The Power of Untold Slave Narratives

In Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston challenges the American public’s narrow view of the African continent, the transatlantic slave trade, and the diasporic cultures that came as a result of it.

A bust of Oluale "Cudjo" Kossola sits outside Union Missionary Baptist Church, the church he co-founded in Africatown, Alabama. (Amy Walker / Wikimedia Commons)

Precolonial black history is often reduced to a troubling binary: Africans as a uniformly subservient arm of the triangular trade and Africa through the lens of monarchies like ancient Egypt and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. Consider Nas’s 2003 song “I Can” (his highest-charting single to date), which was widely lauded for its uplifting message. To open his last verse, he pleads with black children to look to the distant past for inspiration: “[Before] we came to this country / We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys.” Incomplete and romanticized readings of history have resulted in a fanatical, monolithic image of Africa, or worse, a dismissal of the rest of the continent as a backwards land that colonizers rightfully raided. Both myopic narratives prevent people from exploring the continent’s full range of societies—not only spurring resentment among African Americans and African and Caribbean immigrants, but also promoting ignorance of the shared cultural elements that survived the journey across the Atlantic.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon widens the scope of this default, reductive rendering of history through form and function. After being kept in the Alain Locke Collection at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center for more than half a century, Barracoon was released to the public in May. Hurston experienced considerable difficulty in getting the book published in 1931, and in 2016, Lois Hurston Gaston, the author’s grandniece, announced on behalf of the Zora Neale Hurston Trust that releasing the book publicly was “especially timely given that our country is continuing to focus on our racial divide and the consequences of slavery.”

The book is a culmination of three months’ worth of conversations between Hurston and Cudjo Lewis, née Oluale Kossola, the last living survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1860, at the age of 19, Kossola was kidnapped by inhabitants of the Dahomey kingdom and brought to the barracoons (barracks used to temporarily hold enslaved Africans) in Ouidah, a city on the coast of modern-day Benin. Though the slave trade in the United States was officially outlawed in 1808, Kossola and about 110 others were captured and brought to Mobile, Alabama, on Captain William Foster’s ship Clotilda. (Their captors were prosecuted and later had their charges dropped.) Less than five years after landing in Alabama, emancipation arrived as the Confederate army surrendered in Virginia. Once he’d saved enough money to buy a land parcel, Kossola—with the assistance of another freedman and former Dahomey nobleman—founded Africatown, Alabama, an isolated community of former slaves that sought to preserve their roots and culture. His story, as told by Hurston, illuminates the alienating and lonesome existence of freed slaves during Reconstruction.

Amistad Press

Unlike many published slave narratives, which focus on Great Britain’s colonies, Kossola’s account offers a panoramic look at the machinations of the slave trade: the shared greed that enabled one of society’s most heinous crimes against humanity. Kossola decried the instability of militaristic, top-heavy societies like Dahomey, the widely feared African kingdom that facilitated the conquest of neighboring tribes and nations and eventually negotiated with slavers from Alabama. “He keep making raids to grabee people,” Kossola tells Hurston of the king of Dahomey, “to sell so de people of Dahomey doan have no time to raise gardens an’ make food for deyselves.”

Kossola names the power players at each level of society, including those serving as go-betweens: the Dahomey’s “word-changers,” or translators, the Kru boys—master seafarers who migrated from the Liberian hinterlands, made a living through fishing and trade, and shuttled millions of Africans to slave ships. Kossola’s story broadens the popular narrative, showing that the lust for dominance that sparked the slave trade wasn’t endemic to colonizers, and that West African societies were often active participants. The Dahomey reign serves as a crude reminder that excellence usually exists at the expense of others, calling into question the prioritizing of stories about African kingdoms like ancient Egypt. Kossola illustrates the multiplicity of African societies, making it known in the first chapter, “My people had no ivory by their door.”

Barracoon shines largely due to Hurston’s theory that when it comes to African subjects in America, objectivity has been permanently compromised. To effectively and accurately research a community like Africatown, to profile a subject with a story as compelling as Kossola’s, would be nearly impossible without immersion into the community itself, Hurston believed. Journalists had previously interviewed Kossola, but none received the level of access Hurston did by breaking the objective-observer format. With gifts of food (hams, peaches, and blue crab), along with reported compensation in the form of stipends provided by the philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason (who also funded Hurton’s research), Hurston gains Kossola’s trust and corroborates his accounts with historical record—not to verify or to confirm accuracy, but to serve as testament to his incredible memory. In their short time together, he rattles off native rites of passage, marriage customs, and community-based justice systems at the ready, even when the process of recollection elicits violent flashbacks. Hurston appended her research with Kossola’s childhood memory games and fables—rituals of remembrance honoring generations that surely wouldn’t have shown up in academic publications.

Hurston also makes a point to leave Kossola’s imperfect English intact—his story is transcribed almost entirely in dialect. Since he never learned to read or write in English, Kossola leans directly into the role of griot. Hurston gives him space to be subject, narrator, and protagonist alike. The complete work produces a harrowing image of a man who, in Hurston’s words, was “too deeply a pagan to fear death, but full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.”

With his native way of life still in mind, Kossola sat at a devastating crossroads upon becoming a free man, torn between the daunting prospect of returning to Africa or piecing together some semblance of personhood in America through marriage, religion, and community. “We meet together and we talk,” he tells Hurston. “We say we from cross de water so we go back where we come from … We work hard and try save our money. But it too much money we need … so we think we stay here. We doan try to get no king ’cause nobody among us ain’ born no king.”

After he married, Kossola underwent a steam-engine accident that left him disabled and unable to work, but more tragically, he endured the deaths of his wife and all six of his children. He weighed his options—given neither compensation for the accident nor reparations for the slave labor he provided—and decided to begin the process of maroonage: the creation of Africatown, a place of refuge and memory.

Native to Eatonville, Florida, a similarly marooned Southern community, Hurston considered African American folk tradition “the greatest cultural wealth on the continent.” She struggled with the idea of the “New Negro,” which placed an emphasis on excellence, dignity, or exceptionalism as a means to subvert old stereotypes. In the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance in which Barracoon was written, Kossola’s origin story and vernacular English were shameful to no small portion of middle-class black Americans. Compared to narratives in which slaves obtained freedom through an unlikely stroke of fortune or by overachieving, Kossola’s journey from Africa to Alabama offers little to be read as political agenda. There were no white abolitionists who could be seen as saviors; Kossola didn’t earn his freedom through literacy or religion, nor did he escape through a concerted revolt. Though he did convert to Christianity in America—co-founding what is now Union Missionary Baptist Church in Africatown—Kossola became his own free man through simple communal reflection and remembrance. In Barracoon, Hurston illuminates his resilience without romanticizing it as necessary in the search for self-realization.

Stories of marooned spaces like Eatonville and Africatown have been largely erased from American memory, and nearly extinguished through institutional neglect. Hurston challenges the nation’s narrow view of the African continent, the transatlantic slave trade, and the diasporic cultures that came as a result of it. Kossola’s account grants readers a three-dimensional recollection of African American history—free of lionization or fantasy, a sobering lens through which to process a rich, varied legacy.