In 1931, the iconic author Zora Neale Hurston finished writing her almost 120-page book on 95-year-old Cudjo Lewis, the last-known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. Nearly a century later, Hurston’s study of Lewis has been acquired by HarperCollins, as David Canfield of Entertainment Weekly reports. It is due to be published in May of 2018.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" recounts Lewis’ long and often harrowing life, from the raid that led to his capture and enslavement, to the vital role he played in founding a town for freed slaves in Alabama. Hurston worked as an anthropologist before publishing seminal works of fiction—most notably Their Eyes Were Watching God—and her work on Lewis relied on years of in-depth interviews and research. She first met Lewis in 1927, according to HarperCollins, and that year published the essay "Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver.” The following year, she created a five-minute silent film titled "Kossula: Last of the Takkoi Slaves."
Cudjo Lewis was born Oluale Kossola in the West African country of Benin, according to Sylviane A. Diouf of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, writing for the Encyclopedia of Alabama. In 1860, his town was attacked and Lewis was captured. He was taken to the coastal town of Ouidah where he was forced into a barracoon—a pen where African slaves were imprisoned until they were sold to traders. Lewis was ultimately shepherded onto the Clotilda, the last recorded American slave ship.
As Michael Harriot points out over at the Root, the Clotilda was operating illegally; the United States had abolished its international slave trade more than half a century earlier. But a group of wealthy men in Alabama decided to try and import slaves anyway, quietly docking the Clotilda in Mobile, Alabama, in the darkness of a July night. A shipbuilder named James Meaher bought him, and he was forced to work under Meaher for five years, until he was emancipated in the wake of the Civil War.
Having secured his freedom, Lewis helped found Africa Town, a community of former slaves located on a hill near Mobile. He tried to secure reparations payments that would fund the town, but was not successful, so residents pooled their money and purchased the land.
Barracoon is written from Hurston’s perspective, but the study is rooted in Lewis’ recollections. The study “brilliantly illuminates the tragedy of slavery and one life forever defined by it,” HarperCollins writes. “Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.”