Blog #11: Zora Neale Hurston and the Last “Black cargo”

In 2018 Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was posthumously published. Both the story it tells and the story behind it demonstrate how hard it is to get history right, especially about slavery.  Those who experienced it often had their words ignored, distorted, or lost when they died. 
In 1927, Hurston saved the words of Oluale Kossola, a young African captured in 1859 by Dahomany warriors, marched to seaside barracks (barracoons), and brought across the Atlantic half a century after the Constitution legally banned international human trafficking! Kossola, named Cudjo Lewis in America, was part of the last “Black cargo,” one of few who could speak first-hand about his capture in Africa and the Middle Passage.
In an initial article about Kossola, Hurston was guilty of plagiarism.  When preparing for a final book, however, she did extensive research including multiple conversations with Kossola. Her biographer criticized her work as “highly dramatic, semifictionalized narrative,” but contemporary reviews defend its legitimacy.  Hurston resisted pressures, for example, to rewrite Kossola’s words to make them more “palatable” for broader audiences.

Hurston’s care for an elderly man carrying a life of trauma was impressive. She brought food and would sit with him until he wanted to speak. This built trust that allowed him to share the horror of it all: his capture, oppression in post-Civil War south, violent deaths of his sons, loneliness after his wife died, and haunting separation from Africa.  

Editor Deborah Plant explains, “Hurston’s methods respect Kossola’s own storytelling sensibilities,” and allowed for a “sacred” “unburdening” of trauma. I aspire to be as sensitive as Hurston in my modest effort to bring the ugly past into the present.

Embodied trauma, fueling contemporary racial tensions, should not be appropriated and broadcast without consent. As Plant explains, Kossola spoke even though he was “full of trembling and awe before the altar of the past.”  Hurston’s gentleness allowed Kossola to overcome his fear.
Hurston of the Harlem Renaissance - author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, associate of anthropologists Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict, and crowned by Alice Walker as “a genius of the south” - did not live to see Barracoon published. She died of hypertensive heart disease, poor and in a county welfare home. Unfortunately, this is not a surprising fate in a nation only recently appreciating Black female writers. 

  • Lesson #35: It’s hard to get history right.

  • Lesson #36: Those who have two names, one given at birth in Africa, and one given by kidnappers in America, are reminded of their fate every time someone calls out their name.

  • Lesson #37: The 1808 Constitutional “ban” on trans-Atlantic trade didn’t stop the kidnapping from Africa.

  • Lesson #38: Retelling the trauma of slavery is difficult and must be treaded as a “sacred” effort.

  • Lesson #39: Appropriate acknowledgement to black women writers is in its infancy.

Hugh Taft-MoralesComment