A newly published work from the author of the American classic Their Eyes Were Watching God illuminates the horror and injustices of slavery as it tells the true story of one of the last-known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade—abducted from Africa on the last "Black Cargo" ship to arrive in the United States.
She renders Kossola’s story as he told it, not only linguistically, in his dialect, but narratively, in his own wandering way—sending readers into sad silences and on distracted errands of the sort she’d shared with him, closing the garden gate on them the way he’d closed it on her. Barracoon does not so much shape Kossola’s story as transcribe it ... [Alice] Walker has written a foreword, in which she speculates that resistance to the book over time has stemmed from what Hurston herself found shocking: Kossola’s frank account of 'the atrocities African peoples inflicted on each other, long before shackled Africans, traumatized, ill, disoriented, starved, arrived on ships as ‘black cargo’ in the hellish West.' One of the virtues of Barracoon, then, is that it may help teach us to live with uncomfortable truths, not only about the complicated and terrible story it records but also about the complicated and tremendous author who recorded it.
Zora Neale Hurston’s recovered masterpiece, Barracoon, is a stunning addition to several overlapping canons of American literature ... Kossula’s homesickness is vast and seems to have no bottom. Hurston, renowned for her joie de vive, is restrained as she coaxes this story from the loneliest man in the world. The woman who famously wrote, 'I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife,' makes herself almost invisible in this book, dedicating entire chapters to Kossula’s monologues, with few authorial interventions ... Kossula’s understanding of his own life does not center on his experience in bondage — and in this, perhaps, he and Hurston are kin. Instead, he focuses on the life he lived in West Africa and his life in Africatown, a settlement of emancipated persons. This may be the most surprising aspect of his recounting. While technically Barracoon can be categorized as a slave narrative, Kossula tells the story of his life as a free man.
Barracoon, in many ways, pursues the slavery narrative in the same manner as the book and film 12 Years a Slave: it tracks slavery’s violence and aftermath through the words, memories, and history of a single person who survived it ... Holding the book and reading it now, Barracoon seems ahead of its time, largely due to how it makes the story of slavery both intimate and viscerally visual, as Roots did most notably several decades after this manuscript was created ...Hurston writes Cudjo’s voice as it was spoken out loud to her. Her strength in articulating dialogue is something that shines in her later work, but it is seen brilliantly here...Hurston lets his language exist, trusting readers to find their way through it ... Barracoon is a difficult read, harsh and brutal at times, with just enough levity to help push a reader through. Cudjo ends his story as a full human, beyond the terrors he endured. Hurston’s book is about a person surviving, despite every attempt made for him not to. It seems triumphant, I’m sure. Until you remember what you’re celebrating the triumph over.