Book Review—Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo

Shannon Whitehead

Cudjo Lewis never saw it coming.

In one moment, he was Kossula—barefoot and free “in de Affica soil,” as he calls it. And in the next moment, he was Cudjo—wrists tied, eyes in a state of bewilderment at the horror before him and awaiting him.

It was 1860 and the American slave trade had been outlawed for 50 years. Still, Cudjo’s destination was the Clotilda, the last ship to carry kidnapped Africans to the United States. Cudjo was 19-years-old when his life of enslavement began, one of the last survivors of the Clotilda, and one of the last African slaves who saw both bondage and freedom in their lifetime. “Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo” is his story.

The woman behind his storytelling is Zora Neale Hurston, the brilliant writer best known for her famed book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” In 1927, she was sent to Alabama to interview Cudjo. “Barracoon” follows their three month period of conversations.

The story wouldn’t have been filled with nearly as much life and authenticity if Hurston hadn’t insisted that it remain in Cudjo’s dialect. And it wouldn’t have become the invaluable book it is today if it hadn’t been recorded by her, whose skills as an anthropologist and a writer came together to form a beautifully crafted narrative.

From Africa to Africatown

It’s difficult to put the conditions of Cudjo’s capture into words but I’ll choose two: gruesome and disturbing. Those details are part of what makes this story so impactful and part of the reason it didn’t see the light of day until almost 100 years after Hurston wrote it.

There are, however, descriptions of Cudjo’s life with his family in West Africa before terror sailed in and changed everything. Stories from his life back home are illuminated by the warm scenery of unrestrained hope for a future as a soldier and a husband. He takes a similar tone when depicting post-slavery days in America with his children and late wife. But he laments the challenges of first adjusting to the new, bleak, and unjust circumstances in the United States and then to freedom—the blows dealt by slavery, the pains of resettling that mixed with the joy of emancipation.

Cudjo played a major role in the founding of “Africatown” in Plateau, Alabama (near Mobile), a settlement for those like him who lived to see Africa and slavery and then taste freedom on the other side. The notes of his life in Africatown include reflections on and grapplings with food, culture, religion, and the tiny church he cared so much for. He told Hurston about the difficulties of governing people in Africatown, how it came to be, and how he was managing day-to-day as he lived out his last years.

What Became “Barracoon”

She didn’t live to see it published, but Hurston’s diligence and care shaped the story that became “Barracoon.” The way she wrote it makes you feel as if you’re right there beside her with Cudjo, eating peaches on his porch in Alabama.

She didn’t want to know only what it was like to be a slave, but what it was like to be this incredible man. You can feel his sentimental nature through the pages and sense his tenderness as he signs off his letters with “yours in Christ” and cheerfully welcomes Hurston into his home.

“Barracoon” was a shorter book than I expected. It ended with as much impact as it began with and a broad string of emotions and reactions throughout. The hard-hitting foreword by Alice Walker, best known for her novel, “The Color Purple,” is alone worth the price of the book.

The sweet and the bitter flavor overwhelms this incredible chronicle of history and one man’s experiences in it. His life was interesting and eventful, to say the least, and the value of the picture his story paints for those of us today who have never experienced Africa in the 1800s, slavery, and life after bondage cannot be undersold.


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