Zora Neale Hurston is one of the greatest literary and anthropologist treasures in American history, despite her dying completely forgotten and in poverty in 1960. Her 1931 novel Barracoon is finally being published for the first time. It’s based on her own oral histories with the last survivor off the last slave ship to enter the United States, in 1860. This is amazing.
Barracoon is testament to her patient fieldwork. The book is based on three months of periodic interviews with a man named Cudjo Lewis — or Kossula, his original name — the last survivor of the last slave ship to land on American shores. Plying him with peaches and Virginia hams, watermelon and Bee Brand insect powder, Hurston drew out his story. Kossula had been captured at age 19 in an area now known as the country Benin by warriors from the neighboring Dahomian tribe, then marched to a stockade, or barracoon, on the West African coast. There, he and some 120 others were purchased and herded onto the Clotilda, captained by William Foster and commissioned by three Alabama brothers to make the 1860 voyage.
When Hurston tried to get Barracoon published in 1931, she couldn’t find a taker. There was concern among “black intellectuals and political leaders” that the book laid uncomfortably bare Africans’ involvement in the slave trade, according to novelist Alice Walker’s foreword to the book, which is finally being published in May. Walker is responsible for reintroducing the world to a forgotten Zora Neale Hurston, who’d died penniless and alone in 1960, in a 1975 Ms. magazine essay. As Walker writes, “Who would want to know, via a blow-by-blow account, how African chiefs deliberately set out to capture Africans from neighboring tribes, to provoke wars of conquest in order to capture for the slave trade. This is, make no mistake, a harrowing read.”
One publisher, Viking Press, did say it would be happy to accept the book, on the condition that Hurston rewrote it “in language rather than dialect.” She refused. Boas had impressed upon her the importance of meticulous transcription, and while her contemporaries — and authors of 19th-century slave narratives — believed “you had to strip away all the vernacular to prove black humanity,” says Salamishah Tillet, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Hurston was of the exact opposite opinion.
So it never got published and then was completely forgotten about until now.