WOMEN’S HISTORY: Noted folklorist’s tale of enslaved man

I AM AN AVID FAN of Zora Neale Hurston, America’s foremost folklorist. I was thrilled to find a copy of her most recently released book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” at the library in Hudson on 5th Street. In 1927 Hurston interviewed Kossola, the last survivor of the last slave trader ship to dock in the United States at Mobile, Alabama.

I interviewed, via email, Emily Chameides, director of services, and asked how she decides what new releases to include in the library’s collection? (Her responses are edited for available space.)

EC: We select materials . . . that meet the needs of the community . . . and are consistent with our goals and mission . . . Some of the criteria . . . include: authority of the author . . . representation of inclusive experiences and diverse viewpoints, . . . authenticity, . . . evaluation of critics and reviewers, . . . artistic merit and literary value . . . Barracoon checked off all of the boxes.

LCL: What about Barracoon, specifically, makes it worthy of inclusion?

EC: Barracoon is an important story, offering a firsthand account of a middle passage journey, . . . The book was rejected for publication back in the 1930s . . . 87 years later, the work was finally published without translation, maintaining the authenticity of Kossola’s narrative . . . It’s an invaluable work of American history.

About the rationale for her book Hurston wrote, “All the talk . . . has had to do with ships and rations; . . . sail and weather; . . . native kings and bargains sharp and sinful; . . . tribal wars and slave factories and red massacres and all the machinations necessary to stock a barracoon; . . . storing and feeding and starvation and suffocation and pestilence and death; slave ship stenches and mutinies of crew and cargo; . . . auction blocks and sales and profits and losses. All these words from the seller but not one word from the sold.”

Hurston interviewed Kossola, renamed Cudjo Lewis, over three months, when he was 67 years old, at his home in Africa Town, Alabama. (The community was renamed Plateau by a railroad company and is a suburb of Mobile.) According to Alice Walker, author of Barracoon’s forward, Kossola/Lewis was eager to be interviewed. “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo. I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in the Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossola.’”

Through his stories we learn how Africans were purposefully caught and marketed to slave traders; how they came to America; how they were treated—ridiculed and cheated—by whites and enslaved Blacks alike; and how once officially freed, established their own community, Africa Town.

It was a 6-week journey from the West Africa coast to Mobile, where Kossola was brought at age 19. He was one of 110 captives aboard the Clotilda, which made its final journey 50 years after the U.S. declared such transport illegal. Kossola/Lewis was enslaved for five years then after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Cudjo’s recollections start with Africa. He is the second child of his father’s second wife. “He don’t think hisself to marry wid so many women. No. In de Affica sol it de wife dat go findee him another wife.”

Cudjo describes the ritual of new wife selection. The wife asks a young girl if she has heard of her husband and assures the girl of her husband’s virtues. If the girl agrees to wed, they meet with her parents and a price is set based on their wealth. Once an agreement is made, the girl is kept in a “fat-house” for up to two years, where she is fed eight times daily and is discouraged from any movement “so dey don’t lose de fat.”

On justice Cudjo relayed the story of a man from his village who murdered another. The king presides over murder trials. “De ole folks, de wise ones, dey go out in de woods and gittee leaves . . . an’ mashee de leaves wid water. Den de paint de dead man all over . . . so he doan spoil till de king come.”

The king arrives and questions the man, who explains that the other worked “juju” against him, killing his child and cows. The king rejects the man’s reason and rules that the man must die.

The executioner, with machete in hand, dances up to the murderer, touches his breast and neck with the machete. As the executioner approaches again “other men rush out and seize the murderer . . . and stretch him face to face upon de dead man, an tie him tight so he cain move hisself. . . . dey wrap de cord around his neck and around de neck of de dead man. Dey wrap de cord around his body an’ around de body of de dead man. Dey wrap his arm an’ de dead man’s arm wid de same cord. His leg is wrapped as one wid de leg of de man he done killed. So dey leave him dere. His nose is tied to de nose of de dead man. His lips touch the lips od de corpse. . . . people watch until he die too.

“He doan live long. People kin stand de smell of de horse, de cow and udder beats, but no man kin stand de smell in his nostrils of a rotten man.”

For Kossola/Cudjo, who lived to age 86, loneliness was the greatest affliction. He survived his wife and all six of their children.

“Ole Charlie, he de oldest one come from Afficky, came . . . after my wife lef’ me and say ‘Uncle Cudjo, make us a parable.’ Den I axed dem, ‘How many limbs God give de body so it kin be active?’ Dey say six; two arms two feet two eyes. I say de cut off de feet, he got hands to ‘fend hisself. Dey cut off de hands he wiggle out de way when he see danger come. But when he lose de eye, den he can’t see nothin’ come upon him. . . . My boys is my feet. My daughter is my hands. My wife she my eye. She left, Cudjo finish.”

While the stories are sad, the language is poetic and revelatory of the wise and philosophic man, Kossola/Lewis.

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