Barracon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston
What an incredible read. I was so excited to dive into this book, and Ms. Hurston did not let me down! In her foreward, Alice Walker calls it a “maestrapiece,” defined as “the feminine perspective or part of the structure, whether in stone or fancy, without which the entire edifice is a lie.” Walker writes an opening blessing over this work that primes you for the breadth and depth of the experience you are about to embark upon. Do not skip over it.
I feel as though this is a text that you need to sit with for some time. Even now, I find myself wanting to pick it back up again to dig through the pages for the things that I know I missed.
Below you’ll find a reading and discussion guide with some points from the text that especially stood out to me.
Reading and Discussion Guide
- Oral history is an important facet of maintaining and passing on African history. Hurtson positions Cudjo Lewis as a griot throughout the text. His recollection of the events of his life and those following his being sold into slavery are verified by other historical texts, and Hurston is quite confident in the veracity of his stories. Consider the way history is preserved within your own family context.
- As is pointed out in the book, one of the most important things about printing and distributing Cudjo’s story is the fact that at the time of its writing, the world was inundated with stories from every perspective but that of the slave. Hurston writes in her original introduction:
“All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the ‘black ivory,’ the ‘coin of Africa,’ had no market value. Africa’s ambassadors to the New World have come and worked and died, and left their spoor, but no recorded thought” (pg. 6).
Does this consideration make the experience of reading Cudjo Lewis’ story even more powerful for you?
- Cudjo spares no feelings in sharing that the events that brought him under bondage were done by his fellow Africans — the powerful Dahomey nation had made quite the business out of attacking other tribes who had slighted them, killing many and selling those who they let survive to the white men. This is a complicated and uncomfortable history for some Black Americans to accept. Alice Walker struggles with this in her foreward. Was this a painful history to read about for you? Have you heard about the practice of some African nations selling their captives to American and European slavers?
- Hurston returns time and time again to Cudjo’s loneliness. He had lost essentially his entire immediate family and his homeland, and the toll this has taken on him is quite evident. One of the most touching lines of the book was him describing how he felt without his wife.
De wife she de eyes to de man’s soul. How kin I see now, when I ain’ gottee de eyes no mo’?” (pg. 93).
- Part of the reason why the book was never published while Hurston was alive was because editors wanted her to rewrite the text “in language not in dialect” (pg. xxii). She refused, feeling that the story must be told in Cudjo’s own words and tone. Was the experience of reading in dialect difficult for you? Did it make Cudjo feel more or less believable to you? Why?
Barracoon was an incredibly powerful and important read. As someone who was raised to value and understand my own family history with slavery and white supremacy, it was amazing to hear the voice of someone who had the opportunity to be recorded unlike my ancestors. Hurston did a remarkable job of not overly projecting her thoughts and opinions onto Cudjo’s story, and Deborah G. Plant provides excellent supplementary information and materials. I am incredibly grateful for her editorial insight. You should read this book if you care to go back further than any of our school history books ever will and learn more about the history that America would prefer to forget.
Comment below with your thoughts and impressions! I can’t wait to hear from yall!