“Cudjo meetee de people at de gate and tells dem, “You see de rattlesnake in de woods?” Dey say, “Yeah.” I say “If you bother wid him, he bite you. If you know de snake killee you, why you bother wid him? Same way wid my boys, you unnerstand me. If you leave my boys alone, dey not bother nobody!”
Zora Neale Hurston interviewed “Cudjo Lewis” in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Mr. Lewis was the last known person still alive that had been born in Africa, sold to Americans, and transported across the Atlantic to work as a slave. Hurston wrote his story, capturing his vernacular, but her publisher refused to print it. It’s finally been published, as Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”.
The main part of the book — the stuff written by Zora Neale Hurston — is straightforward. Hurston visits Mr. Lewis, he tells her part of his story (if he’s in the mood), he gets tired or upset and she leaves, repeat until the end. This methodology evokes the feeling one gets from listening to older relatives. The author doesn’t try to craft an exhaustive, accurate detailed biography using a combination of sources or a gripping “historical fiction” narrative with invented dialogue and action inspired by Mr. Lewis’ tale. This is a story told in Mr. Lewis’ own words, the way he told it. By writing this account in this manner, Hurston not only recorded the major events of Mr. Lewis’ life but also his perceptions of them, his manner of communicating them, and his manner of communicating PERIOD. In doing so, the reader feels as if they have gotten to know Mr. Lewis a little bit. I felt as if I had gotten a bit of an understanding of what it would have actually been like to eat with Mr. Lewis in the 1920s, listening to his story.
That it is a story worth telling is so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning. Almost everyone knows, intellectually, about slavery and its wrongness. This adds a concrete, first-person account of the slave trade’s horror. How did it feel to be captured by another tribe, with your friends or family killed? What was it LIKE to be sold, transported across an ocean to a strange country, and to work as a slave? What was it like to be freed but be forced, through economic circumstances, to continue to live in a country that wasn’t home? This book provides one man’s answers to those questions.
Those answers can be pretty short, though. The reason that I rated this book a 4 rather than a 5 is because there wasn’t a lot of details. This is not to suggest that anybody did anything wrong with the book or that it could and should have been done differently. It might not have been possible or practical to include certain details of Mr. Lewis’ experiences during slavery. Nor do I suggest that Mr. Lewis should have been compelled to spill forth all of his trauma for my amusement or education. But I am pointing out to potential buyers of a $15 book that there aren’t many chapters detailing his life as a slave or how he was treated during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The topics are mentioned, but there was not a lot of explicit depth. There’s a lot to be read between the lines by the careful reader, but those hoping for lurid tales are not gonna find them in this book.
The part written by Zora Neale Hurston is not very long, maybe around 90 pages. The rest of book is filled out by a dry academic argument by a scholar regarding where Mr. Lewis was actually captured or transported along with some sort of accusation of plagiarism by Hurston. That section reads like mumbo-jumbo that should have been consigned to some sort of academic journal with a circulation of three people. It contributes nothing to Mr. Lewis’ story as told by him. Readers can – and should – skip it and get to the bits written by Hurston.
There’s also an appendix at the end that contains some stories, folk tales, and “Biblical interpretations” told by Mr. Lewis to Hurston that don’t really fit in with his life story and so were moved to the end for ease of readability. It was a good move.
This is an important – but brief – book that readers of history (all Americans, really) should read.
My rating: 4 stars