In the current Christian Century I review Zora Neale Hurston’s “new” book, Barracoon. It’s the record of her interviews with the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade, a man whose English name was Cudjo Lewis and whose African name was Kossola. He tells Hurston about his ancestors, his abduction by the King of Dahomey and purchase by American slavers violating the prohibition on importing slaves, and his life after slavery:
Along the way, Kossola becomes a Christian, marries, and fathers five children. He is disabled in a train accident for which he is awarded a $650 judgment by a court (the train did not signal or slow down as it passed through the city and struck him) that the railroad never pays. One of his sons is killed by a sheriff’s deputy, another in a similar train accident. He outlives his wife and children and, bereft of everyone that made his strange land a home, is “full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.”
Hurston’s singular ear for the beauty and particularity of speech and memory brings the story to life. Cudjo Lewis is a person between worlds. Randomly snatched up in a great historic wave, he is yet distinct from it, neither drowning resignedly nor swimming pointlessly against it but surviving. In this way he foreshadows Hurston’s fictional protagonists, whose enduring, distinctive humanity is both protest and proof against the forces arrayed against them.
I can distinctly remember the dissatisfaction of my high school classmates who were assigned Their Eyes Were Watching God in 11th grade (in the AP section we read, I dunno, Ethan Frome at the same time). “The book written in another language,” people were calling it. I wonder if vernacular literature is an easier lift today, or if it’s gotten harder. In any case, I can’t really blame them–young people who, like me, were mostly shielded from the reality of black humanity and culture.
By the dumbest of luck I had started gaining an appreciation for vernacular literature through the Blues, which led me to Langston Hughes. But I wouldn’t get to Their Eyes Were Watching God until a few years later, when it was assigned for a class at Deep Springs. It was a revelation. Here was a book that was not, in any sense, about me (as I suppose Ethan Frome was), but that invited me in all the same. Finding the “universality” of a novel so far outside of oneself is something that people like me have to do some work to experience, but once done, it stays with you. I think I read it three times in two years, and tracked down and read Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Mules and Men in the same period. From there, a decade and a half ago or more, I went in different directions. But reading Barracoon brought back memories.
The work that Hurston did, along with her early sponsors and supervisors Carter Woodson and Franz Boas, helped to rescue some portion of a great and beautiful literature from tragic obscurity. It’s fitting that Hurston started out as a researcher but, as the objects of her study escaped the boundaries of anthropology, became a novelist. On her birthday I usually tweet something along the lines of “There are two kinds of public intellectuals in America: Those who’ve read Zora Neale Hurston and those who can get out of my face,” and I pretty much mean it. She gave people, myself very much included, access to a part of our national literary tradition that was so long scorned to the extent that it was even known. For that, we are all in her debt.