Contraband Flesh: On Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon


Arts & Culture

Zora Neale Hurston’s previously unpublished anthropological text Barracoon will be released on May 8, 2018. 


Zora Neale Hurston, Kossula: Last of the Takoi Slaves, stills from a black-and-white film in 16mm, 5 minutes. © The Margaret Mead Collection. Arrangement by Josh Begley.


On May 10, 1928, Zora Neale Hurston wrote a letter to Alain Locke, the self-professed dean of the Harlem Renaissance and Hurston’s longtime collaborator, frequent pen pal, and sometimes mentor. She reports the arrival of her diploma from Barnard College, where she studied anthropology; commiserates with Locke about the drudgery of teaching; and begs for a visit—Hurston includes a detailed description of the “sea animal graveyards” that she’s discovered in the phosphate mines at Mulberry, Florida. Hurston enclosed within the envelope a few objects: “two vertebrae of pre-historic sea animals” excavated from the “deep depressions” of the seafloor and a small piece of wood. “The bit of wood,” she writes, “is from the ship in Mobile Bay. (Cudjoe Lewis).”

In May 1859, Cudjoe Lewis, along with 116 other Africans, was captured from Dahomey, in what is today Benin, and sold to Captain Foster. Foster was traveling at the behest of the Mehear brothers, three American slave traders who were originally from Maine but had relocated to Alabama where they operated a shipyard.  Three months later, the slave ship Clotilde docked in Mobile Bay, where the newly enslaved were sold. Because the transatlantic slave trade was abolished some fifty years earlier, once the Mehears landed on U.S. soil, the ship was “scuttled and fired.” Its remains were left to sink to the bottom of Mobile Bay, where, like Hurston’s fish vertebrae, it would await discovery.

By the early twentieth century, Cudjoe (or Cudjo, or Kossula) Lewis—believed to be the last survivor of the Middle Passage and the only living survivor of the Clotilde—was, to borrow a phrase from Hurston’s biographer Robert Hemenway, a “major scientific resource.” Anthropologists and historians eager to hear a firsthand account of slavery and the Middle Passage clamored to meet him. Locke included “T’Appin (Terrapin)” and “B’rere Rabbit Fools Buzzard,” transcribed versions of two of Lewis’s folktales, in his seminal anthology The New Negro. As the anthropologist Arthur Huff Fauset, who collected and recorded Lewis’s stories and also contributed an essay to the volume, explained, “There is a strong need of a scientific collecting of Negro folklore before the original sources of this material altogether lapse.” Lewis, it follows, was an exemplary original source.

The transatlantic slave trade in particular, and antiblackness more generally, comprises formal and informal tactics that transform humans into property and black bodies into evidence of white superiority; or, in the words of Hurston, of logics that create “contraband flesh” out of black life. On one hand, Hurston’s peculiar gift—vertebrae, ship wood—invited Locke to hold, collect, and possess a piece of the Middle Passage and American slavery. On the other, Hurston’s strategic phrasing—“The bit of wood is from the ship in Mobile Bay. (Cudjoe Lewis)”—disaggregates the relationship between object, evidence, and blackness. Rather than securing the metonymic relationship between Lewis’s life and wood—between a man and a ship, between blackness and object—Hurston makes the strategic decision to place Lewis’s name in parentheses, after the punctuation. Housed within the parenthetical, Lewis is quite literally positioned as tangential to, rather than equivalent with, the remains of a ship. Hurston’s grammar asks us to consider and then suspend the racial calculus that would allow Lewis to be positioned as interchangeable with a piece of wood, an inanimate object, a piece of property that can be collected, traded, bought, and sold. More simply put, in Hurston’s syntactic structure Lewis cannot be reduced to an object, the piece of wood that should make material what otherwise exists in memories, stories, and oral histories. And thus, in this brief moment, Hurston evokes the question that she would grapple with over and over in her career: How do you produce evidence of black life without reducing black folk to inanimate facts and data?


Hurston’s career spanned decades and crisscrossed mediums, disciplines, and expressive modes. She was an anthropologist, dramatist, theater producer, novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and singer, but she nevertheless returned to Lewis at nearly every stage of her career.

In 1926, the historian Carter G. Woodson sent her to Alabama to collect information from Lewis for an article that would appear in The Journal of Negro History. In October of 1927, the journal published Hurston’s short overview of Lewis’s life, “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver.” As it turned out, the story was neither Lewis’s nor Hurston’s. Rather, Hurston’s submission, a historical overview that primarily recounted Lewis’s life in Africa, was a highly plagiarized version of Emma Langdon Roche’s 1914 book, Historic Sketches of the Old South. Apparently, neither the publishers nor Hurston’s benefactors ever discovered the odd act of piracy.

