Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” Zora Neale Hurston. Ed. Deborah G. Plant. Amistad, 2018.
Because I am no longer in Academia, I only want to post some reactions to issues raised by the publication of this document from the manuscripts of Zora Neale Hurston. If you want a full review, go to the usual suspects in the literary world.
Whining about the appropriation of Emma Longhorn Roche’s Historical Sketches of the South without scholarly attribution strikes me as very ironic in a text that gathers folklore and history from a tribal African griot. All kinds of excuses from literary professors rush to defend Zora Neale Hurston for this betrayal of the scientific requirements that Frank Boas craved to justify the developing field of modern anthropology. What fascinates me is not her plagiarism, but the fact that she no longer regarded Cudjo’s life story as property belonging to anybody other than Cudjo. Whoever recorded or made use of his story before Hurston’s interviews with him had no right of ownership over the text that they had written. That is why she insisted on recording their encounters step by step, preserving how Cudjo spoke: his moods, his labor, his recalcitrance before some prissy college-educated female dilettante from the Harlem Renaissance.
The notion of scholarly citation for direct quotes or summaries is still the hardest things to teach undergraduates at college, not to mention third-world exchange students from China, Africa, and all over the world. After all, if someone wrote what you always felt but never could find words to express, why change the words to pretend otherwise? I’m sure Shakespeare would have agreed, and we all know how Harold Bloom feels about the importance of reading that great thief. No, what the Academy objects to is that Zora Neale Hurston cheated, and got away with it. Not only that, she got paid for her rascally deceptions.
Personally, I am glad she did. It prepared her for what would become canonical masterpieces, Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God, among others, which, I should remind you, the Academy ignored for over a decade until long after her own death and burial in an unmarked grave. Should I footnote this, with praise for Alice Walker?
EXCHANGE BUT NOT BARTER
“Barracoon” means “stockade,” where recent purchases were housed. Captain Jim drew from this illegal chattel those who would work hard for him and whom he would reward by not mistreating. Kossola became Cudjo, who, by dint of outliving everybody else, became the rarest of commodities, the last living cargo from the slave ship Clotilda.
It is to Hurston’s credit that she frames Cudjo’s stories within a series of exchanges. That these are important she makes clear by repeating them at the end of her text:
Some days we ate great quantities of clingstone peaches. and talked. Sometimes we ate watermelons and talked. Once it was a huge mass of steamed crabs. Sometimes we just talked. At other times neither was possible, he just chased me away. He wanted to work in his garden or fix his fences. He couldn’t be bothered. The present was too urgent to let the past intrude. But on the whole, he was glad to see me, and we became warm friends (93).
Having been an object of barter, what Cudjo most appreciated was being treated as a human. Friendship was Zora Neale Hurston’s gift for telling his stories. It was only after several visits that Cudjo took a peach from his tree to offer Hurston, and at that point this encounter became more than research.
To exchange is also to change one another by the gesture of giving. This is no longer mercantilism, that capitalistic quid pro quo where everybody goes home feeling as if having bested one another. This is not what was going on between Coujo and Hurston. They were becoming family.
It was on a hot Saturday afternoon that I came to photograph Kossula.
“I’m glad you take my picture. I want see how I look. Once long time ago somebody come take my picture but they never give me one. You give me one.”
I agreed. He went inside to dress for the picture. When he came out I saw that he had put on his best suit but removed his shoes. “I want to look lak I in Africa. ‘cause dat where I want to be,” he explained.
He also asked to be photographed in the cemetery among the graves of his family (89)
I doubt I need to remind any one that among tribal people. to have your image “captured,” meant that someone had taken a piece of your soul. What enormous trust Cudjo gave to Hurston must most certainly have changed her scholarly idealization of objectivity. Only a storyteller could better embody the truth of human experience, and a storyteller was what Hurston was about to become. She herself had been transformed by her encounter with Kossola.
[July 10, 2018]