May 08, 2018 03:07 PM

Literary history was made on Tuesday with the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s 87-year-old manuscript, Barracoon, the real-life account of Cudjo Lewis, the last living survivor of the last American slave ship. Though both Hurston and Lewis are long gone, Hurston’s account of the former slave’s life serves as a timely reminder of our shared humanity — and the consequences that can occur if we forget it.

“[Hurston] is the wonderful writer — that we know — but she is also this brilliant social scientist,” explains Deborah G. Plant, the book’s editor, in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE.

By presenting a multi-layered portrait of Cudjo Lewis — a man who continued to be kind despite horrific loss — Hurston combatted the “wrongheaded thinking” that persists today, Plant explains.

“[Hurston] knew she was up against a history of social Darwinism … and these ideas of the great race theory and white supremacy,” Plant says. “She engaged that wall of wrongheaded thinking, not necessarily by attacking it full frontal, but by every song she collected, every proverb she collected, every story, every sermon, every artifact of folk culture. All of that was to bring that wall down. That’s part of her great legacy to us.”

Cudjo Lewis

Born in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston would go on to become the author of legendary novels like Their Eyes Were Watching God and Moses, Man of the Mountain, as well as a folklorist and anthropologist.

In 1927, she was still an unpublished author when she was asked to interview Cudjo Lewis (born Oluale Kossola), an Alabama man who helped found Africatown (located three miles outside of Mobile). More importantly, he was the last person alive who remembered being brought from West Africa to the United States on the Clotilda in 1859 — more than 50 years after the United States had outlawed the slave trade.

“All the talk, printed and spoken, has had to do with ships and rations… with tribal wars and slave factories and red massacres and all the machinations necessary to stock a barracoon with African youth on the first leg of their journey from humanity to cattle…” writes Hurston when describing her justification for the book. “All of these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.”

Hurston spent three months interviewing Lewis and learning his story. They shared watermelon, peaches, and ham she brought him as gifts. In return, Lewis shared his memories of living in Africa before his brutal capture by Dahomian women warriors. According to Lewis, warriors from a neighboring kingdom came into his city while everyone was sleeping. They beheaded the weak and old, rounding up everyone else to be sold.

Zora Neale Hurston
Carl Van Vechten, courtesy of the Van Vechten Trust

“Kossula was no longer on the porch with me,” Hurston writes of Lewis’ reaction after he told her about the massacre. “He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He had forgotten that I was there. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke. His agony was so acute that he became articulate. He never noticed my preparation to leave him.”

Lewis also told her about crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the belly of the Clotilda, and the five-and-a-half years he lived as a slave.

“Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it,” Lewis said to Hurston when describing what it felt like to be separated from other Africans and sold in Alabama. “I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.”

Though Hurston finished the manuscript in 1931, she wouldn’t see it published in her lifetime (she died in 1960). This was partly because she refused to rewrite it “in language rather than dialect,” which was one publisher’s request. Instead, the manuscript maintained Lewis’ narrative with bits of Hurston’s insights woven throughout.

“[Hurston] refused to [rewrite Barracoon]. I think it speaks to her knowledge and genius about what was appropriate for that work,” Plant explains, “She maintained her courage, the courage of her conviction to have the narrative remain as it was written.”

By maintaining the patterns of Lewis’ speech and his expressions, Hurston captured the heart of the man.

“I hailed him by his African name as I walked up the steps to his porch, and he looked up into my face as I stood in the door in surprise,” Hurston writes.

She recalls Lewis’ “tears of joy” and his response: “‘Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t know callee me my name from cross de water but you.'”

Cudjo Lewis’ sorrow didn’t end after he attained freedom. Hurston emphasizes all of the loss he experienced once he became a free man: his devastation when he learned he couldn’t return to his homeland, the hatred he and fellow Africans experienced at the hands of white and African American neighbors, and the death of loved ones. By the time Hurston interviewed him, Lewis was a widow and his six children were all dead (one son was shot in the throat by an African-American sheriff, another son disappeared).

“I am sure that he does not fear death,” writes Hurston. “But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.”

But Barracoon isn’t solely a story of tragedy. While Lewis remained forever “lonely for Africa” and his family, writes Alice Walker in the foreword, “we see something else: the nobility of a soul that has suffered to the point almost of erasure, and still it struggles to be whole, present, giving. Growing in love, deepening in understanding.”

By the time Hurston finished her interviews, she and Cudjo Lewis were friends.

“It was a very sad morning in October when I said the final goodbye, and looked back the last time at the lonely figure that stood on the edge of the cliff that fronts the highway,” Hurston writes. “He wanted to see the last of me. He had saved me two peaches, the last he had found on his tree, for me.”

Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ is on sale now.

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