Zora Neale Hurston’s first book was written in 1931 but wasn’t published until 2018. Not yet a fiction writer, Hurston wrote Barracoon (Amistad, $24.99) as a budding cultural anthropologist hoping to add a much needed chapter to the historical record on slavery, which still contains little from the point of view of the enslaved. She spent several months in Alabama meeting with eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis (c. 1841-1935), the last living African survivor of the Middle Passage. Prompted by Hurston to recount his memories of slavery, Cudjo, or as he preferred to be called, Kossola, his original name, assumed the role of the griot and delivered an extraordinary series of stories. Starting with his early life, Kossola, the second son of a second wife, cataloged the traditional African ways he grew up with, and that he missed to his dying day. He then delivered a harrowing account of being captured at age nineteen by members of a rival African kingdom and sold with some one hundred fellow villagers to Americans who illegally smuggled them to the U.S. where they were sold again—into slavery. Hurston wisely lets Kossola tell his own story, and she brilliantly conveys the lilt and cadences of his patois. His voice is mesmerizing, and the terrible grief and loneliness he suffered is at times nearly unbearable.
Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston’