Strange and Familiar

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.

NOTES

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
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Footnote in Barracoon cites Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press [1942], 1984. p. 200
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Babylon and New Beginnings

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 14

The Joseph Cycle, which closes out the Book of Genesis, has it all, in terms of story-telling: politics, sex, family drama, passages that touch on religious and cultural practices, plus a few dream sequences. The Book of Exodus is quite the drama as well, but it shifts focus to national struggle, while still providing individual stories that keep the scale personal as well as epic. Both books offer ample opportunity to consider themes relevant to #ExploringBabylon. Both the Joseph story and the opening of Exodus, in particular, prompt us to consider the various experiences of enslavement and captivity — with members of the family that becomes Yisrael as both victims and perpetrators.

We are also prompted to compare the Exodus story with that of the Babylonian Captivity — and, of course, with historical experiences of Jewish and non-Jews.

In his book, Song of Exile, David W. Stowe offers some apropos comments. I think his words worth repeating, as the Exodus tale unfolds in the Torah reading cycle and in advance of Passover, so quote here:

We can readily see how the Exodus lends itself to popular culture – Hollywood, for example—in ways that the Exile doesn’t. The Exodus has a strong central character, Moses, who though not without flaws is undeniably cut from heroic cloth. By contrast the Exile features a shifting cast of characters, none of whom seem quite heroic. There are two malcontents, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who alienate nearly everyone around them and die on what seems the losing side of history. Daniel rises far in Babylon but doesn’t himself lead the Judeans to the promised land. There is no triumphant entry into the Promised Land in the Exile; some of the Judeans slowing drift back to Judah after Babylonia is conquered by the Persians, and eventually the Temple is rebuilt.
— Stowe, p.100

In addition, Stowe points out, the Exile does not have the same “sense of triumphant destiny” as the Exodus story. While this does not make the Exile a Hollywood favorite, he argues, it does make the story a better fit for the complex “diasporic sensibility of so many ethnic and racial communities in North America,” some of whom thought of “North America as a Promised Land or New Jerusalem,” while “many others imagined themselves as temporary sojourners, never forgetting the links that bound the to a homeland” (Stowe, p.103).

There is so much to unpack in considering the United States as “New Jerusalem,” temporary homeland, and “Babylon.” We’ll try to make some inroads as the reading of Exodus progresses and we launch some new directions in #ExploringBabylon.

To Complexity

Meanwhile, just in testament to the amazing complexity ahead, some related words and images from the 1988 movie “Working Girl,” written and set, of course, long before the Twin Towers became central to another aspect of the story.

“Let the River Run” Lyrics by Carly Simon (1988)



NOTE:
Stowe, David W. Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137 (NY: Oxford University Press, 2016). Additional information.
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