Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"
By Zora Neale Hurston
Cudjo (Kossula) Lewis has been seared into my memory. His homesickness: unforgettable.
Barracoon is the first of four assigned reads in a Zora Neale Hurston reading group I joined earlier this year. (Hosted by the Center for Fiction.) The first of hers for me, ever. We met to discuss it just before the pandemic forced us to quarantine, and I walked away enriched by the honest and open conversation between our group of nine.
Cudjo's retelling of his experience is painful, enlightened, soft, deep.
My understanding of African history, American history and the transatlantic slave trade has widened. My sense of origin has shifted too, his account serving as a tiny window into the experience of that of my ancestors.
I've wanted to write about this book since February, and that I can't wholly describe its import and impact has held me back. Alice Walker says it beautifully.
From Alice Walker's Foreword "Those Who Love Us Never Leave Us Alone With Our Grief"
"And then, the story of Cudjo Lewis's life after Emancipation. His happiness with "freedom," helping to create a community, a church, building his own house. His tender love for his wife, Seely, and their children. The horrible deaths that follow. We see a man so lonely for Africa, so lonely for his family, we are struck with the realization that he is naming something we ourselves work hard to avoid: how lonely we are too in this still foreign land: lonely for our true culture, our people, our singular connection to a specific understanding of the Universe. And that what we long for, as in Cudjo Lewis's case, is gone forever. But we see something else: the nobility of a soul that has suffered to the point almost of erasure, and still it struggles to be whole, present, giving. Growing in love, deepening in understanding. Cudjo's wisdom becomes so apparent, toward the end of his life, that neighbors ask him to speak to them in parables. Which he does. Offering peace.
Here is the medicine:
That though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going.
It may be true, and often is, that every person we hold dear is taken from us. Still. From moment to moment, we watch our beans and our watermelons grow. We plant. We hoe. We harvest. We share with neighbors. If a young anthropologist appears with two hams and gives us one, we look forward to enjoying it.
Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go.
Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears."