Historical Biography/Memoir

Imagine if you will that you are walking along the streets of your town. You’re young, healthy, able to work. You show up for a job each day, hang out with your friends on the weekends, maybe go see your mom on Sundays to get your laundry done and have a home cooked meal. You run your errands after work, drop off your Amazon returns at the post office, hit the liquor store, stop to buy some milk and bread. Life is normal, right? Just as you’re paying for your groceries, you and everybody around you is jumped by unknown assailants. The healthy and young are sorted out. The children, the females of breeding age, and the males who can do manual labor are separated from the aged and sick. You may very well being standing there with your family or your friends, and suddenly strangers appear and start picking out the best of the gathered prospects. Your children are ripped from your arms, your spouse is taken one way and you are taken another. Some people are killed outright in front of your very eyes. Off you go to parts unknown, and who knows where the rest of the people you know will end up. You are allowed no communication and have no way to ever find the ones you love or even know what happened to them. Most likely, you’ll never see them or your homeland again. You are forced into permanent cuffs and made to work as a slave for the rest of your life. Just like that. I can’t even wrap my mind around it.

This is the story we all think we know, but most of us think about it in the abstract. We know groups of people were enslaved, that slavery was a horrible blight on the history of humanity, and that it was fairly recent in American history when you compare us to the thousands of years of other civilizations. We know that slaves influenced music and food and other parts of American culture, especially in the Deep South. There are, of course, existing slave narratives telling the stories of the individuals who lived through such a horrific experience and lived to see themselves set free, but few are as engaging and personal as Hurston’s account in Barracoon.

Cudjo Lewis shared his story with Zora Neale Hurston in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Hurston was a fledgling anthropologist at the beginning of her career, an unknown name sent to interview Lewis by famed anthropologist Frank Boas. Lewis was 86-years-old and living in Alabama.

Look at this man’s face and imagine him as a young man, living his daily life. Kossula, the real name of Cudjo Lewis, was in his village admiring the young women and going about his daily routine on the day before his life was changed forever. He had been training as a warrior, his father was an officer to the King, his village had laws and traditions and a rich culture. He had a good and full life. The next day, another tribe raided his village, massacred many, and sold the survivors to slave traders. Kossula, about 19 at the time, watched as his village was overrun by the men of the neighboring King. This King dealt in slavery with white traders. Kossula was in the midst of terror, watching as people’s heads were ripped off, faces were ripped off, his own King was beheaded and much of this was done by women warriors. Kossula never saw his family again and was taken away, marched for days, and taken to a barracoon which was a holding area for slaves. Kossula had never slept on the ground before, he cried for his parents, and watched as the other villages either fought or surrendered to the King who conquered his people. Kossula boarded the last slave trading ship, the Clotilda, and headed for a strange land called America. His clothes were stripped off, and he was displayed to prospective buyers. He had never gone without clothing before and was aghast that he was assumed to be a savage because of a nakedness that was not his choice.

It’s an incredible story, and Hurston writes in the vernacular that was common practice at the time. She didn’t just interview Lewis, she built a relationship with him by taking him peaches or watermelon, insecticide for mosquitoes, or helped him clean his church. Sometimes Lewis didn’t feel like talking about his past, and he and Hurston either sat in companionable silence or talked of other things. I recommend the audiobook because I think the flow of language is wonderful – you’re right there on his porch, eating sweet, cold melon and hearing his stories of an incredible life.

If they are any blessings to take away, Lewis at least seemed to have happy memories for his first two decades of life. As much as Lewis suffered once he came to America, his remembrances of his old life and the life he should have had were still hard for him to bear when he had his conversations with Hurston. As this NPR article mentions, “That pain stayed with Lewis for his whole life… So often in the interview process, he would weep, or he would be so lost in the memories of what happened to him, he could not speak.” Lewis was a slave for five and a half years before slaves were freed. He worked hard to build a life for himself afterwards, married and had children, suffered indignities and slights, and had the grievous misfortune to suffer the loss of four of his children. His story breaks your soul and then heals it again with the humbleness of his own.

There’s a link to a news story on Lewis’s legacy here and another article on the history of Barracoon’s publication here. Do yourself a favor and read this book.

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