Exploring Babylon Chapter 23
Although just published (May 2018), Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was completed in 1931, based on work begun in the 1920s. Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon relates the story of a West African and his experience, before, during, and after U.S. slavery. Some of the content, as well as story of its publication, shed light on #ExploringBabylon.
Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis) was born in Benin, West Africa, around 1841. He was captured by Dahomian warriors and temporarily held in a barracoon, before being sold to slavers. He was then transported to the U.S. on the Clotilda, the last known trans-Atlantic slave ship. At age 86, Kossola granted Hurston interviews that became Barracoon. The long trail from Hurston’s work to publication is related in the current volume by its editor, Deborah G. Plant.
One reason the publication did not appear back in the 1930s was Hurston’s refusal to rewrite Kossola’s vernacular speech in more standard English. I find that listening to Hurston’s voice helps set the scene and prepare the reader for her rendering of Kossola’s speech:
Kossula ceased speaking and looked pointedly at his melon rind. There was still lots of good red meat and a quart or two of juice. I looked at mine. I had more meat left than Kossula had. Nothing was left of the first installment, but a pleasant memory. So we lifted the half-rinds to our knees and started all over again. The sun was still hot so we did the job leisurely.
Watermelon halves having ends like everything else, and a thorough watermelon eating being what it is, a long over-stuffed silence fell on us.
— Hurston, Barracoon, p.40-41
Songs and Names in a Strange Land
Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis) explains the naming of his children:
“In de Afficky we gottee one name, but in dis place dey tell us we needee two names. One for de son, you unnerstand me, and den one for the father. Derefo’ I put de name of my father O-lo-loo-ay to my name. But it too long for people to call it. It too crooked lak Kossula. So dey call me Cudjo Lewis.
“So you unnerstand me, we give our chillun two names. One name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crooked to call.”
— Kossola, Barracoon, p.72-73
Kossola describes for Hurston the funeral of the first of his children to die:
“We Christian people now, so we put our baby in de coffin and dey take her in de church, and everybody come look down in her face. Dey sing, ‘Shall We Meet Beyond De River’. I been a member of de church a long time now, and I know de words of de song wid my mouth, but my heart it doan know dat. Derefo’ I sing inside me, ‘O todo ah wah n-law yah-lee, owrran k-nee ra ra k-nee ro ro.’ [not translated].”
— Kossola, Barracoon, p.74
Exiles in Babylon believed they would one day return home, meanwhile pining: “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). Kossola seems to ask, instead: Can we ever sing our own songs in this land from which there seems no escape?
Strange, Familiar, Tales
This parable, among several Kossola shared, was told after the death of his wife:
“’You see Ole Charlie dere. S’pose he stop here on de way to church. He got de parasol ’cause he think it gwine rain when he leave de house. But he look at de sky and ‘cide hit ain’ gwine rain so he set it dere by the door an’ go on to church. After de preachin’ he go on home ’cause he think de parasol at Cudjo house. It safe. He say, “I git it nexy time I go dat way.” When he come home he say to one de chillun, “Go to Cudjo house and tellee him I say sendee me my parasol.”
“’De parasol is pretty. I likee keep dat one.’ But I astee dem all, ‘Is it right to keep de parasol?’ Dey all say, ‘No it belong to Charlie.’
“’Well,’ I say, ‘my wife, she b’long to God. He lef’ her by my door’
— from Kossola’s parables, Barracoon, p.92
This tale comes from a medieval collection of midrash:
[Rabbi Meir is at the house of study, and Beruriah is at home, when their two sons both die suddenly on the Sabbath. After Meir returns home and the Sabbath comes to a close…]
“Rabbi,” she then said, “some time ago a deposit was left with me for safe-keeping, and now the owner has come to claim it. Must I return it?”
“Can there be any question about the return of property to its owner?” said R. Meïr, half astonished and half indignant that his wife should entertain a doubt.
“I did not care to let it go out of my possession without your knowledge,” replied Beruriah, seemingly in excuse, and, taking him by the hand, led him into the room in which the bodies of their two sons were lying on the bed. When she withdrew the cover, R. Meïr broke out in tears and plaints. Gently Beruriah reminded him of his answer to her question about the return of a treasure entrusted to one for safe-keeping, adding the verse from Job (i. 21): “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
— from Proverbs 964, Yalkut Shimoni
as quoted in the Jewish Encyclopedia
I would be very interested to learn if Christian lore includes stories similar to the tale about Beruriah and Meir (2nd Century CE) and Kossola’s early 20th Century parable.
Strangeness in the Story
One more note from Deborah G. Plant’s comments:
In face of Kossola’s recollections, the social constructions of “My People” and “Africans” were deconstructed by the reality of ethnic identifications, which not only distinguished tribes and clans but also generated the narrative distance and the ideological difference that rendered one ethnic group capable of regarding another as “stranger” or “enemy,” and allowed that group to offer up the “Other” to “the Trans-Atlantic trade.”
“One thing impressed me strongly from this three months of association with Cudjo Lewis,” Hurston writes. “The white people had held my people in slavery in America. They had brought us, it is true and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on – that the white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard the ship and sailed away.” [footnote]
— Plant, editor, Barracoon, p.124-125
Hurston’s struggle, comparing what she learned from Kossola with what she’d been previously taught, is reminiscent in some ways of David W. Stowe’s comparison of the Exodus story with that of Babylonian Exile.
Zora Neal Hurston (1891-1960)
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”
Foreword: Alice Walker. Editor: Deborah G. Plant
NY: Amistad (HarperCollins), 2018.
Interviews were conducted in 1927. Book was completed in 1931.
More on this volume from HarperCollins
Short, clear background piece.
NPR story about the publication
Footnote in Barracoon cites Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press , 1984. p. 200