In 1930 there was no publisher who wanted to print a book of the Afro-American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, and it stayed that way for the following 80 years.

In 1931 Miss Hurston attended the Barnard College where she was a student of one of the pioneers of anthropology, Franz Boas. Her professor gave her the task to interview the people of African origin still living in Southern US. She was raised in Eatonville, Florida, which was not a district of black people on the outskirts of a white city but a proper Afro-American independent community.

Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston discovered in Alabama the last survivor of the last slave ship landed in the US. Cudjo Lewis, from the Yorupe population in current Benin, enslaved in 1860 at the age of 19. From the words of the ex slave she created a book, Barracoon, published only in 2018.

Cudjo Lewis, 1914 circa

Cudjo Lewis story

Kossola, the original name of Cudjo, was happy when the elderly people used to take him hunting. He learnt how to draw a bow, recognising the traces of animals and could come back to the village with some prey. That was rather different from having fun with his siblings, doing foot race with them, or gathering pineapples, bananas or coconuts. He was happy because now he was a warrior, like his older siblings. The village headman said that he made them brave and strong so no one would have tried to confront them. After “4 or 5 seasons of rain”, Kossola became big and strong and could run the whole day without getting tired.

The King Dahomey though was afraid of no one, with his army of brave amazons and  warriors armed with French firearms. The warriors of the Dahomey were used to attacking annually, looking for people to sell to the slave drivers that were still making money off the slave trade between Africa and US, even when it had become illegal since the previous 10 years.

The Dey, warriors of the Dahomey, marched all night long and at the dawn, while Kossola was still asleep, they arrived to the village. The young man heard the screams, looked outside and saw woman warriors that “killed too quickly” with their knife to not leave any way out. Everyone ran into the forest but they were all captured, even the village headman, who ended up beheaded when he denied a deal with the King of the Dahomey.

The prisoners walked for 3 days under “a burning sun”, up until they got by the ocean that none of them had ever seen before.

Map drawn by Cudjo Lewis to illustrate the seizure and the journey to slavery

There they found a few huts, the so called “Barracoon”, divided by nation. After 3 weeks a white man arrived and chose men and women to take away with him in his slave ship, the¬†Clotilda.

Kossola faced, along with other 100 prisoners, that terrifying journey by sea on agitated waters which roared and growled like “thousands of beasts” while the wind screamed even louder, at times. Sometimes the ship seemed to touch the sky for then going back down. They were 70 days of fear, pain and regret, then Clotilda arrived in the gulf of Alabama. The slaves remained under deck until night then they were taken in a swampland for a few days to elude the monitoring from the government authorities.

The captain of Clotilda William Foster, was working for Timothy Meaher, businessman from Mobile, Alabama who was bragging about being able to have slaves sent to him all the way from Africa even when the law did not allow it. The authority knew about that “load” arriving, but they managed to hide the prisoners and sank the Clotilda.

The prisoners were divided one another and that separation was as painful as the one from their own land. They all cried because, as Kossola said “our pain feels so heavy to the point we cannot bear it. I think I die in my sleep when I will dream about my mother”.

Kossola became Cudjo, since his master did not know how to pronounce his name

However all the people of the “breast colour” (of milk) did not understand a word when he would talk, yet they would issue orders with the whip.

Cudjo spent 5 years in slavery until the soldiers yankee arrived to Mobile. They ate mulberries while, unaware of the Civil War and the defeat of the Southerners, they are still slaves working for Meaher. It is those men with a blue uniform who informed them that they were free now, that they did not have to remain there and that they could go wherever they wanted.

to go where though?

Cudjo and the others wanted to come back home, save up enough money, pay for the trip back to Africa. They dreamt of that scenario for a while then they started to realise about its impracticability: it was a way too pricey project and besides that they had been sold and turned into slaves by their own black brothers.

A group of ex slaves of Meaher, Cudjo included, went working in a mill, then a sawmill, in the houses of the whites and after a few years he managed to buy a piece of land from his previous master. Those free men founded a village, “Africantown”. It was an independent “black town” where only people coming from Africa were living. There everyone would speak their native language, follow their ancient tribal rules and speak a very basic English.

Cudjo Lewis with his wife Abache, arrived in Alabama on board of the Clotilda as well

Hurston, following the lesson of Boas: when he transcribed the tales of Cudjo she kept his “dialectal” English, the one the coloured population would speak. The publisher rejected the work, asking to be rewritten in correct English. The writer did not accept such a condition and she never saw her Barracoon published. Not even the intellectual Afro-Americans appreciated it exactly for that language that, in their opinion, would accentuate the gap between black and white communities, turning the coloured people as a caricature of themselves for the amusement of the whites.

The other thorny situation of the book which bothered the Afro-Americans of the time was that testimony so obvious as well as dramatic of the responsibility of certain African populations in the slave trade: the dreadful description of the horror perpetrated by the Africans to the Africans (from the introduction of Barracoon by Alice Walker), was nothing but a devastating read.

devastating like the many truths that only a few men were brave enough to share

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