Now that Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has become a staple of high-school and college classrooms, it’s easy to forget that Hurston herself was almost forgotten. In her lifetime, critics lambasted Hurston’s writing—as well as her sexuality and even her style of dress. Her books brought her little remuneration in her old age. She lived her last days in a welfare home, and her burial was paid for in installments. Their Eyes Were Watching God and her other works fell out of print. Plants overran her burial plot, obscuring her grave.
Although her fiction is much more famous now, it was her anthropology that catalyzed Hurston’s revival. Researching voodoo practices back in 1970, Alice Walker found a single unprejudiced text in a sea of racist anthropology books: Hurston’s 1935 folklore collection, Mules and Men. Astonished by “this perfect book,” Walker shared it with her relatives, “and a kind of paradise was regained. For what Zora’s book did was this: it gave them back all the stories they had forgotten or of which they had grown ashamed.” Walker was so captivated that she later searched for Hurston’s unmarked grave, an effort she documented in “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” a 1975 essay for Ms. magazine. After finding the grave site in a field of snakes and thigh-high weeds in Central Florida, Walker purchased a headstone with the inscription A Genius of the South.
Since then, Hurston’s reclamation has proceeded at a rapid pace. In 1975, Hortense Thornton chaired a seminar on her at the Modern Language Association. In 1977, Robert Hemenway published a biography. In 1978, Harper & Row leased the rights to Their Eyes Were Watching God to the University of Illinois Press, which issued a paperback edition of that tumultuous tale about a black woman from rural Florida named Janie Crawford, who “saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.”
At the time of its republication, Janie’s story fed a growing demand for black women’s fiction. The paperback edition was so profitable that Harper & Row refused to renew the lease and, hoping to capitalize on the Hurston revival, reprinted her other work, helping to transform her into an emblem of the Harlem Renaissance and black literature.
Barracoon, a work unpublished in Hurston’s lifetime, captures both her anthropological spirit and her capacity for storytelling and narrative. Started in 1927, Barracoon is an oral history based on an interview that Hurston did with Kossula Oluale, the last survivor of the last American slave ship. For Hurston, interviewing Kossula—nine years before the Works Progress Administration compiled its oral histories of slavery—held the potential to transform histories of the transatlantic slave trade, most of which described everything but the experience of enslavement. “All these words from the seller,” Hurston noted in Barracoon, “but not one word from the sold.”
With the book so heavily focused on Kossula’s experiences, readers looking for descriptions of black women like those in Their Eyes Were Watching God will be disappointed. But the book nonetheless has a powerful story to tell: Forcibly ripped from his people, Kossula spent the rest of his life in search of community, family, and a sense of home. Even after more than 60 years of freedom, Kossula still felt chained to his past as an enslaved person and to his lost childhood in Africa. “I so lonely” is perhaps his most frequent refrain. Alone at the end of his life, Kossula told his story in the hopes of overcoming this isolation: “I want tellee somebody who I is,” Hurston quotes him as having told her, “so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’”
Kossula’s narrative begins in Bantè, a town in what is now Benin, where his upbringing differed greatly from the life he would live in America. Kossula was one of six children born to his father’s second wife. His family was neither rich nor poor. Many responsibilities in Bantè were commonly shared, like child-rearing. Laws were also universally applied. When Kossula was young, one of Bantè’s hunters broke a law forbidding the removal of a leopard’s whiskers, which can be used in making poison, and the town held a public investigation, trial, and execution. “Everything be done open dere,” Kossula said. No one could break the law without being held accountable, and no one could be prosecuted for a crime without public oversight. “In Afficky de law is de law an’ no man cain make out he crazy lak here, an’ get excusee from de law.”
If custom and law bound the Bantè townspeople together, the denizens of nearby Dahomey would eventually tear them apart. According to Kossula, the Dahomeans subsisted on a war economy, acquiring wealth by raiding towns to enslave their inhabitants. When Kossula was 19, Dahomey demanded half of Bantè’s crops in exchange for peace. When Bantè’s king refused, the Dahomeans raided the village. At daybreak, Kossula witnessed Dahomean soldiers decapitating his people and collecting the severed heads as proof to their comrades and their king of their deeds. Then they captured and bound the survivors, including Kossula. “When de men pull me wid dem I call my mama name,” Kossula recalled to Hurston. “I doan know where she is. I no see none my family. I doan know where dey is. I beg de men to let me go findee my folks.” They refused.
Kossula’s newfound isolation brought him closer to the other survivors. After the massacre, the defeated were marched in chains while their captors traveled alongside, the decapitated heads of their family members in tow. En route to Dahomey, when the stench from the rotting heads became unbearable, the warriors smoked the skulls for preservation in sight of the captives. In Dahomey, they were herded into a barracoon, a physical enclosure that held enslaved people. Days later, the army marched them to the port of Ouidah and into another barracoon. These structures lined the coast—“each nation in a barracoon by itself.”
