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Hurston’s “Barracoon” and Memorials Of Loss


Last week I had the opportunity to tear into the newly released manuscript of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story Of The Last Black Cargo with a fantastic supplemental material from Alice Walker and Deborah G. Plant. It is the written record of a series of interviews with one of the last survivors of the slave ship Clothilde which docked in Alabama in 1859/1860. This book was a lost manuscript, having been compiled in 1927 but never published due to the racial politics of the time. The Harper Collin’s trailer for the book defines the publication as a “literary event”, but the introduction that delves into Hurston’s professional relationship to the anthropologist Franz Boas and how she forged her own path really makes this a significant event for the anthropological field as well.

Let me begin my short review in the tradition of self-reflexivity and tell you a little bit about where my head has been and how that plays into my reading. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know my family has suffered a loss (read the thread Being Two, And Not Three) I am also preparing a presentation for an upcoming conference based on my Master’s dissertation on refugee memory online.

I read Barracoon before my loss occurred, and I am not equating my loss to his, not by any means. This week has simply been a lot of personal and professional reflection on the universal experience of loss, grief, and memorials. I am not using a story of someone else’s pain to soothe my own, which pales in comparison by sheer scale. But as I pour my own heart out to friends and family on a daily, almost hourly, basis I think about the human need to share our pain and how living with that pain becomes easier once it has been expressed.

If you pick up Barracoon looking for data on what life was like as a slave, you’re a little out of luck. Cudjo Lewis was abducted after a violent raid on his village by a neighbouring kingdom at the age of 19. He spent only five or six years as a slave in Mobile, Alabama before he was freed and went to live in the settlement of “Africa Town” with other former slaves who had memories of Africa or their African heritage. His tale is about the trauma of witnessing a slaughter at 19 and the murders and natural deaths (which are murders by proxy due to structural violence) of four of his five children and later his wife. The system of slavery was at the root of all of this suffering, but his life reveals the ways it tore families apart at the point of abduction and how it continued to do so even after it was abolished in the United States.

I think Cudjo found some healing in his interviews with Hurston, though it’s clear he was still suffering deeply. She would bring him food and listen to him talk about whatever memory came up for him that day, even when it wasn’t the particular memory she wanted to know about. There are moments when Cudjo wants to relive happiness he felt, and she records that too.

Even if you’re not an anthropologist or a historian of that time period or the African American experience, I would recommend the book Barraccoon because it teaches a valuable lesson about the power of listening to trauma survivors.

As a little bonus, I am including a video made years earlier by school children in Benin the publisher has paired with the release of the book about the slave ship that carried Cudjo. The kids have written their own poem to narrate the story of the Clotilde and they recite it on a beach. You can tell they’re a little nervous about speaking on camera but they get through it and it is beautiful.

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