Barracoon is a first-account nonfiction story of Kossula, the last surviving African brought to America as a slave. He was only 19 years old when he was captured and sold to white men for transport. Although his story is an invaluable, historical document, the author, Zora Neale Hurston, never found a publisher in her lifetime because they wanted it rewritten in a “language rather than dialect.” But, 87 years later, Kossula’s life story is now available via audio, eBook, and paperback. I downloaded the audio version and was mesmerized from the beginning.
Publishers overlooked Zora’s work because Western culture prefers an objective observer stance when recounting stories of others. This style results in completely unbiased information; the feelings of the writer are removed and the goal is to focus only on the facts. If you were educated in America, you are familiar and encouraged to adopt this style.
Zora chose to write Barracoon in a completely different style, the participant-observer stance. Just like the objective observer stance, she did not oppose herself in the narrative. However, she let Kossula tell his story authentically and with feeling, in the way he saw fit. She wrote the book in the first person from his point of view and used his vernacular diction and idiomatic expressions. It felt so real, I closed my eyes and pictured everything he described.
Traditional publishers weren’t the only people who took issue with Zora’s choice. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance criticized her use of “slave dialect” and accused her of “not advancing the movement.” But Zora wasn’t just an author, she was an anthropologist and was dedicated to preserving the rich culture and unique dialect of African Americans. Even though I get where the Renaissance writers were coming from, telling our stories should never be about the appeasement of others, especially those of our oppressors.
Because Kossula was a young man when he arrived in Alabama, the book began with his life in Africa. He spoke of the political order, legal structure, and relationships among his tribe. Of course, his accounts were the direct opposite of what Western civilization would have you believe. It was refreshing and empowering to hear how our people once thrived.
(Oh! His slave name was Cudjoe Lewis but his mama named him Kossula so I’m a call him Kossula!)
One of the most appalling accounts of KOSSULA’S story was the treatment he and the other Africans endured by the other slaves. The black slaves who had served for generations considered themselves coloreds, not Africans, and referred to the Africans that recently arrived as barbarians. The coloreds did not socialize, help, or assist them with acclimating to their new lives…except for the pastor. Once he saw the Africans had built a church, he felt it was his responsibility to guide them to Jesus. Aside from the input of the pastor, the Africans built their own community and remained separate from the others. The community they founded, AfricaTown, remains today and is located three miles from Mobile.
“We Afficans try raise our chillun right. When dey say we ign’nant we go together and build de school house. Den de county send us a teacher. We Afficky men doan wait lak de other colored people till de white folks gittee ready to build us a school. We build one for ourself den astee de county to send us de teacher.”Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo
As Kossula recounts his life and what he witnessed along the way, you’ll notice the through-line common in every African American’s journey. And you’ll come to the same conclusion as I…shit ain’t change.
Oh, and Common is supposedly set to turn Kossula’s life into a TV series. Can you imagine!