Oluale Kossola, also known as Cudjo Lewis
Image courtesy of Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama
For the first time, the story of the last survivor of the last slave ship to come to the United States is available to the public. That fact on its own is significant. What makes it extraordinary is that the anthropologist who recorded the narrative of Cudjo Lewis (ca. 1840-1935)—whose African name was Oluale Kossola—was none other than Zora Neale Hurston ’28. Barracoon had been previously available in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University; this spring, it became available to the public when Amistad/HarperCollins published the text in an edition edited and introduced by Hurston scholar Deborah G. Plant.
Hurston, born in 1891, grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, and is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. An anthropologist and ethnographer as well as a fiction writer, Hurston was a towering figure in the Harlem Renaissance. At Barnard, where Hurston was the first black graduate, she studied with Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas and began documenting black life in the South — recording personal stories, folklore, and songs (many of which are accessible to the public from the Library of Congress digital collections, available through the Library of Congress).
Barracoon is the result of Hurston’s trips to Alabama, beginning in the late 1920s, where she interviewed and filmed Kossola. This project was funded by a wealthy, white patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, and overseen by Boas. An early version of Hurston’s manuscript, published in The Journal of Negro History in 1927, borrowed heavily from a previously published interview with Kossola conducted by a white, pro-slavery writer—something her mentor Boas easily discovered. Hurston, still learning her craft, was given a second chance; she returned to Alabama and interviewed Kossola again.
Her manuscript from 1931 describes Kossola’s kidnapping and sale by his own people; the slaughter of his West Africa community; his experience being held in a “barracoon” or enclosure used for slaves; his passage across the Atlantic as human cargo on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the United States, docking in Mobile Bay, Alabama, in 1859; his enslavement for five-and-a-half years; and his post-slavery life. That life included attempts by Clotilda survivors to return home after emancipation and their later purchase of land to establish Africatown, the only town in the United States founded by Africans and the first to be run continuously by black people.
Barnard has long highlighted the wide range of Hurston’s work. In 2005, the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s journal, The Scholar & Feminist Online, published a collection of essays, video excerpts of dramatic readings, and archival materials on Hurston. In 2016, on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Hurston’s birth, Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies Monica L. Miller hosted a scholarly conference on campus to celebrate Hurston’s work and legacy. Presentations made at this conference will be included in a future issue of The Scholar & Feminist Online, edited by Professor Miller.
In this “Break This Down” interview, Professor Miller discusses this text and extraordinary historical milestone.
Why is this text important?
This text is important because there are so few that actually contain an account of the Middle Passage. At the time that Hurston interviewed Kossola, he was the last person alive who had been captured in West Africa, endured the Middle Passage, and endured the racial hierarchies of the American South.
The fact that it was Hurston who recorded it, and the ways in which she recorded it, are historically significant. This text is an incredible gift.
What is the significance of this text in the context of Hurston’s career?
One aspect that fascinates me is the way Hurston presents Kossola’s own words and his story. It’s not only his own story here but also his story in the way that he would tell it.
When we think about Hurston as a writer, including as a writer of folklore and other anthropological research and not just her fiction or memoir, we recognize her wonderful use of metaphorical language. We go to Hurston for her celebration of African American storytelling—to hear her voice.
But this text does not have Hurston’s voice in it really. There are a few moments when she asks Kossola questions, and he questions her back, which is great. But she is not driving this text—it’s Kossola. She was invested in preserving his history and culture. Yet at the same time, his story becomes a part of her: She writes about him in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, and it’s clear that she never forgets him.
How does this text fit into the Harlem Renaissance project?
One of the priorities of the Harlem Renaissance was recovering African heritage—thinking about the base on which African American culture rests. One of the major questions of the Renaissance, to quote from the 1925 poem “Heritage” by Countee Cullen, was “What is Africa to me?”
This text provides both a literary and literal rendering of an actual relationship of a formerly enslaved African to Africa. This historical account had been missing in African American history. Had it been published in the 1930s, it would have profoundly resonated.
Yet this account presented to Hurston a conundrum. The epigraph for this edition of Barracoon, taken from Dust Tracks on a Road, is Hurston’s quote: “But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people had bought me…. It impressed upon me the universal nature of greed and glory.” This is a lesson she learned from Kossola; he had told Hurston about the way he was captured and his village was destroyed—by other Africans.
This element provides an additional way to think about the relationship between African Americans and Africa. In some ways, it is a productive complication.
How does this text resonate with slave narratives?
This book is not a slave narrative. Kossola doesn’t talk much about his enslavement. Instead, this is an account of what it means to be black in America in the late nineteenth century in the aftermath of the Emancipation and during Reconstruction. So this book sits on the side of the slave narrative tradition—not only because of the information he relates but also because slave narratives were mostly stories that were mediated or written down by white people, and Kossola’s story is his own.
What about fictionalized slave narratives?
While I was reading this, I kept thinking about Beloved by Toni Morrison. Beloved is full of moments in which the formerly enslaved talk to each other about their trauma. And then one person will put a hand on another, in some ways in order to quiet them—because they can’t hear any more; there’s nothing more to say. And you see the same thing when Kossola talks about the raid on his village and the decimation of his community. He can’t speak. And Hurston’s reaction is, “I saw his face full of sorrow.” And when he talks about the Middle Passage, she says his face looked like “a horror mask.” So I am struck by the silence around issues of trauma—the silence around survival.
I also thought about the movie Black Panther. Kossola’s narrative shows the conflicted relationship between the African Americans who had been enslaved and the Africans who were the latest arrivals. In Black Panther, Wakanda is a place in Africa that has not been colonized, and Killmonger comes back to claim his African-ness. It’s in some ways the opposite of Kossola’s experience yet also an expression of the incredible tension about Afrodiasporic identity. In the movie, the characters T’Challa and Killmonger belong to each other yet are also cut off from each other.
When reading this text and thinking about its resonances in African American history and culture, you can’t help but think about the ways in which we belong to each other, the ways we are responsible for one another, and the ways in which we attempt to repair loss and loneliness. •