Biography: Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston


Barracoon brilliantly illuminates the horror and injustices of slavery as it tells the true story of one of the last-known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade―abducted from Africa on the last “Black Cargo” ship to arrive in the United States.

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Back Cover Copy of Barracoon:

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past―memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

About Zora Neale Hurston:

Zora Neale Hurston was born on Jan. 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama. Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, when she was still a toddler. Her writings reveal no recollection of her Alabama beginnings. For Hurston, Eatonville was always home.

Growing up in Eatonville, in an eight-room house on five acres of land, Zora had a relatively happy childhood, despite frequent clashes with her preacher-father. Her mother, on the other hand, urged young Zora and her seven siblings to “jump at de sun.”

Hurston’s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end, though, when her mother died in 1904. Zora was only 13 years old.

After Lucy Hurston’s death, Zora’s father remarried quickly and seemed to have little time or money for his children. Zora worked a series of menial jobs over the ensuing years, struggled to finish her schooling, and eventually joined a Gilbert & Sullivan traveling troupe as a maid to the lead singer. In 1917, she turned up in Baltimore; by then, she was 26 years old and still hadn’t finished high school. Needing to present herself as a teenager to qualify for free public schooling, she lopped 10 years off her life–giving her age as 16 and the year of her birth as 1901. Once gone, those years were never restored: From that moment forward, Hurston would always present herself as at least 10 years younger than she actually was.

Zora also had a fiery intellect, and an infectious sense of humor. Zora used these talents–and dozens more–to elbow her way into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, befriending such luminaries as poet Langston Hughes and popular singer/actress Ethel Waters.

By 1935, Hurston–who’d graduated from Barnard College in 1928–had published several short stories and articles, as well as a novel (Jonah’s Gourd Vine) and a well-received collection of black Southern folklore (Mules and Men). But the late 1930s and early ’40s marked the real zenith of her career. She published her masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937; Tell My Horse, her study of Caribbean Voodoo practices, in 1938; and another masterful novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, in 1939. When her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published in 1942, Hurston finally received the well-earned acclaim that had long eluded her. That year, she was profiled in Who’s Who in America, Current Biography and Twentieth Century Authors. She went on to publish another novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, in 1948.

Still, Hurston never received the financial rewards she deserved. So when she died on Jan. 28, 1960–at age 69, after suffering a stroke–her neighbors in Fort Pierce, Florida, had to take up a collection for her funeral. The collection didn’t yield enough to pay for a headstone, however, so Hurston was buried in a grave that remained unmarked until 1973.

That summer, a young writer named Alice Walker traveled to Fort Pierce to place a marker on the grave of the author who had so inspired her own work.  Walker entered the snake-infested cemetery where Hurston’s remains had been laid to rest. Wading through waist-high weeds, she soon stumbled upon a sunken rectangular patch of ground that she determined to be Hurston’s grave. Walker chose a plain gray headstone. Borrowing from a Jean Toomer poem, she dressed the marker up with a fitting epitaph: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.

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