spent five years in bondage before emancipation came. The majority of slave narratives in print detail their bondage here in America but rarely, if ever? have we had an intimate look from the motherland to America.
Through these conversations, you can glimpse the culture and ways of being.
“De ole folks, you unnerstand me, de wise ones, dey go out in de woods and gittee leaves—dey know which ones—an’ mashee de leaves wid water. Den dey paint de dead man all over wid dis so he doan spoil till de king come. Maybe de king doan git dere till de next day. When de king come, my grandfather, he come wid him. “Befo’ anybody see de king, we know he is almost dere, because we hear de drum.”
The capture is given a detailed accounting but the middle passage is not discussed in depth, perhaps due to the harshness of memories. One thing that Kossula makes abundantly clear is the sense of loss and longing he always felt for his home. Deborah Plant does a masterful job setting the stage in her informative introduction that gives depth surrounding this project. There was some talk of plagiarism because Zora didn’t properly cite some sources she used for some of the folklore backgrounds. Seems to be, much ado about nothing.
Zora’s talent as a writer was already shining as the reader will see here. This book was completed in 1931 and Her Eyes Were Watching God wasn’t published until 1937, her most famous work. This is a work that belongs on every shelf. Even the appendix and glossary contain valuable tidbits. “In spite of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the people on the continent, Europeans and Americans referred to them, collectively, as “Africans.” This resulted in the belief that “‘Africans’ sold their own sisters and brothers.” I think it’s important for the discussion of slavery that we make clear and conscious distinctions between perpetrators, collaborators, and victims. Five stars! Thanks to Edelweiss and HarperCollins for an advanced ebook. Book drops on May 8, 2018.
Insightful historical commentary was provided by the current editor, Deborah G. Plant, bookending the interview transcription, and Alice Walker's helpful foreword gives a frame to help understand the impact of this narrative: "It resolutely records the atrocities African peoples inflicted on each other...This is, make no mistake, a harrowing read. We are being shown the wound....And we have suffered so much from this one [lie]: that Africans were only victims of the slave trade, not participants." Kossola also suffered at the hands of white people — having been enslaved until the end of the Civil War, lived under Jim Crow, and had a young son killed by a policeman — but this narrative is more heavily weighted toward his memories of Africa and how his sense of himself as an African impacted his life in America. Many of his traumatic memories are gruesome. All of his retelling is frank. A lot of thought has surrounded the curation of Hurston's interview manuscript over the years, and its publication today will surely be of great interest to many.
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But it should be read, and its story, unpublished for many years, told, and told widely.
One point that needs clarifying. The publisher's statement at the front if the book asserts it is a work of fiction. But surely it is no such thing, but a record of conversations in 1927 between its ethnologist author and the last man to be captured in Africa and sold and transported into slavery in Alabama even after slavery has been officially abolished. Someone must really look into this, and urgently.
I learnt a lot from Cudjo's story, but it is only a very small part of the book, 36% to be exact. And whilst the historical facts, the where, when's and whys are relevant, they are given more importance than the real life story of a survivor of the slave trade. I could have read any history book for the facts about the slave trade, but rarely does the opportunity arise to hear from "the other side, and sadly this opportunity falls short.
Very touching and heartbreaking. It would be good to know if he has any living relatives today.