In late 1927, Hurston returned to the American South for a three-year research trip. Charlotte Osgood Mason, Hurston’s white patron who she fondly, if problematically, referred to as Godmother, sponsored this second sojourn. In December of that year, Mason equipped Hurston with two hundred dollars a month, a car, a motion-picture camera, and the directive to “collect all information, both written and oral, concerning the music, poetry, folk-lore, literature, hoodoo, conjure, manifestations of art and kindred subjects relating to and exiting among North American negroes.” Hurston would end up traveling through Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana collecting material that would form the basis of her 1935 collection, Mules and Men. But before stopping in turpentine camps and mining towns, Hurston planned to visit Lewis.  In a letter to Langston Hughes dated December 9, 1927, she sketches the beginning of her itinerary: “I am leaving for the South on Wed. 14th on the 3:40 from the Penn Station enroute to Mobile, I shall see Cudjoe first as he is old and may die before I get to him otherwise.”

Hurston didn’t arrive at Lewis’s home until the summer of 1928, but she came armed with the sixteen-millimeter handheld camera. Over the course of three months, she filmed Lewis and transcribed their conversations. What emerged was a five-minute silent film that depicts Lewis telling his life story. The film, Kossula: Last of the Takoi Slaves, was culled from the twenty-four minutes of footage Hurston recorded over the course of her multiyear trip through the South. Kossula is both formally and conceptually distinct. Unlike the other films Hurston shot, which are, for the most part, nonnarrative clips of black social life (children playing hand games, women dancing at a church picnic, a baptism), Kossula strives for narrative coherence and technical sophistication. In addition to a formal title, the film begins with a series of title cards introducing Lewis as “Full of Vigor at 89” and “Cheerful and Dignified; Always Gracious and Courtly.” But for all of Hurston’s attempts at editorial prowess, the film is riddled with technical inconsistencies. Much of the film is over- or underexposed; Hurston accidentally covers the lens with her finger; and after the initial title cards, she abandons all efforts at narration, leaving viewers with the odd sensation of watching a silent film of an oral history.

Frustrated with her cinematic efforts (she neither publicly screened the film nor mentioned it in any of her writing), Hurston toyed with the idea of framing her in-progress manuscript, Negro Folk Tales of the Gulf States, with a list of 482 stories that “Kossula Told Me.” In 1930, Hurston floated the idea past Mason: “In the last chapters of the book I shall let Kossula tell his little parables. When I see you next tell me what you think of the idea.” Evidently, Mason didn’t think much of the idea. Not only did Hurston end up reducing the parables to a list, but the collection was never published during Hurston’s lifetime.

A year later, Hurston began working on her most ambitious exploration of Lewis, a book-length manuscript about his life titled Barracoon; or, the Last Black Cargo. After years of gathering notes, Hurston was confident that she had finally found the form best suited for the complexity of Lewis’s life story. The manuscript, which she alternately referred to as “the African thing” and “Kossula” before finally settling on Barracoon, was never published. When she submitted it to her editor, Henry Block, he simply told her that it wasn’t ready. Working with what was likely a mix of resignation and determination, in 1944 Hurston published “The Last Slave Ship” in The American Mercury. Like the 1927 essay “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver,” “The Last Slave Ship” provides a cursory historical overview of Lewis’s life.


Tomorrow, HarperCollins will publish Barracoon; or the Last Black Cargo. At just over a hundred typed pages, the text is narrated mostly in Lewis’s voice, who describes his childhood in Africa, the Middle Passage, the five years he spent enslaved, and his post-emancipation life. The work, which Hurston once described as a testament to Lewis’s “remarkable memory,” details his cultural traditions, games, folktales, religious practices, and day-to-day activities. According to HarperCollins, the book “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.” Following the announcement, various cultural blogs and news outlets offered cursory remarks on Barracoon’s pending publication. Like HarperCollins’ official notice, this coverage focused on the importance of works that have been recovered, the value of a first-person account of the Middle Passage, and Barracoon’s capacity to illuminate the horrors of slavery. Drawing a direct line between the slave past and our present political moment, Kristian Wilson, writing for Bustle, praised the book’s capacity to trigger political transformation, noting, “at a time when hate crimes are on the rise and the United States’ ugly legacy of white supremacy is on prominent display, Barracoon is a book we need now, more than ever.”

