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The Hidden Book of Zora Neale Hurston
A little-known fact about the great American author, Zora Neale Hurston, is that one important book of hers went unpublished for nearly a century. Even worse, its story was steeped in historical information about Africa that was hidden from the American public, which instead was fed novels and movies of the misleading Tarzan, Jane, inept natives, and all that nonsense.
Hurston’s 1937 smash novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is a strong feminist American story of a black woman doing it her way despite obstacles of both white and black male privilege. But five years before that book Hurston had taken the train from New York City to rural Alabama, and over three months interviewed Oluale Kossola, aka enslavement name, Cudjo Lewis. Hurston finished that biography manuscript in 1931. She died in 1960. Her book was published in 2018. Its title is Barracoon.
The importance of Barracoon is not only in its example of character and love, but also history and language that was denied until now. Hurston’s subject, Kossola, was nineteen when he was kidnapped from Africa, old enough so he could report on the actual detail of home. He told Hurston of African farms, crops, customs, marriage, American-like middle class life and rules, falling in love, and even the sound of gold bracelets clinking on the arms of the pretty teenage girls. Then came the horror of the Dahomey Kingdom raid, capture, and the barracoon, the holding place for captives pending their sale in Africa to white slave runners. 70 years later Kossola told it all to Hurston.
What could keep such a story so beautifully captured by a famous American writer, from being published for so long? Simple economics and racism. Her publishers insisted that Kossola’s language be changed. Hurston insisted on remaining entirely true to his African American language. She recognized all that might be lost if she didn’t, and if his dialect were instead trimmed into language that white readership could more easily buy into. It might affect book sales. Hurston didn’t budge. Her book finally came out nearly sixty years after her death.
I heard about Barracoon on NPR’s radio show, 1A. I read the book, loved it, and immediately started all over again, introductions and all. I was in no rush, but just a need to listen to this gentle man, talking in his soft voice of an African world many of us never knew existed.
Kossola tells it like it was.
About John Strazzabosco
John Strazzabosco is the author of the book, Ninety Feet Under—What poverty does to people. He and his wife, Jeanne, live in downtown Rochester.
About 29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History
29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History is an annual blog campaign curated by 540WMain that has a mission to promote and share little known facts about Black Americans throughout history every day throughout the month of February. Now in it 3rd year the campaign highlights the life and work of past and present day Black American that are overlooked or underrepresented in our conversations about American history.
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