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The fight over what are the “essential” books to read in the world-as-it-is-becoming, is at least several generations old.  The Western European canon, determined by, mostly, white British-American academics, has been under fire for its self-celebration and “in-gnosos” (not knowing) since at least the emergence of second-wave feminists in the late 1960s. Not too many women writers were considered “essential.”  It turns out, of course, that if the leisure, wealth, education and social apparatus necessary to think and write are confined to elite, European, men, not much writing at all will come from the pens of the marginalized and confined.  When John Milton was writing his canonical “Paradise Lost,” West Africans were being transported en-masse across the Atlantic by ships of almost every European nation. 

So, with the rise of Black Lives Matter awareness and actions around the world, it is a particularly good time to pry apart the old edifices of literary culture and find ideas and texts long slighted or consigned to curiosity shops.

In the past few months, lists of important, over-looked, and newly published books by Black Americans have been offered by academics, writers, activists and just plain readers:  Left Bank Books in St Louis, a Racial Justice reading list, the New York Public library, a composite of recommendations by Black writers in the New York Times. and many many more.

There are hundreds of offerings, many of them sociological or historical in nature, many,  such as Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, vital to re-seeing the world.  My own interests have been centered on literature – poetry, short stories and novels, sometimes memoirs by such writers, and essays where the two genres overlap.

Though I’ve read the poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen off and on again over the years, and have recently re-read Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man –and James Baldwin in any spare moment — for some reason I’d neglected Zora Neale Hurston, the early, indispensable woman of the Harlem Renaissance, the woman Toni Morrison calls “one of the greatest writers of our time,” and who Alice Walker credits with writing a maestrapiece. 

Though her bibliography is long and varied I began with Hurston’s Barracoon, partly I admit, because of the strangeness of the title, and shamefully, because it was short; shortness is counting more for me these days of too much news, too much to finish, too few years to go.  It turns out Barracoon is not a fiction, though it is literary.  In 1927 Zora Neale Hurston, then a young anthropologist working under Franz Boas, went to a small town near Mobile, Alabama to interview one of the last Africans brought to America as a slave.  Kossola was his African name; Cudjo Lewis his American name — a tradition he continued with his six children.  He was just a teenager when he was captured by a Dahomey war party and sold into slavery.  He was eighty-six years old when Hurston interviewed him –over a period of three months.  He was sharp in his recollection, stubborn and resistant at times to the interviews, solicitous of his guest and revelatory of his emotions.  Barracoon is her narrative account of their conversations.  The title comes from the word used in slave-ports and elsewhere for ‘stockade,’ or holding pen. 

As Alice Walker says in her forward, there may not be any harder read than this book.  In fact, it was not published until years after Hurston’s death, in good part because of the ugly opening chapters in which Kossola tells of the king of a neighboring tribe, the Dahomey,  demanding submission of his tribe and payment of tribute, the subsequent battle, beheadings, including of his father,  and destruction of their village, Bantè.  Those young enough, and able, were marched to the coast and sold to slavers.  He and 115 more were boarded on a ship called the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring slaves to U.S. soil.  Although transporting slaves into the United States had been illegal for over 50 years, owning them was not, and there was a ready market for human contraband.  After seventy days at sea, and barely able to walk from inactivity and lack of food, they were smuggled into Mobile, Alabama. The Clotilda was then scuttled, its owners fearful of British ships lying in wait. It’s rediscovery and partial exhumation in the Mobile River was announced in 2019 —and in these months of tearing statues down, would be a good memorial to put up.

Little is related about Kossola’s four years in slavery, except that of the two brother owners, one was a “whippin’ boss’ and the other was kinder.  On April 12, 1865, on board a  boat used to transport slaves between plantations,

“De Yankee soldiers dey come down to de boat and dey say … You free, you doan b’long to nobody no mo’.  Oh, Lor’! I so glad.  We astee de soldiers where we goin’?  Dey say de doan know.  Dey told us to go where we feel lak goin’, we an’ no mo’ slave.” 

The dialect spelling Hurston used was another reason for the resistance to publishing in her time; it was then, and still is, a matter of contention:  is it demeaning, or is it representationally accurate? 

Lewis, along with other native Africans, was able to acquire land on one of the plantations.  They set up a small settlement in the African style.  He tells Hurston of continuing some of the traditions and practices, of his marriage, and children.  He also tells her that the American born Negroes were not always welcoming and kind, calling the Africans ‘savages,’ and fighting with his children.  

Interspersed with Lewis’ stories and recollections, Hurston relates his kindness, his getting a “marvelous mess of blue crabs,” of their sharing watermelon and Virginia ham she brought to sweeten the relationship.  He tells her of the loss of his sons, all of them.

“Excuse me I can help it I cry. … Oh Lor’!  I good to my chillun!  I want de comp’ny, but looky lak de lonesome for one ‘nother. So de hurry go sleep together in de graveyard.  He die holdin’ my hand. 

Included are a few African folk-tales: The Lion and the Camel, The Lion Women, The Story of Jonah — for all of Lewis’ affection for Africa, and at times a longing to go back, he did give up his boyhood religious beliefs and become a devoted southern Christian.  When his buggy was clipped crossing the railroad tracks, by a switch engine, and he was badly injured, he was made a sexton in his local church. 

A few nice photos of Kossola, at least one taken by Hurston herself, grace the book, as well an explanatory Introduction and Afterword by Debora G Plant, setting Hurston and her scholarship in the context of her time.  

Baracoon (2018) an Amistad book by Harper Collins,  is available in good libraries — even during social distancing — and via on-line reading apps such as “Libby.  I listened to a good rendition by Audible; it is also available at Audiobooks.Com.  If you’re looking for a used copy, try Alibris or Powells, or several others before stooping to Amazon.

Next up for me is Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

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“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”  Zora Neale Hurston