For my first Book of the Month feature, I chose Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by the ubiquitous Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. For those who don’t know, Zora was an African-American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker who portrayed racial struggles in the early 20th-century American South. Best known for writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, a 1937 novel that unabashedly explored a Black woman’s sexual awakening in the rural South, Zora’s works primarily concerned the African-American experience and her own struggles as an African-American woman.
Barracoon is a non-fiction work based on Zora’s own interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last living survivor of the Middle Passage. Lewis, whose African name was Kossola (also spelled as “Kossula”), came to America aboard the last ship that brought slaves across the Atlantic. Although Zora’s interviews with Lewis were conducted in the early 1930s, Barracoon wasn’t published until 2018. Zora tried to get it published back in the 1930s, but the manuscript was rejected in part because it was written in the vernacular that Lewis spoke, and also in part because it described the involvement of other African people in the business of the Atlantic slave trade.
The Barracoon manuscript was available only to scholars for many decades; it remained at the Alain Locke Collection at the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University for over half a century after Zora’s 1960 death.
I chose Barracoon because Zora’s early 20th-century struggle in getting her work published (Black intellectuals and political leaders frowned on the book laying bare Africans’ involvement in the slave trade, and publishing companies demanded she rewrite the book in “language rather than dialect”) mirrors the classist, racist, and misogynistic struggles that many Black women writers face even today. The content of Lewis’ recollections — from his days as a joyful youth who looked forward to being a soldier with a wife and family, to the day he, at 19, was forced onto the Coltilde ship by an enemy tribe working in league with the White slavers — are priceless as especially vital to American history because, while most slave narratives focused on life in this country — a la Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave — Lewis’ interviews focused on his life before he was stolen and illegally brought to America.
Despite the untold necessity and meaningful representation of Zora’s methodical field work in interviewing Lewis, it took over 85 years for Barracoon to see the light of day. How many writers today — whether they are classically trained cultural anthropologists as Zora was, or whether they exist simply as some kind of “after-thought minority” — encounter this same struggle? In particular, how many women of color writers face the uphill battle of having a transformative story to tell, or of having groundbreaking insight into a a field of life misunderstood by the majority, but instead of being given a platform, their stories are instead left to languish, untold, for decades? How many of these stories have remained in the dark? And how much longer must these stories — and their authors — remain quieted?
Zora Neale Hurston was a trained anthropologist who studied under none other than Franz Boas. She was an educated writer who received her B.A. from Barnard College. She was an author whose works covered a vast spectrum of of African-American experience in the early 20th century: interviews from living former slaves; the sexuality of Black women living in the rural American South; the dysfunction of marriages in multi-generational African-American communities; ethnographical African-American folklore; and even the subversion of highly-regarded Biblical stories in an African-American context.
None of that changed the fact that Zora died penniless and alone in 1960, with some of her most metamorphic literary works remaining unseen by the public eye for decades afterwards.
How many Zoras are amongst us today? How many women of color writers have lived and died — before, during, and after Zora’s time — without us ever having had the pleasure of being taught what they know about the nuances of minority womanhood? How many women of color writers have the voice with which to speak, but are forced into years, decades, and centuries of silence?
How many women writers have been erased from the face of history without us ever having been the wiser?
If you have the pleasure of knowing or being acquainted with a woman writer or a woman of color who is a writer, or if you have the privilege of having access to the Internet, I challenge you to take the time to become familiar with women of color writers. Buy their works. Read their books, their poetry, their anthropological findings. Watch their TEDx talks, their scholarly lectures, their CNN interviews. Even if you don’t understand what they have to say, or appreciate what information their nuanced work brings to the table, give them the same accord, the same attention, the same acknowledgement that White male writers from centuries ago are given. Zora Neale Hurston is one of many, many, many women of color writers who are now experiencing an all-too proper, and far-too-long-in-the-making resurgence of notoriety.
Don’t let her be the last.