A Work by Zora Neale Hurston Will Finally Be Published

Posted May 3, 2018 11:52 p.m. EDT

In spring 1931, Zora Neale Hurston finished her first book, a 117-page manuscript titled “Barracoon.” It told the true story of Cudjo Lewis, an Alabama man who was believed to be the last living person captured in Africa and brought to America on a slave ship.

Publishers were unimpressed. One offered to buy it if she rewrote it “in language rather than dialect,” Hurston wrote in a letter to one of her benefactors. She refused, and “Barracoon” was never published.

But Hurston kept thinking about Lewis, whose story felt deeply personal to her. About a decade later, she wrote about him in “Dust Tracks on a Road,” her autobiography: “After 75 years, he still had that tragic sense of loss. That yearning for blood and cultural ties. That sense of mutilation. It gave me something to feel about.”

Now, nearly a century after she wrote it, “Barracoon” will be made widely available to the public for the first time, in a new edition published by Amistad, a HarperCollins’s imprint. The book’s release could have a profound impact on Hurston’s literary legacy. Hurston, who died in 1960, is best known for her works of fiction, including “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Moses, Man of the Mountain.” But she was also a groundbreaking anthropologist and ethnographer, one of the first in her field to record and study African-American folklore, at a time when most scholars ignored black culture, or dismissed it as primitive.

“This is going to make us look at her again as a social scientist,” said the scholar Deborah G. Plant, who wrote an introduction to “Barracoon.” “There’s still a lingering notion of Hurston as not quite serious, maybe gifted and intuitive, but not a sound scholar, not a respectable social scientist. But she really was ahead of her time.”

Hurston was first dispatched to Plateau, Alabama, in 1927, at the behest of Franz Boas, her mentor and professor at Barnard. Boas, an influential anthropologist, urged her to interview Lewis for The Journal of Negro History. Doing field research in the segregated South was challenging for a single African-American woman, and Hurston, who was then in her mid-30s, occasionally slept in her car when she couldn’t find a hotel that would rent her a room, and traveled with a pistol for protection.

It was a momentous assignment: “Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left,” she wrote in “Barracoon.” “The only man on earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home; the horrors of a slave raid; the barracoon; the Lenten tones of slavery; and who has 67 years of freedom in a foreign land behind him.”

Hurston returned to Alabama to speak to Lewis again in 1931, and spent several months visiting him, gradually coaxing out his story.

“Barracoon,” which comes out Tuesday, takes its title from the barracks that enslaved Africans were kept in before they were forced onto slave ships. It tells the story of Lewis’ capture by Dahomey warriors in West Africa, and how he was sold to slavers and taken to Mobile, Alabama, in 1859, more than 50 years after the U.S. Congress had outlawed the slave trade, in what Hurston describes as the “last deal in human flesh.”

He told Hurston about the roughly five years he spent enslaved, how he gained his freedom when Union soldiers appeared one day and told him he didn’t belong to anyone anymore, and how he joined together with a group of other former slaves and helped to establish Africatown, a community founded and run by Africans.

“Barracoon” unfolds largely as a monologue from Lewis, with an introduction and occasional interjections from Hurston. Some days, he didn’t feel like talking, so she helped him with chores. Other days, he grew exhausted by her questions and told her she wanted to know too much. At times, he was so overcome by painful memories that he couldn’t speak, like when he recalled the day his village was attacked by Dahomey warriors, who beheaded victims they deemed too weak to be sold, and smoked their victims’ heads to preserve them.

“His agony was so acute that he became inarticulate,” Hurston wrote. She would bring him food, a basket of peaches or a Virginia ham, and tell him stories to break the ice. When Lewis was feeling chatty, he could go on for hours, and Hurston cedes the narrative to him for long, meandering stretches.

“She wanted us to hear his voice and she kept herself out of it as much as possible,” said Alice Walker, who wrote a foreword to “Barracoon.” “She knew it was important for us to hear from him.”

Scholars of Hurston’s work have long known of the manuscript’s existence, but few recognized its significance. Some thought Hurston’s historical research was sloppy, even unethical. Before she wrote “Barracoon,” Hurston detailed her conversations with Lewis in an article published in The Journal of Negro History, titled “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver.” Parts of the article borrowed from another scholarly work, Emma Langdon Roche’s “Historic Sketches of the South,” without proper attribution, and the appearance of plagiarism cast a shadow over “Barracoon.” Robert E. Hemenway, who published a biography of Hurston in 1977, treated “Barracoon” as an extension of the article, and argued that Hurston had taken creative liberties, recreating Lewis’ story “as an artist rather than as a folklorist or historian.”

After she failed to publish “Barracoon,” Hurston threw herself into other projects. She wrote “Mules and Men,” a collection of African-American folklore. She traveled to Jamaica and Haiti to research voodoo, and wrote about the experience in “Tell My Horse.” In Haiti, she wrote her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in a feverish seven weeks. In her final decades, she slipped into obscurity. She worked as a substitute teacher and house cleaner in Florida to pay the bills. When she died at 69, she was buried in an unmarked grave.

“Barracoon” was never really lost. It was preserved in the archives at Howard University, in a collection of papers from one of Hurston’s professors and mentors, Alain Locke.

But it wasn’t until recently that the executors of Hurston’s trust began considering the commercial potential for “Barracoon,” and the cultural impact it could have. Lois Hurston Gaston, a grandniece of Hurston’s and one of the trustees, said that in August 2016, they began re-evaluating Hurston’s archives and looking for previously unpublished works, and Cudjo Lewis’ story jumped out.

“Racial issues have not gone away in our country, and we felt that this was an opportune time to publish ‘Barracoon,’” Gaston said. “It’s an important time in our cultural history, and here we have the story of Cudjo Lewis to remind us of what happens when we lose sight of our humanity.”

Hurston referred to Lewis by his African name, Kossola. Once, when she addressed him that way, tears welled up in his eyes, and he told her, “Nobody don’t callee me my name from cross de water but you."