Almost a century after publishers rejected her manuscript on one of the last known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade, Eatonville writer Zora Neale Hurston is finally getting her book released next week.
Six years before her acclaimed novel Their Eyes Were Watching God
was published, Hurston tried to get Barracoon
produced in 1931. The nonfiction work focused on the late author's interview with Cudjo Lewis, a formerly enslaved man whose original name was Oluale Kossola
Born in the West African country of Benin, Kossola was 19 when he was captured and taken prisoner by a neighboring kingdom. He was held for weeks with other captives in a barracoon
(slave pen) until Kossola and more than 100 other people were sold and put on the slave ship Clotilda.
The vessel, captained by Mobile ship builder William Foster, took about 45 days to arrive in Alabama in 1860, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama
The international slave trade had been illegal in the United States for more than 50 years, so the owners of Clotilda
smuggled in the enslaved people at night. Foster later torched the boat to hide evidence of the last recorded slave ship in the country. Kossola worked enslaved for five years before finally regaining his freedom in 1865. Later, he and other former slaves who were brought on Clotilda
established Africatown, also known as Plateau. Here, Hurston met Kossola in 1927 and recorded his account.
When Hurston tried to get Barracoon
released in 1931, publishers rejected it – one even offered to buy the book if Hurston rewrote it "in language" rather than the black dialect used, according to the New York Times
. The Harlem Renaissance writer refused.
"Like many contemporary blacks in elite cultural spaces, Zora was caught in respectability politics: between battling white perceptions of an inferior blackness and resisting cultural norms that make whiteness supreme," writes columnist Natalie Hopkinson for HuffPost
The manuscript went unpublished. Despite releasing several novels and working as an anthropologist and playwright, Hurston died poor in Fort Pierce in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her achievements were brought out of obscurity posthumously by other African American writers, including most notably Alice Walker.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"
will be available May 8
. Read an excerpt from the book on Vulture here
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