There is something tragic about Zora Neal Hurston’s new(ish) book, Barracoon, and it isn’t written in the text. It was released earlier this year, after languishing in the vaults of unpublished works for almost 70 years. That fact tells you everything you need to know about how this country values folks of African descent and our hardship, our stories, our pain, our loss, our humanity…or how it doesn’t. This is the story of the last living man brought over from the continent and sold into bondage in America. In some ways, he was luckier than most, as Cudjo Lewis only spent just over 5 years enslaved before Emancipation. Yet, those five years were enough to sever his ties forever with his homeland, for which he never stopped longing. Many of his contemporaries had little to no conception of the land of thir origin, a loss that still impacts Americans of African descent to this day. When I read Hurston’s work, the several generations between me and Africa didn’t stop me from feeling that loss.
One of the reasons that this book went unpublished for so long was because of Lewis’ dialect that Hurston perserved in the dialogue of the story. At times, you have to read more slowly than usual to understand Lewis’ speech, but how else can you get to know someone if you don’t meet them in their own language? Of course, when Black speech is still relegated to the realms of the street and labelled as Ebonics, I don’t see white readers of the 30s and 40s jumping out of their seats to read dialect written as if it belonged on the page. Committing the oral to paper gives it a sense of establishment, belonging, and importance—all things that Black folk have been denied and denied and denied again in this country for the length of our residence here.
This story was written by Hurston, but it is not hers. This story is ours. It’s for we. For those of us who have yet to step foot on the soil from whence we came. Who grew up stuck and yet still somehow adrift. We have a history that is rich and varied—we had enemies (and they weren’t all white), we had traditions, we were important even if weren’t all kings and queens and chiefs and chieftesses.
This story is his. His name was Kossola, not Cudjo Lewis. That matters as much as he and his story.