The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”
By Zora Neale Hurston
A Review by Dwight A Moody
She died in obscurity and poverty in 1960. It was another 13 years before friends and admirers marked her burial place with the epithet “genius of the south”. But now she is hailed by all as a scholar, a pioneer, and a novelist of the first rank.
Zora Neale Hurston is famous for (among many other things) her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. But that was before this book—Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’—was published in 2018: 58 years after she died and 91 years after she sat in a yard in Platteau, Alabama and listened to the stories of one of the last living persons brought from his home in Africa to be a slave in North America.
That happened in 1859.
His name was Cudjo Lewis and he was 19 years old when he was captured by a rival African tribe and incarcerated in the slave barracks known as barracoons.
He remembers village life in West Africa. He remembers the 70-day voyage on the soon-scuttled ship Clotlda. He remembers six and one half years as a slave. He remembers freedom and farming and buying the land and building a house. He remembers his conversion to Christianity, the building of the (later-named) Union Missionary Baptist Church, and his appointment as the caretaker of that structure. He remembers his marriage, the birth and naming of six children, and the deaths of his wife and the six children (including the string of legal and financial injustices that accompanied some of them).
He remembered everything (to quote John Prine) and he told it all to his yet-to-be-famous guest from New York City. Zora Neal Hurston was not the first person to hear these stories—Cudjo was renown (mistakenly) as the last of his slave-ship class—but when this version of these old stories came off the press in 2018 it made him truly famous.
The book carried with his stories a collection of documents that command equal space in the book: introduction and afterward, editors notes and acknowledgement, additional stories, a lengthy bibliography, and the 1975 article by Alice Walker (of The Color Purple fame) “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”.
I read the book straight through and understand why it was declared the Best Book of the Year by more than a dozen judging entities, including Time, NPR, Barnes & Noble, and the Christian Science Monitor.
It is highly likely you also will give it some superlative accolade in whatever year you find time and motivation to read it. At least it is in my top five of this year; but the year is not over, and I’ve read some soul-shaking books this year on my journey to being the citizen, the believer, the person I need to be. I’m not the same person I was a year ago, and this book is one reason why.