Elsewhere in the world, outlaws were planning Kossula’s future. Although the United States had prohibited the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, many slavers were still smuggling slaves into the country. In Alabama, word of the Dahomeans selling enslaved people reached Timothy Meaher and William Foster, who outfitted a ship called the Clotilda to transport the captives. Sailing on the Clotilda, the pair arrived in Ouidah around 1860. One of them came to Kossula’s barracoon, inspected the people, and singled some out for purchase. Kossula felt anxious about being separated from his new family. “Den we cry,” Kossula recalled, “we sad ‘cause we doan want to leave the rest of our people in de barracoon. We all lonesome for our home. We doan know whut goin’ become of us, we doan want to be put apart from one ‘nother.”
Hired workers loaded Kossula’s compatriots into boats. Left on shore, Kossula stood facing a difficult choice: Say nothing and risk an unknown fate in Dahomey, or protest and join what remained of his home. Kossula spoke up.
Once on board the Clotilda, Kossula found himself in the midst of many different people from various regions of Africa who spoke many different languages, but their shared captivity made a new people out of these disparate individuals. Forced below deck, this new nation remained in its dark and crowded quarters for 12 days, pitched back and forth by an ocean on which Kossula had never traveled and sustained by little food and water. On the 13th day, the crew brought them above deck. Their legs were so weak that the crew had to support them until they regained their mobility, which was done only to ensure that they retained their value as property.
After Kossula and the others landed in America, enslavement once more dispersed their community. They were taken to the home of Burns Meaher (brother of Timothy) in Alabama, where the Meahers divided the captives among themselves. Of that moment, Kossula recalled: “We very sorry to be parted from one ‘nother. We cry for home. We took away from our people. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ‘nother.”
Thus separated, the African captives struggled to fit in with the other enslaved people. “Everybody lookee at us strange,” Kossula recalled. “We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say. Some makee de fun at us.” They especially disdained how Kossula and his countrymen danced “lak in de Afficky soil” on Sundays, for which the American enslaved called them “savage.”
Culturally and linguistically isolated from their peers, the survivors of the Clotilda struggled to adjust. They had no experience with the agricultural methods used on Alabama plantations, so the American-born slaves had to train them. Those who didn’t work on the plantations worked on board one of the five ships by which the Meahers transported freight from Mobile to Montgomery. Having rarely traveled on boats before, Kossula feared falling overboard and drowning. He also had a brutal overseer, who readily whipped him when he didn’t work hard enough or fast enough. “De work very hard for us to do,” Kossula recalled. “But we doan grieve ‘bout dat. We cry cause we slave.”
That would change in Mobile in 1865, when Kossula and the others on board encountered Union soldiers for the first time. As Kossula recounted it, the Yankees told them: “Y’all can’t stay dere no mo’. You free, you doan b’long to nobody no mo’.” The former slaves were overjoyed. Yet their emancipation only raised new questions: “We astee de soldiers where we goin’?” Kossula recalled. “Dey say dey doan know.”
After Emancipation, the survivors of the Clotilda congregated in Magazine Point, Alabama, to re-form their community. Now that they were free, however, they needed money and housing. Some of the men took jobs at the sawmill and the powder mill; some of the women raised vegetables and sold them in Mobile. They considered returning to Africa but couldn’t afford the voyage. Instead, they decided to ask their former masters for land, on which they would make a home. Appointed spokesman by the group, Kossula was the one to make that request. Tim Meaher’s response, as Kossula described it: “Fool, do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property?” Their hopes thwarted, the freed slaves lived frugally—eating molasses with their bread to stretch their food—in the hopes of saving up their wages. Eventually, they purchased land from the Meahers, who refused even to discount its price.
On their new property, the Clotilda community tried to create a society that blended the customs of their native lands with those acquired in America. They named their new home “Affican Town. We say dat ‘cause we want to go back in de Affica soil and we see we cain go. Derefo’ we make de Affica where dey fetch us.” In their African America, the Clotilda survivors appointed a village head and judges, built a school and church, and created laws. They hoped to make Africatown a sanctuary in and from America.
Unfortunately, Africatown was neither autonomous nor separate from Alabama. Most of its residents had adopted Christianity, so when Kossula and Abile, an African woman, married according to their homeland’s tradition, they found themselves scolded by the local clergy:
[I]n de church dey tell us dat ain’ right. We got to marry by license. In de Afficky soil, you unnerstand me, we ain’ got no license. De man and de woman dey ‘gree ‘tween deyselves, den dey married and live together. We doan know nothin ‘bout dey have license over here in dis place. So den we gittee married by de license, but I doan love my wife no mo’ wid de license than I love her befo’ de license.
In Africatown, the couple struggled to uphold their customs. Kossula wanted to use his father’s name, “O-lo-loo-ay,” as his last name, but people considered it too long and “crooked.” As a result he took the last name Lewis and the first name Cudjo.
