When I first learned Barracoon was going to be published, I was conflicted. I was elated because the story of Cudjo Lewis, the last living African to arrive in America on the slave ship Clotilda, and his years as a slave is a story that absolutely needed to be told. But I was nervous about reading it because whenever I read a book or watch a film about slavery, I get unbelievably angry. Knowing that men, women and children were stolen, sold, beaten, raped and received the harshest treatment imaginable solely because they were Black boils my blood to no end. But I made sure that I purchased this important book and vowed to get through it no matter what. I am so very glad I did.
In Barracoon, Ms. Hurston met with Cudjo Lewis to hear and record his story over a three-month period. He didn’t always talk when she arrived, sometimes tending to his garden or fixing a fence that needed mending, lost in his memories. Other times, Mr. Lewis was as talkative as can be, laying out his life first as a young boy in Africa, to a slave, to a free man with a wife and children. Ms. Hurston told Mr. Lewis’ story in his own words without changing the way he spoke, his dialect or accent. That was a brilliant move because I felt like I was sitting with him on his porch, listening as he described the raid on his African village that put him and his fellow villagers on the road to American slavery, fifty years after it was outlawed. Mr. Lewis took his time telling his story, which was the reward Ms. Hurston received for her patience with him. She never pushed, even when he sent her away with nothing. I can’t imagine what the book would have been or if it would even exist had she forced him to talk before he was ready.
Barracoon is a very short book but don’t let it’s lack of pages fool you. It packs a serious punch and is a compelling read thanks to Ms. Hurston’s painstaking attention to detail and commitment to making sure Mr. Lewis’ story was told his way. And for those readers wishing to learn even more, there is also a foreword by Alice Walker, as well as an appendix containing a host of additional information. Barracoon may be about a time in history that is hard to read about, but it is a necessary read, nonetheless. I highly recommend it.