Review: Barracoon

I recently had the opportunity to become a Bookstagram/blogging partner with Harper Books (yippee!) and jumped at the chance to receive hard copies of to-be-released titles for review. One of the first titles I snagged: Barracoon, written nearly a century ago by the literary goddess Zora Neale Hurston.

Barracoon is an anomaly: as a biographical work about Kossola “Cudjo” Lewis, one of the last living “imports” of the Clotilda, which brought more than one hundred slaves to the United States in 1860, the work documents the life of an African person who was sold into slavery by his own countrymen and endured years of servitude in America before becoming a freed man once again. As the editors of this work note, Hurston’s sketch of Cudjo’s life is a rarity among slave narratives of men and women who were born into slavery in the U.S. Few works exist that detail the experiences of an individual who was stripped of his homeland prior to being stripped of his most fundamental human rights.

Written in vernacular and broken into a handful of sections that start with Cudjo’s experiences in “Afficky” and end with his lonely existence as a freed man in Plateau (“African Town”), Alabama, Barracoon isn’t a terribly lengthy narrative but it’s both utterly despairing and surprisingly uplifting in its conveyance. I was surprised by how little the narrative focused on Cudjo’s six and a half years in slavery; rather, much of the work dealt with the circumstances surrounding his capture, his commute to America, and the nature of his life after his emancipation. One of the most striking components of the story is his relentless longing to return to his homeland — I grieved for the man who had been removed from all that he knew and was never able to return again.

A few particular quotes resonated with me; I found myself returning to passages I’d highlighted and contemplating on Cudjo’s repeated vocalizations of his frustration at having been hauled away to a foreign land, made to do the bidding of another man while living at subhuman levels, and then freed — unable to build a home in the unfamiliar land, unable to return to the home he loved, a stranger with his feet in one world and his heart in another.

Upon his arrival in America, and departure from the ship once the masters had divvied up their bounty:

“We very sorry to be parted from on ‘nother. We cry for home. We took away from our people. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ‘nother. Derefore we cry. We cain help but cry.”

The following passages particularly capture the conundrum of non-natives in a foreign land and the urgent requisite to shed customs in order to be re-cast as members of their new society:

“When we at de plantation on Sunday we so glad we ain’ gotee no work to do. So we dance lak in de Afficky soil. De American colored folks, you unnerstand me, dey say we savage and den dey laugh at us and doan come say nothin’ to us. But Free George, you unnerstand me, he a colored man doan belong to nobody. . . . Free George, he come to us and tell us not to dance on Sunday. Den he tell us whut Sunday is. We doan know whut it is before. Nobody in Afficky soil doan tell us ’bout no Sunday. Den we doan dance no mo’ on de Sunday.”

And on the subject of names:

“In de Afficky we gotee one name, but in dis place dey tell us we needee two names. One for de son, you unnerstand me, and den one for de father. Derefo’ I put de name of my father O-lo-loo-ay to my name. But it too long for de people to call it. It too crooked lak Kossula. So dey call me Cudjo Lewis.

“So you unnerstand me, we give our chillun two names. one name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crooked to call.”

I won’t assume to know or understand the immigrant experience (and absolutely recognize that Cudjo, by no means, falls into what one might consider a “typical” immigrant mold), but I am struck by the sheer loneliness and longing that emerges in narratives of displaced peoples. Cudjo’s desire to be back among his native people and in the land that he was raised in is achingly present in Barracoon, only offset by the small joys he takes in the community built by Africans in southern Alabama in the late 1800s.

A couple of gripes: I wish that the endnotes had been made footnotes, as I didn’t like flipping to the back of the book multiple times each chapter. I also wish that there had been . . . more? . . . to Cudjo’s narrative; as it was, the bulk of the text is devoted to an extensive introduction that deals with claims of plagiarism and literary criticism while the tail end is a thorough appendix with stories, footnotes, and resources. (Obviously, I recognize that this isn’t something that can be changed, as the author has long been deceased.) I also feel that the work would have benefited from the inclusion of some photos, maps, or other illustrations.

Overall: 4/5 stars. This work is an essential piece of literature in the realm of slave narratives and absolutely has a vital place in the classrooms of both high schools and collegiate institutions.

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