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Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

Although I have always been interested in African-American history, this interest was amplified after completing The African Piper of Harlem. Looking for further inspiration, I turned to one of heroines, Zora Neale Hurston. This is my five-star review of a book, published posthumously in 2018, that is now a best-seller.

But the inescapable fact that stuck in my mind was: my people had sold me and the white man had bought me….It impressed upon me the universal nature of greed and glory

Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road

Cages have dominated recent news. Whether the adult or child deserves to be incarcerated is not the point of this story. My story dates back several centuries to a time when holding cells existed for people who did not volunteer to come to America. Between 10 million and 12 million enslaved Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century. Large human cargoes were shipped from the Congo-Angola area and from the the region of West Africa between the Sénégal and Niger rivers. Those slaves that survived harrowing journeys typically spent limited periods in enclosures known as barracoons.

Cudjo Lewis (aka Oluale Kossola) – brought to the USA on the last ship that carried slaves across the Atlantic – was one of those slaves chafing under the yoke of inhumanity and sometimes imprisoned in barracoons. As told to the Harlem Renaissance writing icon, Zora Neale Hurston, Cudjo was born circa 1841. He was one of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

In an era pre-dating audio recordings, Hurston captures the scope of suffering and perseverance of a man subjected to immense cruelty, who lived long enough to relate his story in his own inimitable dialect. Here is an extract from the book:

Oluale Kossola had survived capture at the hands of Dahomian warriors, the barracoons at Whydah (Ouidah), and the Middle Passage. He had been enslaved, he had lived through the Civil War and the largely unreconstructed South, and he had endured the rule of Jim Crow. He had experienced the dawn of a new millennium that included World War I and the Great Depression.

Published posthumously in 2018, Barracoon showcases the depth of a life preserved for the ages by an incomparable cultural anthropologist. Many people prior to Hurston had extracted interesting tidbits from Lewis e.g., after the Civil War, Lewis founded a settlement called Africatown near Mobile, Alabama. But Hurston, a fellow Alabamian who traveled there in 1927 to interview him over a three-month period, was able to cultivate a friendship with the 86-year-old former slave, in part with offerings of peaches, watermelon, and ham.

The result is a book that may reopen old wounds, but also provides much-needed balm for the soul.

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