The Crushing Sorrow of Barracoon

In Zora Neale Hurston’s account of the last known survivor of the middle passage, her luxuriant sense of black life collides with his unspeakable grief.

Kossola imprisoned below the deck of a slave ship.
Doris Liou

Zora Neale Hurston built her literary career on productive entanglement with the Southern black folk culture that nourished her. A native of the black town of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston showed a lifelong intellectual commitment to the voices of the men and women from whom she had learned what it meant to be black. She gave these voices, and the stories they told, the kind of respect that the literary establishment accorded to Greek tragedians. These stories’ whimsical tenor and sense of myth seeped into her own writing—1934’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the 1942 memoir Dust Tracks on a Road. Borrowing from folklore’s mythic logic, she crafted lush, sensual, and exuberant tales of black life in the American South. In her hands, that life was characterized by its rich array of social relations and ingenious strategies for surviving under Jim Crow. Reading a Hurston novel, you find yourself set down in communities so abundant with life that white supremacy seems almost incidental; we encounter it as just another element among countless others.

Before she had mastered the command of folklore that allowed her to integrate black folk culture into her fiction, though, Hurston was a student anthropologist who’d been dispatched to Alabama in December 1927. At the behest of Charlotte Mason, a wealthy white patron of Harlem Renaissance artists, Hurston had embarked on a mission to scour Alabama’s Mobile Bay for whatever tales, music, poetry, and other folk culture might still exist among the region’s black denizens. It was on that trip that she encountered the former slave Cudjo Lewis, also known as Oluale Kossola.

The aging Kossola was ostensibly the last known survivor of the middle passage, the only remaining human who possessed firsthand knowledge of the traumatic journey from West Africa to American shores that transformed Africans into objects. In accordance with her mission to gather and preserve the remnants of cultural memory, Hurston traveled to Kossola’s home in Africatown to understand how the kidnapped African was able to make a life in America. “How does one sleep with such memories [as the middle passage] beneath one’s pillow?” she wondered. Put another way, how does one live after such immense loss? The manuscript that resulted from her inquiry—Kossola’s first-person oral narration of his life in a West African village, abduction by slave traders, and overwhelming grief at the loss of his home and loved ones—did not see publication in Hurston’s lifetime.

Literary scholar Deborah G. Plant has finally ushered that manuscript, which had been languishing for nearly a century as a curiosity in Hurston’s archive, into publication. Originally completed in 1931, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” tells a very different story than the sort Hurston staked her career upon. Hurston’s novels and memoir are testaments to black life’s vibrancy, innovation, and improbable persistence. Barracoon centers on the violence necessary to transform kidnapped Africans into goods for sale; sitting with Hurston as she coaxes the recalcitrant Kossola to tell his story, we’re forced into an encounter with the open wound that is blackness’s prerequisite.

Kossola was born in the West African kingdom of Takkoi, and in 1860, the slave-trading kingdom of Dahomey raided his town. He and others were captured and eventually sold to the Georgia lumber-mill-owner Timothy Meaher. Despite the fact that the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves imposed death on anyone caught trading flesh, Meaher retrofitted the lumber ship Clotilda so that it could hold human cargo. In the summer of 1860, he crossed the Atlantic and left the West African coast with captives, Kossola among them. By the time the ship arrived on the coast of Alabama, Kossola had been turned into a commodity, as interchangeable as the wood that the Clotilda had transported in years past. He labored for five years before emancipation, when idle Union soldiers informed him that he was free.* Kossola and other former slaves with memory of their home eventually bought land from Meaher, on which they founded Africatown.

Barracoon’s publication doesn’t mark the revelation of this history: The presence of illegally imported Africans into Alabama, and of Kossola’s life in particular, was known even in Hurston’s day. In 1925, Harlem Renaissance writer Arthur Fauset published the folktale “T’appin” in Alain Locke’s seminal anthology of black writing, The New Negro. His source was none other than Kossola. Hurston herself had interviewed Kossola in his Africatown home on behalf of the anthropologist Franz Boas and historian Carter G. Woodson in 1927, and published an article about the interview in Woodson’s Journal of Negro History. That article, it’s since been revealed, largely plagiarized information Emma Roche had published in her 1914 apologia for slavery, Historic Sketches of the South. In 2009, historian Sylviane Diouf published the stunning Dreams of Africa in Alabama, which tells the story of Africatown and its founders. Kossola features prominently on its cover.

