“Barracoon” by Zora Neale Hurston is an interesting nonfiction piece from a voice that’s rare in our literature.
Cudjoe Lewis aka Kazoola at the time was considered the sole survivor of the slave ship Clotilda, which brought 150 people in 1860 from around Benin in Africa after the ban on ships from going to the continent. Because of the secretive act, the slaves worked on the Alabama coastline. Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjoe while a graduate student of anthropology in the late 1920s. She would go to his home and discuss his life, where he vividly recalls his life in Africa.
The book is mostly his folktale-sounding true stories from his native land involving how the king interacted with the people and how his father worked for the king. He talks about how he was brought to the king with the others and corralled onto the ship. He shudders at the horrendous journey to America, a strange place where he said it took him and the others from his homeland awhile to learn how to tend to the land, especially the sugarcane. He’s a slave for five years until the Union soldiers arrive in town and tell him he’s free. He asks where does he go now, and the soldiers don’t know. The community settles in what they call Africatown, modern-day Plateau, Alabama, where most of the descendants are African-born from the Clotilda. Cudjoe talks about the family he started and how they were gone by the time he’s speaking with Zora, even mentioning how one of his sons was shot dead by a police officer and how he had to look at his son’s disfigurement to understand what had happened.
It’s a quick read that made me research more on Cudjoe – there’s not enough of his story there, yet it’s there. It’s an interesting journey from living a regular life in Africa to adjusting to a new life in America he did not ask for or want. He expresses his longing to return home, especially with the family he started in America passing before him. The way he loses his son to a gun is the way many black families still lose their sons. He talks about being criticized by other African Americans because he was African and remembered Africa and preferred his African name, a sentiment still felt for African immigrants in America. The book opens the reader to a part of history from a personal account we rarely hear from, similar to “12 Years A Slave” by Solomon Northrup though that’s a first-person account.