Due in May, Barracoon is based on the novelist’s 1931 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, who had arrived in the US in 1860
A previously unpublished work by Zora Neale Hurston, in which the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God recounts the true story of the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade, is set to be released next year, more than half a century after her death in 1960.
Barracoon is based on the three months Hurston spent in Plateau, Alabama, in 1931, interviewing Cudjo Lewis, who had been carried on the last recorded slave ship to the US. Lewis, who was then 90, spoke to Hurston about how he was captured and held by American slavers in a barracoon, an enclosure used for slaves, and then transported to the US with more than 100 other people on the Clotilde.
HarperCollins, which will release the book in May, described the publication of Barracoon as a major literary event, saying that the book “brilliantly illuminates the horror and injustices of slavery”.
“During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly, formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about his past,” said the publisher. “Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the pre-eminent American authors of the 20th century, Barracoon brilliantly illuminates the tragedy of slavery and one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.”
According to the Encyclopaedia of Alabama, Cudjo Lewis was born Oluale Kossola in Benin in 1841. He was taken prisoner in 1860 and held in a barracoon for three weeks in Ouidah on the coast, before spending 45 days crossing the Atlantic. In the US, he was enslaved by ship captain James Meaher, until emancipation in 1865. He had wanted to return home, but could not afford it, so he and his fellow former slaves established African Town, north of Mobile, Alabama. He married a woman who had also been on the Clotilde, Abile, and they had six children, but all died young. Lewis died aged 94, and “although he had always wanted to go back home, he was buried among his family in the Africans’ cemetery that opened in 1876”, the encyclopaedia says.
A snippet from Hurston’s unpublished book, recorded in Valerie Boyd’s biography of the African American author, Wrapped in Rainbows, says that “tears welled” in Lewis’s eyes as he spoke about the voyage on the Clotilde. Boyd wrote: “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 [in what was then] Nigeria. ‘I lonely for my folks,’ he told her. ‘After 75 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 wrote.”
Hurston would go on to publish the novel for which she is best known, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937. A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, she died in poverty in 1960, and was buried in a grave that was unmarked until the young Alice Walker, who had been inspired by Hurston’s writing, tracked it down in 1973.
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