Title: Barracoon- The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Number of Pages: 193
I almost never read non-fiction unless it’s a personal memoir, but I’m so glad I gave this book a chance. I learned more from it than all the other books I’ve read this year combined, and even though (or maybe because of) it being so emotionally devastating I think everybody who is interested in seeing an intimate portrait of one of our most shameful periods in history should read this.
I’d never read anything like this before; all the books about slavery I knew about were fiction or more emotionally distanced accounts written years later. Zora Neale Hurston is the author of this book but most of it is derived from a series of interviews she had with Cudjo Lewis, an elderly man who was taken from his home in Africa and shipped overseas into a life of slavery after owning slaves has been technically outlawed by the U.S. government. He wasn’t a slave for all that long but after he was freed all he wanted was to go back to Africa but he had to stay in the U.S. the rest of his life.
He and some other freed slaves built new lives in Africatown, a community cut largely off from the (mostly white) U.S. population. The ,majority of Cudjo’s life is marked by tragedy and deep emotional scarring, and his dialect-heavy dictation is intimidating at first and then gets easier and easier to understand as you get into the flow of it. It’s hard to fathom how much pain this man went through, and something that makes the story particularly unusual is that he was sold by other blacks from a different tribe.
A mostly-female army of raiders killed almost everybody he knew and sold the rest to the white man. Cudjo’s debasement at the hands of other black Africans as well as whites made this story offensive to some, who wanted a more safe and morally obvious story about slavery (regardless of what really happened.) My only criticism of this book is that everything moved so quickly. I wanted to know more about this fascinating person and how he survived a series of events that seemed determined to break him completely. There was a long series of appendixes and other details at the end of the book, which made it even shorter.
I would recommend people skim that part because overall it was pretty boring but there was something worth remembering here and there. I think high schools should assign this book because so many people seem so ignorant about history and I consider it kind of the ‘anti-textbook’- it’s extremely educational but there’s nothing dull about it. It’s just as engaging as reading a really compelling work fiction except maybe even better. This is my first book I’ve read by Zora Neale Thurston and now I want to read almost everything she’s ever written, but it makes me a little bit sad that so much of Cudjo Lewis’ extraordinary life is still a mystery to me.
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