Montag, 30. April 2018

Hanif Abdurraqib on 'Barracoon' by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” by Zora Neale Hurston, Amistad, 168 pages, $24.99

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston was a young writer, ten years away from releasing what would become her landmark work—1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. She had published a few poetry collections and written a screenplay, but had yet to make the mark she would eventually leave on the literary world. She was then an anthropologist, and her eager curiosity carried her to a town called Plateau, Alabama. 
Plateau was a community founded by Cudjo Kassula Lewis and other former slaves, three miles from Mobile. Cudjo was now eighty-six years old and nearing the end of his life. He was the last African survivor of the Clotilda, the final US slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the States; it had arrived in the summer of 1859 or 1860, carrying approximately 110 slaves. Cudjo had the rare opportunity to act as a living archive for writers and historians. He could tell richly layered stories about the raids on his West African village, and the traumatizing cross-ocean travel.
Hurston went to Plateau a few times: twice in 1927, and then again in 1931, when she spent over three months there, talking in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. The result of that work, penned in 1931 and only now being published, is Barracoon. (The title comes from the name for the enclosure in which black slaves were kept for transport.) The book is written partially from Cudjo’s perspective, from the hand of Hurston, who, although using his words as an account, is able to put a prose spin on the retelling. The text is not long—once one gets past the prefaces and the intros, the story itself is only ninety-five pages. Because she was working as an anthropologist, Barracoon presents itself as something of a scientific document, even though Hurston writes in the preface that it makes no attempt to be one. In that intro, she expands on her thoughts about the slave trade and what drew her to flesh out Cudjo’s story. The idea is that seeing America through the lens of the slave trade—despite its broad stain on the country’s history—is best done from the point of view of a single person who had their life forever altered by it. Barracoon, in many ways, pursues the slavery narrative in the same manner as the book and film 12 Years a Slave: it tracks slavery’s violence and aftermath through the words, memories, and history of a single person who survived it.
Holding the book and reading it now, Barracoon seems ahead of its time, largely due to how it makes the story of slavery both intimate and viscerally visual, as Roots did most notably several decades after this manuscript was created. (The book’s visual, film-like nature also brings to mind the slave narratives—both true and rewritten—we’ve seen pop up in movies recently, to both acclaim and criticism: The Birth of a Nation, Django Unchained, the aforementioned 12 Years a Slave.) Part of this visual aspect is the work of Hurston, who richly describes the touchable moments meeting and interacting with Cudjo—from bringing peaches to his doorstep, to the sugarcane growing in his yard.
But even richer are the times when Cudjo is the sole narrator. This happens without notice, the “I” shifting abruptly from Hurston’s recounting to Cudjo’s first-person story. This is jarring, but also delightful in how it surprises each time, his evocative narration adding to the visual aspect of the book. Because Cudjo was already nineteen years old when captured, his memories of the event and subsequent journey are particularly vivid. Most notably, he recalls decapitated heads hanging from the belts of soldiers who stole him from his land. He describes the pain of watching the fellow slaves he’d traveled with being sold away to other plantations, the tearing apart of this forced, and then chosen family. ... [mehr]

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