Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God strikes me as such a seminal and important work in so many ways: the use of black vernacular, the portrayal of female autonomy, the portrayal of black female autonomy at that, her insistence on writing a story without politicizing, and so on. I fell in love with this story and then I fell in love with Hurston, so when I saw that Barracoon was finally being published, I ordered a copy immediately.
In Barracoon, Hurston interviews Cudjo Lewis and 86 year old man who came to America on the Clotilda, a slave ship operating after the slave trade was outlawed. The ship, and hence Cudjo and the other Africans on the ship, is generally believed to be the very last slaver to cross the Atlantic. When Hurston began her interview with Cudjo, he was the last living survivor of the crossing. Three-months later she had his story.
And it is heart-wrenching. Cudjo speaks with Hurston, tells her his stories, in a way highly reminiscent of traditional oral storytelling with multiple short tales interspersed with lore and asides. He moves from his life in Africa when he was a child through the attack on his village that led to his capture, fascinating tales that really highlight the oft-played-down fact that Cudjo’s life did not begin as an American slave; he was forcibly taken from his life and thrown into another. The story moves on to his imprisonment and subsequent “selection” by American slavers, across the Middle Passage and on to his enslavement in America, his eventual settling in Africatown, and the tragedies of his life while free.
I listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, and in one episode he analyzes why country music is so much sadder than rock music. His answer: specificity. Gladwell argues: “I think the thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity.” And I can’t help but agree. Hearing about Cudjo’s life, the details that make a life story real and personal, is so much more powerful than objective histories and rolls of numbers.
And Hurston ups the ante of specificity with a strong infusion of concrete details of her own. She places the reader on Cudjo’s porch, eating watermelon and peaches with the two of them. And she ups the ante with authenticity. Like in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston captures Cudjo’s own dialect, his own personal and cultural way of speaking. Apparently when Hurston originally wanted to publish this story, she was told she would have to translate the work into the common (aka white) vernacular. She refused.
If you haven’t read Barracoon yet, buy it now. If you haven’t read Hurston yet, what are you waiting for?