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A little known piece of history is exposed

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” - Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" Zora Neale Hurston (Author), Robin Miles (Narrator)

This brief book, tells a story that has never before been published, written by Nora Neale Hurston. It summarizes the interviews she had with Cudjo Lewis, who was thought to be the oldest slave brought over on the ship named Clotilda, which was believed to be the last slaving ship to cross the ocean. The moving story of his life is so real and Lewis is presented as such a fine and authentic character, that this non-fiction presentation reads very comfortably, almost like a novel, at times. There are many parts of Cudjo’s story that readers will wish were fiction, because some of the events he relates are so dreadful, it would be hard to imagine any human being able to withstand the cruelty he was forced to endure. His life was filled with so much human suffering, and yet, his kindness and humanity, coupled with his simple way of explaining and understanding what he was experiencing, seemed to override any bitterness he may ever have felt.

In the beginning, there is a history and summary of the narrative to follow. The story is, therefore, sometimes repetitive as the narrator explains that Hurston met with Cudjo over a period of time and elicited his story in his own words which are relayed very realistically by the reader, Robin Miles. His choice of words, his pattern of speech, his gentleness in the telling of his story reveals his devotion to his family and community and is genuinely touching and inspiring. His portrayal by Miles, will make the readers feel as if Cudjo is speaking to directly to them. At times, the reader will have to concentrate to catch his particular dialect, but that only serves to make his story more valid. Robin Miles portrayal of Cudjo and Hurston’s capture of it makes the reader feel as if they caught and presented the man and his life accurately. There is also a tenderness in the telling of it which made even more of a connection to this reader.

Cudjo loved his life in Africa and was on his way to fulfilling his life’s dream of marriage and family when he was kidnapped by warriors of another tribe. They destroyed his home and community, murdering his family and neighbors, and ended what once was his happy and contented life. A group of white slave traders in America were responsible for arranging for the boat and the circumstances that would take him across the ocean and into the world of the slave. It was a black tribe, from the Kingdom of Dahomey, though, in Africa, that brutally attacked his village and was responsible for the sale of all of the human cargo that they captured, for profit and power. Cudjo was now to become what Hurston thought of as human cargo, or as she puts it “black cargo”.

This part of the history of slavery is rarely taught in schools, and that makes this short book even more important because it shines a light on a subject needing far more illumination. In many ways, the Africans were as guilty of supporting slavery as the white slavers. However, as with drugs, if there was no market, there would not have been a slave trade. There was a market, however, and tribes did sell their brethren for the power, influence and money it brought to them. They sold them to those white men who first came from Great Britain, and then later, to the American men who arranged for the final slave ship, the Clotilda.

(Cudjo) Oluale Kossola, crossed the ocean on the Clotilda, which was refitted expressly to smuggle the slave cargo. When the ship docked, Kossola’s life ended and Cudjo Lewis’s began. The Civil War would finally put an end to his life as a slave, but the damage was done. He was ripped from his former life, and he never ceased yearning for a return to his Africa.

His description of his experiences, are presented very openly and honestly, and they are transcribed by Hurston in his own words; they paint a clear and often troubling picture of the life he led. From his lips, the reader hears the story of his life, from his days in Africa, to his life as a slave in America, and finally to his life in Africatown where he marries, has a family and ultimately becomes the sexton of his church. He lives quietly, independently, grateful for what he achieves, but sorrowful for what he has lost through the years. He always has his dignity, however, regardless of the tragedies he faced and loneliness with which he lives. His words will paint pictures of family life and family loss, of abuse and injustice, of prejudice from both the white and black American communities and also of moments of pure happiness, though they seemed few and far between. The years of his life as a slave and the years of his life as a free man knit together.

Free black Americans looked down upon former slaves as if they were savages. Many white Americans still wanted slaves and treated those that earned their freedom poorly. Some treated them fairly, as did Cudjo’s former master, keeping them on as workers after the Civil War, and paying them salaries. That, however, was the extent of his kindness. It served only his purposes, not theirs. Most of the former slaves dreamt of returning to their once contented lives in Africa, but their hopes were shattered because the cost to return was prohibitive. So, they accepted their fate and settled quietly in a place that they built and called Africatown. (It later on became Plateau).

In spite of all that Cudjo went through, he never seemed bitter, but rather he seemed to accept what life gave him and dealt with each event with grace, even when one would have expected his grief to be insurmountable and his anger to be overwhelming. Although Cudjo’s manner of speaking is not eloquent, his message certainly is delivered that way. Hearing his words, in what would have been his own voice, makes his life story that much more authentic for the reader. For this book, the audio is a wonderful experience, and I would recommend it.

Many times, I couldn’t help but wonder at the strength of character and courage that Cudjo showed in the face of all of the fear and evil he encountered. I also began to wonder about what could have been the catalyst that brought the free American blacks and the African black slaves together as one family. Free American blacks thought of the African black slaves as inferior. They did not help them in their struggles, either when they were captive or when they were free. They looked upon them as savages. Yet today, most black people clamor to be identified as African Americans, even though they may not have any history there. The book, therefore, indicated to me that perhaps what accounts for the success of Jews in America and elsewhere, is that they always helped each other, and never abandoned any members of their faith. Whenever possible, they rescued them. Perhaps that is the catalyst that united free black Americans and black Africans.

This history should be taught in public schools all across America. The stories he told and the legends he related were instructive, but also deeply troubling, because his people were defined as human cargo and, as such, were not treated as human beings for most of their lives, even when free. Hurston genuinely captured the nature of slavery and freedom in Cudjo’s world and portrayed it with integrity and candor. It is that portrayal that makes it so authentic for the reader.

This is a book that is ripe for discussion everywhere, because it brings up topics that have not been fully explored or resolved, even after so many years have passed.