Slavery and its “pernicious legacy” does, indeed, continue to “haunt” us.  We are, as many scholars have put it, living in the afterlife of slavery. In the words of Saidiya Hartman:

If slavery exists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery–skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.

Hartman’s framework not only alerts us to the way that our contemporary moment is conditioned by slavery’s organizing logics but also attunes us to those modes of life that can never be assimilated into narratives of historical progress. Lives like Lewis’s straddle the seemingly stable break between enslavement and freedom. If contemporary U.S. life and politics are structured by slavery’s legacy of refusing black humanity, then, the logic continues, we are still awaiting the belated arrival of emancipation.

Pitched by its publisher as a highly anticipated “literary event,” the release of Barracoon is offered as a stand-in for the nonevent of emancipation. And like so many other attempts at narrating the past of a slave, the release of Barracoon promises to both reveal and suture the wounds wrought by slavery. But if slavery continues to haunt the present, then Hurston’s editor was right: the book was not and never could be ready. After all, how do you narrate a story that has yet to come to an end? If emancipation was less an event and more an incomplete experiment, what would it mean to recast Barracoon in similar terms—that is, as less of a literary event and more as an experiment in communicating and conveying the life of a survivor of the Middle Passage, the life of a man who is, quite literally, the afterlife of slavery? From this perspective, it’s impossible to consider Barracoon without taking into account Hurston’s movement through and across media, from the essay to the film to the book and back again. Viewed in this way, the question that underpins Hurston’s efforts is not so much one of documentation, preservation, historical accuracy, or recovery. Her project, rather, is only a piece in the ongoing search for an expressive practice that can communicate the afterlife of slavery.

HarperCollins’ celebration of Barracoon as a landmark event that sheds new light on the tragedy of slavery indexes our ongoing cultural obsession with slavery—from Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad to the short-lived series Underground. Many of these productions are excellent and deserving of the praise and celebration they’ve received, but their popularity also reveals what Hurston knew all along: that conveying the story of slavery in particular, and black life in general, is tricky business. Taking up the project will always risk reducing black life to an object of knowledge, an exchangeable commodity, or just simply black cargo.

Frederick Douglass also knew as much. After escaping from slavery, Douglass found himself recast on the antislavery circuit as a new form of evidence. Working as a “fugitive slave lecturer,” Douglass’s body and narrative was offered as physical evidence of the horrors of slavery. “I had the advantage of being a brand new fact,” he sarcastically remarks in his 1855 autobiography. In a literary move that anticipated Hurston’s relationship to Lewis, Douglass would spend his life revising and rewriting the autobiographical events that thrust him into the spotlight. And like Hurston’s efforts, Douglass’s can be understood as a refusal to reduce narratives of black life and enslavement to a singular event.

The publication of Barracoon invites us to hold and possess a piece of the past. But you can never actually hold a past that is still ongoing, that has yet to come to an end. This is all to say that I am less interested in the reparative account of slavery and freedom that Barracoon promises and more interested in what we can learn from Hurston’s inability to ever really get ahold of Lewis and his story. I am worried about how fetishizing a single book might obscure the longer arc of Hurston’s work and what I read as her perpetual desire and failure to find an adequate form of conveying Lewis’s life. Slavery, it seems, can only ever be evidenced in fragments: ephemeral artifacts, shards of wood, and fish vertebrae.

As it turns out, Hurston was never able to square Lewis’s status as valuable evidence with what she understood as the necessarily ongoing and incomplete project of conveying slavery and its afterlife. So although she drafted a multitude of accounts of Lewis from as many perspectives, she did so while holding on to yet another verbal account of enslavement. On July 10, 1928, Hurston sent a letter to Langston Hughes. As she had with Locke, Hurston frequently exchanged writing with Hughes while she was working and living in the South. Toward the end of the letter, Hurston lets Hughes in on a secret. “OH! almost forgot. Found another one of the original Africans, older than Cudjoe about 200 miles up state on the Tombighee river. She is most delightful, but no one will ever know about her but us. She is a better talker than Cudjoe.” Unfinished business, indeed.


Kossula: Last of the Takoi Slaves, stills from a black-and-white film in 16mm, 5 minutes. © The Margaret Mead Collection. Arrangement by Josh Begley.


Autumn Womack is a New Jersey–based scholar and a professor of African American Studies and English at Princeton University. Her writing on Hurston has been published in Black Camera, An International Film Journal.