While this history might not be new, Barracoon offers a generative friction produced by the encounter between Hurston’s luxuriant sense of black life and Kossola’s volatile grief. The book unfolds from Hurston’s perspective as a listener to Kossola’s tale, and we hear her voice in interludes marked by her buoyant wit. However, Hurston rendered Kossola’s story in first person, using dialect that evokes the distinct rhythms of his speech. In this way, she creates an image of Kossola as a griot who tells his story directly to the audience, just as she heard it. These two perspectives sometimes grate against one another: Kossola’s sobering narrative of a human cruelty that traverses racial categories creates a drag against which Hurston’s characteristic exuberance struggles to find its footing. Her insistence on black vigor runs headlong into knowledge of the tragedy that enabled it. In these moments, the book leaves us to ponder how the vitality Hurston dedicated her life to illustrating is intimately bound up in Kossola’s nearly unspeakable anguish.

Kossola’s narrative is marked by a deep familiarity with violence and an irreversible sense of loneliness and loss. When Hurston tells him that she wants to make a record of his life’s story and the society he comes from, he breaks out in ecstatic joy. “Thankee Jesus!” he proclaims, “Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want to tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Affickey soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’ ” We sense the monumental contours of his grief not only at the deaths of his wife and children but also at the gaping wound that resulted from being torn from a home to which he will never return. His utmost desire is to be known again, to exist in a community of people with whom he shares a heritage and culture.

Kossola’s desire for “Affickey soil” mirrors a common Harlem Renaissance trope: the dreaming of an African homeland in which the historical wound that slavery inflicted on black subjects might be sutured. Works like Countee Cullen’s 1925 poem “Heritage” are characteristic of this trope. Positing a continuity between himself and his ancestors on the continent, the speaker in Cullen’s poem chafes at Western civilization, a culture whose mores constrain his natural African self.

Barracoon undercuts the idea of that desire for return. Kossola’s narrative presents an Africa that is not as whole as Harlem Renaissance writers theorized. His Africa is a place of cruelty and strife, stripped of any mythical innocence. Recalling the Dahomey attack that turned him into cargo, he conjures images of brutal violence. Some of the Dahomey soldiers “snatch de jaw-bone while people ain’ dead. Oh Lor’, Lor’, Lor’! De poor folkses with dey bottom jaw tore off dey face!” The present tense’s urgency suggests that Kossola is still caught in these memories’ traumatic embrace—and that the stunning violence that characterized white supremacy in his contemporary American moment has some relation to the cruelty he experienced at the hands of the Dahomey slave traders.

This revelation of African complicity in the slave trade made enough of an impression on Hurston that she returned to it in Dust Tracks. “The white people had held my people in slavery here in America,” she wrote. “They had bought us, it is true and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on … my own people had butchered and killed, exterminated whole nations and torn families apart, for a profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut.” Kossola’s pain infected Hurston: “After seventy-five years, he still had that tragic sense of loss,” she observed. “That sense of mutilation. It gave me something to feel about.” Kossola’s sense of having been mutilated produces a rupture in Hurston’s previously safe folkloric knowledge of the black past.

Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston

One gets the sense that this “something to feel about” motivates Barracoon’s aesthetic logic. The collision of Hurston and Kossola’s voices produces a friction that seems intentional—like an attempt to transmit the experience of mutilation that Hurston herself was beginning to feel. In place of some mythical unity, Hurston centers the primacy of the barracoon—the temporary holding cell in which captives were kept before being shipped to America—as an origin story for kidnapped Africans and their descendants. From his position in the barracoon in which he was held, Kossola succumbed to a state of profound bewilderment, a liminal space in which everything he knew was behind him, yet his fate was occluded: “We stay dere in de barracoon three weeks. We see many ships in de sea, but we cain see so good ‘cause de white house, it ‘tween us and de sea.” His view obstructed, Kossola is trapped in a state of suspension, halfway between human subject and degraded object.

Reading this account, one feels the terror inherent in Kossola’s situation. But in this state he also undertakes new forms of sociality that are radically different from what he knew before. “De barracoon we in ain’ the only slave pen at the place,” he remembers. “Dey got plenty of dem but we doan know who de people in de other pens. Sometime we holler back and forth and find out where each other come from. But each nation in a barracoon by itself.” Reading this passage, I’m reminded of the literary critic and poet Fred Moten’s theorizing of the hold, that cramped space in which slaves were kept beneath the slave ship’s deck during the middle passage. “To have been shipped is to have been moved by others, with others,” Moten wrote in his 2013 book with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons. “It is to feel at home with the homeless, at ease with the fugitive, at peace with the pursued.” To be in the hold is to succumb to suspension, and to birth a new social logic in the face of rupture.

Kossola’s memory of his and other captives’ hollering feels like evidence of the vigor that Hurston assumed characterized blackness, and the ushering into existence of a new social logic born of that vigor’s protean relentlessness under slavery’s pressure. If Kossola’s experience defied the folklore on which Hurston was raised, it also gave her a deeper sense of how slavery’s wound produced the black life she so cherished.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.

Correction, June 7, 2018: This post originally stated that Kossola labored for five years before the Civil War broke out; it was actually five years before emancipation.