PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Zora Neale Hurston's 'Barracoon' Casts a Spotlight on America's Sordid, Still Festering History

Oluale Kossola (screengrab from HarperCollins trailer)

Through Oluale Kossola's telling of his story as the "last" slave in America, Hurston captures the voice of the suppressed while foisting a mirror up to modernity.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"
Zora Neale Hurston

Amistad/Harper Collins

May 2018


Zora Neale Hurston's Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" is flawless. Published posthumously and recovered from the Howard University archives, the book adds a deft layer to Hurston's corpus while further pushing the confines of canonical American literature. This, however, has always been Hurston's modus operandi, intentional or not. Barracoon adds to the diminished body of firsthand accounts of slavery and demonstrates the slave trade's emotional and cultural toll. For this work, Hurston assumes the role of an anthropologist, meaning she facilitates rather than controls the narrative. In turn, readers bear witness to the story of Oluale Kossola, also known as Cudjo Lewis. His poignant and melancholic narrative forces readers to interrogate our knowledge of the transatlantic slave trade and its connection to contemporary forms of oppression.

Hurston was funded by Charlotte Osgood Mason, who supported the documentation of southern black folklore and was a patron to several Harlem Renaissance artists. Hurston's contact with Kossola was part of an anthropological study. She maintains a participant-observer position, thereby laying emphasis on Kossola's chronicle while incorporating ethnography's standard features. For example, throughout the book she brings Kossola gifts of crabs, ham, and "a basket of Georgia peaches" (25). The process of gifting food breaks down the ethnographic concept of the "stranger effect" and at once eases Hurston's transition into Kossola's community. In turn, Hurston's gifting puts Kossola into a space where he can speak candidly and openly. As such, Barracoon is an authentic representation of Kossola's life while furthering the foundations of African-American culture.

As with Their Eyes Were Watching God (J. P. Lippincott, 1937) Hurston's strength is substantiating and representing language. Barracoon is told through Kossola's first person narrative. Hurston's voice is only included briefly at the beginning of a few chapters when she clarifies her methodology or adds a witticism. She at no point adds in her own interpretations of events or tries to lead Kossola's narrative. Rather, she diligently and authentically transcribes his vernacular, diction, and spells his words phonetically. She maintains his idiomatic expressions and puts emphasis on Kossola's own voice. Kossola's language is a testament to his authenticate representation. In doing so, Hurston fulfills his desire "to tell somebody whut Cudju say, and how come I in Ameriky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo'" (19). Despite Mason's support and Kossola's engaging story, Hurston was unable to find an interested publisher during her lifetime. The publishers initially requested Hurston to revise his language to reflect the conventions of standard English. Hurston refused, thereby maintaining Kossola's voice and avoiding another erasure of his identity.

Oluale Kossola (public domain)

In 1927, Hurston decamped for Africatown, Alabama, a town for emancipated persons, to interview Kossola and document his narrative. He was one of the remaining survivors of the last Middle Passage and lived as a slave for nearly six years on a southern plantation. Kossola reminds readers that his kidnapping took place 50 years after the slave trade was abolished. However, covert transportation and exchange of human chattel was still commonplace. The narrative describing his enslavement is short: the time in the Cotilda's slave hold and the plantation are covered in only two chapters. Instead, the work centralizes his upbringing in Africa then his emancipated life in America. This is intentional and a direct result of Kossola's desire to shape his own legacy. Kossola exhibits life when he was independent and in control of his own identity. He reminds Hurston at one point "where is de house where de mouse is de leader?" (20) As Kossola tells it, slavery is a part of his longer narrative. He prioritizes remembering his agency and free-will, accordingly those are the stories worth telling. This aligns with Hurston's larger body of work as so many of her characters demonstrate multidimensionality. Kossola is not a fictional character yet Hurston showcases the amplitude of his identity while giving voice to his unrelenting sadness and grief.

Kossola underscores the emotional repercussions of kidnapping and enslavement. Throughout he often laments "I so sad for my home" (47) and "our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep…" (57). For many, the loss of connection to their home and their ancestral land is haunting and traumatic. Kossola is no exception. Hurston expertly allows Kossola to convey the emotional indignities caused by enslavement and its contribution to long-lived melancholy. Often his sobbing interrupts the narrative but Hurston doesn't offer consolation because she can't assuage slavery's wound. Through Kossola, Barracoon illustrates how and why agonizing sorrow is still felt among descendants of slaves even generations later.

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston Abstract/medium: 1 photographic print : gelatin silver. United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division (via WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain)

Despite the physical separation from his African ancestors, Kossola is careful throughout Barracoon to point out the cultural connections between his roots and the present. He explains that "we give our chillun two names. One name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americaky soil…" (72). Kossola's ability to enshrine traditions provides a temporary relief from his emotional hardships. His longing for Africa echoes Marcus Garvey's Back-to-Africa Movement reiterated by several Harlem Renaissance writers' depictions of their own return. Yet Kossola adds nuance to the Back-to-Africa movements' affirmations of a quixotic homecoming. Kossola witnessed a brutal Africa where Dahomey warriors sold brethren to white traders. If not captured, "dey cut off de head. Some snatch de jaw-bone while people ain' dead" (45-46). Despite his desire to return to "Africca soil" (21), Kossola gives Hurston an infrequently discussed perspective on a grisly African recompense.

Beyond slavery, Kossola demonstrates how society preyed upon the oppressed in order to capitalize. In a poignant parable, Kossola recalls a lawyer who wanted to represent Kossola after a workplace injury. Kossola is awarded $650 in liabilities but the lawyer creates endless challenges in delivering the money. Kossola tries to claim the money but "I doan go nexy day, but I send David. De lawyer say dat too soon. Come back nexy week. Well, I send and I send, but Cudjo doan gittee no money" (80). The sale of countrymen and slavery set the precedent of capitalizing on race-based oppression. Even after emancipation, society maintains the dedication to exploitation and upholding white supremacy in the name of profit. This is clearly seen today with the privatization of mass incarceration, contrived foreclosures, and the predatory lending directed towards impoverished people of color.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" casts a spotlight on a sordid history that's still festering. As such, Hurston captures the voice of the suppressed while foisting a mirror up to modernity. Take a look, the reflection is ugly, yet Kossola's narrative is captivating.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.