Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston (Book Review)
Thank you to Edelweiss+ for the Advanced Reader Copy I received in exchange for an honest review.
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It feels very fitting for this to be the first Zora Neale Hurston book reviewed on my site. I've read Their Eyes Were Watching God but I haven't reviewed it yet -I'm still getting my feelings together. Although chronologically second, it's completion was bound in the narrative that is Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo".
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Africatown, a small settlement in Georgia, to document the first-hand account of a man named Cudjo Lewis. Barracoon is the culmination of interviews Hurston collected over multiple trips about Lewis' life, including his capture, enslavement, and eventual release.
The Zora Neale Hurston estate, in conjunction with Harper Collins publishing, released Hurston's unpublished book in 2018. Her anthropological work about Lewis was previously published in the Journal of the Negro and financed by a wealthy benefactor. Cudjo Lewis, who's real name was Kussolo, is known to be the last survivor of the African Slave Trade.
I found this short book captivating and Hurston's style of writing illuminating. Her introductions and descriptions of Cudjo's mannerisms fascinated me the most. This version of a slave narrative is less haunting than others I've read but felt more grounded. By translating his words into this phonetic dialect, she captured the essence of his enslavement while leaving his dignity intact.
But you could also feel how much his existence and his story plagued how she felt about her own Blackness. His story didn't match up to her own understanding of how Black people treated each other, noting that his own people are who sold him into slavery. Hurston had a clear enemy before she started this project, but as the interviews went on, you could see she wasn't quite as sure.
A large portion of this title (more than I cared for) is dedicated to explaining the validity of Hurston's work. I know that there is much disagreement between Hurston's biographers and historians, but I was surprised by how much of that was placed in this tiny book. I appreciated the idea of introduction for wanting to give the reader clarity around the book's creation, but it bloated the book. It did not make Hurston's work more or less valuable (for me) to know how she made it happen.
I know that in my first go around I read it too fast, but I think there is value in it for everyone. If anything, the understanding of the slave trade, especially hearing how someone lived through it in their own words, is necessary in understanding race relations in the U.S. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.
Have you read or are planning to read Barracoon? Leave me a comment below on your thoughts.