Oral history is more than just long-form life interviews that sit in an archive, waiting to be discovered. These narratives serve as the backbone to documentaries, radio pieces, and literature, non-fiction and fiction alike. They are peppered into museum exhibitions and films. And once in a while, a book comes along that illuminates a story too powerful to remain unheard.
Join us on Tuesday, May 21 for our inaugural oral history book club. We'll be reading Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston. It's a non-fiction book based on her 1927 interview with Cudjo Lewis, the last living survivor of the middle passage.
From the author of the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God comes a landmark publication – a never-before-published work of the American experience.
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to visit eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis, a survivor of the Clotilda, the last slaver known to have made the transatlantic journey. Illegally brought to the United States, Cudjo was enslaved fifty years after the slave trade was outlawed.
At the time, Cudjo was the only person alive who could recount this integral part of the nation’s history. As a cultural anthropologist, Hurston was eager to hear about these experiences firsthand. But the reticent elder didn’t always speak when she came to visit. Sometimes he would tend his garden, repair his fence, or appear lost in his thoughts.
Hurston persisted, though, and during an intense three-month period, she and Cudjo communed over her gifts of peaches and watermelon, and gradually Cudjo, a poetic storyteller, began to share heartrending memories of his childhood in Africa; the attack by female warriors who slaughtered his townspeople; the horrors of being captured and held in the barracoons of Ouidah for selection by American traders; the harrowing ordeal of the Middle Passage aboard the Clotilda as “cargo” with more than one hundred other souls; the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War; and finally his role in the founding of Africatown.
Barracoon employs Hurston’s skills as both an anthropologist and a writer, and brings to life Cudjo’s singular voice, in his vernacular, in a poignant, powerful tribute to the disremembered and the unaccounted. This profound work is an invaluable contribution to our history and culture.