Six years prior to writing the book she is best known for, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘, famed Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston was just starting her career in 1928 when she met Cudjo Lewis.
Lewis, who was born as Kossola, was nearly 90 years old and living in Plateau, Alabama. He was thought to be the last African man alive who had been kidnapped from his village in West Africa in 1859 and forced into slavery in America aged 19.
Hurston, who was an anthropologist, documented her interviews with Lewis during the late 1920s and wrote a book in his own words about his life titled, ‘Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’.
But the manuscript she wrote was turned down by multiple publishers in 1931 who felt as though Lewis’s heavily accented dialect was too difficult to read.
For decades, Hurston’s manuscript of the book was tucked away inside Howard University’s archives until The Zora Neale Hurston Trust found a buyer for the book – more than 50 years after her death in 1960. On Tuesday, ‘Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo‘,’ was published by Amistad/HarperCollins.
The introduction of the book is by editor Deborah G. Plant and foreword by Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, Alice Walker, who is credited with in the 1970s reviving interest in Hurston’s work.
Dr. Natalie Hopkinson, a member of the board of directors for the Hurston/Wright Foundation, described the book’s importance in a column for HuffPost as: ‘We don’t know how much ‘Barracoon’ was a verbatim account of The Last ‘Black Cargo.’ But Zora’s enthusiastic rejection of respectability politics’ — her rejection of publishers’ requests to clean up Lewis’ African dialect — ‘makes her ahead of her time. ‘Barracoon’ and its long path to print is a testament to Zora’s singular vision amid so many competing pressures that continue to put us at war with ourselves.’
Lewis and more than 100 other villagers were kidnapped and forced into a barracoon on a ship named Clotilda that was chartered by Alabama slaveholder Timothy Meaher who bet that he wouldn’t be caught or tried for breaking the 1808 law of transporting Africans to America for slavery in 1859.
To hide the evidence that he trafficked Africans to America, Foster burned the Clotilda, which the remains of which have not been found.
Meaher and the Clotilda’s captain, William Foster, brought the group to Mobile, Alabama and either sold them or personally enslaved them when they arrived in 1860.
Lewis was sold to the owner of a shipping business and he worked toting freight for more than five years on the Alabama River. He was freed in 1865 after the Civil War ended.
He along with at least two dozen others who had been on the Clotilde joined together and founded Africatown in Plateau.
There they spoke their own native language and continued their native customs for decades. When Hurston found him, she conducted several interviews with him throughout the late 1920s.
Telling Lewis’s prolific story was one of her first major projects after she finished studying anthropology at Barnard College and Howard University.
She immersed herself completely in his life: helping him clean the church where he was a sexton, bringing him summertime fruit, driving him down to the bay to get crabs and more.
‘…the reticent elder didn’t always speak when she came to visit. Sometimes he would tend to his garden, repair his fence, or appear lost in his thoughts,’ the book’s inside cover reads.
Of her time spent with Lewis, Hurston wrote in a letter to her friend, fellow Harlem Renaissance author and poet Langston Hughes, that the experience left her deeply moved, according to her biography, ‘Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston’ by author Valerie Boyd.
‘Tears welled in his eyes as he described the trip across the ocean in the Clotilda,’ Hurston wrote, as cited in Boyd’s biography.
‘But what moved Hurston most about the old man — whom she always called by his African name, Kossola — was how much he continued to miss his people back in Nigeria. ‘I lonely for my folks,’ he told her. …
‘After seventy-five years he still had that tragic sense of loss. …
‘That yearning for blood and cultural ties. That sense of mutilation. It gave me something to feel about.’
Hurston’s book documents how Lewis’s life seemingly was marked by loss: his humanity, his homeland, his given name and his family.
His story from his perspective was lost for decades, until now with the publication of Hurston’s book.