The Story of the Last Slave

by Chris Mack

July 2, 2018

I’ve just finished reading an absolutely amazing book that is currently on the New York Times bestseller list: Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave, by Zora Neale Hurston.

Zora Neale Hurston? Is she still writing? No. Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960 at the age of 69 (she was penniless and buried in an unmarked grave – but that is a different story). The book is based on interviews that Hurston conducted in 1927-1928 and was finished in 1931. The story of the book’s making is not as interesting as the book itself, but is worth telling.

Hurston was a late bloomer, academically. Born in 1891 in Eatonville, Florida, she didn’t finish school during her childhood, graduating high school at the age of 27. She started college at Howard University at age 28. Possibly embarrassed by this late start she regularly told people she was born in 1901. After transferring to Barnard College in Manhattan and studying anthropology, she made collecting black folk tales and other stories a part of her life’s work. With support from the college and a wealthy patron, she was able to make several trips to the south for this purpose in 1927 and 1928. Much of that field work came to fruition in her first nonfiction book, Mules and Men, published in 1935. During these trips she also spent two months interviewing Oluale Kossola, known also by his slaveholder-assigned name Cudjo Lewis.

Kossola was a part of the human cargo of the last slaver to bring kidnapped Africans to the US, an illegal trade that was still too common in 1859/1860 when Kossola was enslaved. By 1927 he was the last remaining freed slave in America who was born in Africa. Unlike most other stories told by ex-slaves, Kossola’s started with the African side of the slave trade, including a brutal war and kidnapping by a neighboring tribe whose greed was fueled by slave-trade profits.

Kossola’s story, told in his own words and supplemented by Hurston’s historical research, is exceptionally compelling. As with Mules and Men, Hurston insisted on transcribing the words of her interview subjects phonetically to give authenticity to their stories. Many publishers assumed this language would turn off white readers and Hurston was unable to find a publisher for Barracoon. While the manuscript has been available for scholarly research at Howard University, it was not published until 2018.

Hurston was the first black graduate of Barnard College, in 1928. Her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a masterpiece written in just seven weeks while doing field work in Haiti in 1937. The influence of her anthropological work on Their Eyes Were Watching God is obvious, and part of the reason why Hurston is known today as a “Genius of the South”.

Cudjo Lewis (Image from teh Erik OverbyCollection)

Cudjo Lewis (African Name: Oluale Kossola). Image from the Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

 

Chris Mack is a writer in Austin, Texas.

Copyright 2018, Chris Mack.

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