At every turn, American institutions undermined their attempt to rebuild Africa in Alabama. These institutions severely affected their children’s lives. As Kossula told it, other children—born to American parents—derided his kids and called them “savage cannibals.” In response, his boys got in fights with them. The parents of these other children expressed their concern to Kossula, who told them to teach their kids to leave his alone. Yet these parents continued to insist that his children were the dangerous ones. A deputy sheriff eventually took issue with Kossula’s youngest boy (the details are unclear) in 1902. “He say he de law, but he doan come ‘rest him.” Instead, the deputy shot Kossula’s son through the neck, extrajudicially condemning him to two days of suffering, blood gurgling in his throat, until he finally died, with the family forced to helplessly witness his pain as they attempted to care for him in their home.
After his son’s death, Kossula’s life became a story of losses. A train in Mobile decapitated another son. A third son asked Kossula to sue the railroad company. But Kossula had sued a different railroad company years earlier and had never received any of the funds promised him. Distrusting the American legal system, Kossula saw no point. Shortly after that, his third son disappeared, never to return. Kossula recalled his son’s unhappy life this way:
He say when he a boy, dey (the American Negro children) fight him and say he a savage. When he gittee a man dey cheat him. De train hurtee his papa and doan pay him. His brothers gittee kill. He doan laugh no mo’.
Kossula never knew if his son had run away or if someone had killed him. Months later, while the family was still grieving this loss, another son fell ill and died. In 1908, Abile awoke from a dream in which her children were cold. The next day, she visited the graveyard, where she mimed covering her children’s burial plots with blankets. One week later, she died. A month later, Kossula’s last remaining son died as well, leaving Kossula without a family of his own. Even with freedom, there were still chains.
In the account that Hurston records, Kossula spends more time lamenting the families he lost, both in Africa and the United States, than he does praising the communities he helped make. Hurston said as much herself when she wrote, in her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, “After seventy-five years, he still had that tragic sense of loss. That yearning for blood and cultural ties. That sense of mutilation.” Slavery’s assaults on “blood and cultural ties” have long been chronicled, most memorably by Harriet Jacobs, who wrote, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, “Why does the slave ever love?” The historians Heather Williams and Tera Hunter have argued persuasively that these assaults couldn’t annihilate marriages or families, but that loving while enslaved—and, indeed, loving after being enslaved— guaranteed a considerable amount of pain in America.
Kossula’s story reminds us that Emancipation did not end those assaults on the communities and families of African Americans, but rather enabled their continuation through other means. A combination of xenophobia and police impunity led to the death of one of Kossula’s sons. A railroad company killed another without making the slightest effort at compensation. Poor medical care guaranteed the death of several other children. And grief likely killed his wife. An assault on African families was not just foundational to the black presence in America during the long era of slavery; it continued in the years after Emancipation.
Given this grim history, one wonders about the women who survived the Clotilda: What were their experiences like? This is a question that Hurston never answers in Barracoon. (Hurston also found a female survivor of a transatlantic slave voyage, but chose not to write about her.) This might also have corrected some of Kossula’s descriptions of Abile and her experiences, which are frequently so sparse that they don’t seem to capture very much of her life or thoughts at all. When Abile died, Kossula recalled: “She cry ‘cause she doan want me be lonesome.” It’s certainly possible that her husband’s impending loneliness moved Abile to tears on her deathbed, though it’s hard to imagine that this was the only reason. Hemenway, in his biography of Hurston, described Kossula as embodying “the process of acculturation that presumably created Americans out of Africans,” but Kossula’s narrative does not provide a complete portrait of how that process created African-American women.
From what we can infer, care was especially important to Abile. When Kossula asked her to marry him, she responded, “You think if I be yo’ wife you kin take keer me?” Later, when she placed imaginary blankets on her children’s graves, she was demonstrating a mother’s need to care for them that sought to transcend the boundaries between this life and the next. Yet that connection must also have pained her greatly; otherwise, the dreams of her deceased children struggling with the cold would not have stirred her from her sleep. If, for Kossula, freedom ultimately entailed the destruction of his family by means other than enslavement, this was the case for Abile as well, and the pain of outliving the children she carried must have wreaked havoc on her, though we’ll never know its full extent.
Abile witnessing the death of so many of her children may seem specific to the turn of the 20th century. Sadly, it’s not. As Linda Villarosa documents in her recent New York Times article, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis,” the disparity between black and white infant mortality is greater now than it was in 1850. If we move beyond deaths proximate to birth, black people in the United States have higher death rates than white people in every age group under 65, according to 2017 reports by the Centers for Disease Control. To live as a black parent in the United States is to live with a much higher chance of witnessing the death of your children.
Barracoon was among the first of many documents to highlight this. So too does Abile’s life imply that caring and grieving can be a large part of life for black women. Although Kossula’s account fails to give us many details about Abile’s life, he too partook in caring and grieving, even after most of his family had died. As a widower and a grieving father, Kossula spent many of his last years as a sexton in the church that held the graves of his children and his wife.