Barracoon is absolutely one of the best books of 2018, though it was written some 90 years ago. It’s a previously unpublished work from one of America’s literary giants – Zora Neale Hurston, most famously known for Their Eyes Were Watching God (another personal favorite).
In Barracoon, Hurston relays the story of Oluale Kossula, known locally as Cudjo Lewis. Kossula was one of the last survivors of the Clotilda, the final slave schooner to have transported kidnapped Africans to the United States. One of the most unique things about his story is in its timing. Kossula was kidnapped after growing up in West Africa, sold into slavery just prior to the Civil War, and after a few years he is eventually freed as the reconstruction era begins in the south. As such, Kossula details stories from his childhood in Africa, his years as a slave in the south, and from his life as a free man – albeit one who was torn apart from his beloved homeland.
The story itself is written entirely in Kossula’s vernacular with very few interventions from Hurston, except to explain the circumstances around individual interviews or her perspectives on Kossula’s thoughts and feelings. Those who have read Their Eyes Were Watching God will be familiar with this move from Hurston, but the effect is all the more intimate when done in a historical piece. Reading Kossula’s own words and manner of speech gives helps reveal a character and depth of spirit which might be occluded by other methods.
The book is also fascinating from a methodological standpoint. Hurston goes to great lengths – both professionally and emotionally – to build her relationship with Kossula, and the genuine care she has both for him and his story are evident throughout the text. The result is a master class for anyone interested in conducting rigorous and thoughtful qualitative work.
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