"CUDJO MEETEE DE people at de gate and tellee dem, 'You see de rattlesnake in de woods?' Dey say 'Yeah.' I say 'If you bother wid him, he bite you. If you know de snake killee you why you bother wid him? Same way with my boys, you unnerstand me.'"
With these words, Cudjo Lewis--ne Oluale Kossula--explains his child-rearing philosophy to an upstart anthropologist named Zora Neale Hurston in 1927. Captured by a neighboring tribe as a young adult in Africa, purchased by whites, and smuggled to U.S. soil 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed, Lewis was freed just five years later in the wake of the Civil War and went on to have a family, found a town, and grow old in the Jim Crow era.
And at the end of his long, eventful life, a young Hurston showed up at his door hoping to glean his story. She courted him with peaches and delousing powder. He was poor and alone. She was not yet the author of that high school lit class staple, Their Eyes Were WatchingGod.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" is Hurston's remarkable rendition of Lewis' oral history, which she gathered over several months of visits. It is all the more remarkable for having been buried for nearly a century after its completion; the gatekeepers of the Harlem Renaissance deemed both its political and its artistic choices unacceptably heterodox.
Hurston's focus on conflict between blacks as well as her anti-government espousal of black self-sufficiency sat badly with the intelligentsia of the time. It is a conflict that, tragically, is still being echoed in today's headlines and popular culture.
THE PHRASE BLACK bodies has recently gained currency as a way to evoke how black people have been (and still are) too often reduced to little more than their physical selves. Hurston writes that we know so little of the experience of the enslaved because "the thoughts of 'black ivory' had no market value"--a mistake she went looking to remedy before it was too late.
In Barracoon, Lewis' sense of himself as a body is palpable and modern. His heart and mind always seem to be somewhere outside of his beleaguered physical self. But he is haunted by his inability, even as a free man, to protect the bodies of his family--both his slaughtered relations in Africa and his sons in America, targeted not only for their blackness by whites but for their Africanness by other blacks. Teaching his sons to be rattlesnakes is his only choice, as far as Lewis is concerned. But it is...