Zora Neale Hurston Helps Ex-Slave Tell His Tale

In 1860, while minding his own business in his native West Africa, 19-year old Cudjo Lewis was snatched, chained and stuffed in the crowded and putrid hull of a ship called Clotilda. When he reemerged he was in  Alabama, where the young man was forced to work on a plantation. This despite the fact that the importation of new slaves to America had been prohibited for nearly 50 years already.

Five years later, once emancipation had been declared and the Civil War over, Lewis and some of his friends from his plantation, many of whom were also on Clotilda*, created their own town, Plateau, where they lived freely for the rest of their days, living witnesses to one of the most horrific experiences in history: the slave passage overseas.

It was to this tale that young author  Zora Neale Hurson was drawn, and in 1927, she traveled to Plateau to interview Cudjo. Four years later she returned for a three-month stay, meticulously noting his every sentence, word and syllable and creating an unprecedented account of his kidnapping, enslavement and new life in freedom, providing an unparalleled and invaluable testimony to one of humanity’s lowest moments. Shockingly, no publisher would touch it, largely because publishers felt his vernacular proved too hard for average readers to grasp. And so, the story went unpublished and forgotten. Years passed.

Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lewis went on living in Alabama. He died in 1935, aged 94, and she followed in 1960, and their collaboration continued sitting on a shelf at Howard University for another six decades— that is, until today. Literally today, because the HarperCollins imprint Amistad today releases Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” which offers readers an unprecedented look at the cruelty experienced by millions whose own stories have been lost and obscured by centuries. Perhaps Lewis’s can be a proxy for all those whose lives were lost and otherwise obscured by the most devastating and indeed terrifying aspect of human history.

You can buy a copy here — and you really, really should.

*Side fact: QuestLove descended from another slave on that ship.