Zora Neale Hurston and Kossula

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The Vulture story that this tweet links to ("The Last Slave") begins by talking about the fact that when Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, it was "eviscerated by critics." And "[the] hater-in-chief was no less than Richard Wright, who recoiled as much at the book’s depiction of lush female sexuality and (supposedly) apolitical themes as its use of black dialect, 'the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh.'” The story continues:

Six years earlier, Hurston had tried to publish another book in dialect, this one a work of nonfiction called Barracoon. Before she turned to writing novels, she’d trained as a cultural anthropologist at Barnard under the famed father of the field, Franz Boas. He sent his student back south to interview people of African descent….

Barracoon is testament to her patient fieldwork. The book is based on three months of periodic interviews with a man named Cudjo Lewis—or Kossula, his original name—the last survivor of the last slave ship to land on American shores. Plying him with peaches and Virginia hams, watermelon and Bee Brand insect powder, Hurston drew out his story. Kossula had been captured at age 19 in an area now known as the country Benin by warriors from the neighboring Dahomian tribe, then marched to a stockade, or barracoon, on the West African coast. There, he and some 120 others were purchased and herded onto the Clotilda, captained by William Foster and commissioned by three Alabama brothers to make the 1860 voyage.

When Hurston tried to get Barracoon published in 1931, she couldn’t find a taker….One publisher, Viking Press, did say it would be happy to accept the book, on the condition that Hurston rewrote it “in language rather than dialect.” She refused. Boas had impressed upon her the importance of meticulous transcription, and while her contemporaries — and authors of 19th-century slave narratives — believed “you had to strip away all the vernacular to prove black humanity,” says Salamishah Tillet, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Hurston was of the exact opposite opinion.

The story recounts one of Hurston's early conversations with Kossula:

“I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”

His head was bowed for a time. Then he lifted his wet face: “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’ ”

The book's full title is Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo." [Amazon]



  1. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

    Zora Neale Hurston was a treasure for folklore and literature. And she was often reviled by both white and black gatekeepers, for different sociological reasons that still form quicksands where few dare to tread. I constantly admire her courage in venturing into these areas and doing what she did.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

    At least according to the ever-infallible internet, as late as 1914 there was enough of a critical mass of other survivors of that illegal 1860 voyage still alive and living near each other in Alabama for them to routinely speak to each other in their L1 (hypothesized to have been Yoruba). I don't know if that ongoing ability to make practical use of his L1 was one factor in why Mr. Lewis' speech as transcribed seems rather different from that of how a more typical American black of his generation would have spoken as of the late 1920's (when Hurston was doing the interviews), or whether he was just too old at the time of his involuntary arrival in the U.S. to ever sound like a native speaker of any variety of AmEng even if he had been surrounded by nothing other than monolingual Anglophones for 60+ years.

  3. mg said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 5:37 pm

    When I read this article, I was interested to learn that Zora Neale Hurston had trained as an anthropologist. Her interviews with Kossula were conducted as part of academic research.

    @J. W. Brewer – thank you for that information. I am glad to hear that there was a community of countrymen for Kossula to talk to in his mother tongue.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

    The ultimate source for that claim re the continuation of their L1 appears to be this 1914-published book, now easily readable in scanned version since it's out of copyright. It also includes the interesting observation (by someone likely not trained as a linguistics fieldworker, so…) that the variety of English spoken by the survivors of the voyage had "more the sound of the dialect spoken by Italians than that spoken by the negroes."


  5. JPL said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 7:42 pm

    It looks like Hurston was doing this research at around the same time Lorenzo Dow Turner was studying the Gullah (or Sea Islands Creole) community in South Carolina and tracing their language back to the languages of Sierra Leone, in particular Mende, as well as looking at other varieties of African- American English. I wonder if they ever got together and shared findings.

    Looking at the excerpts on the Vulture website (I've only looked at a few), I notice several features recognizable as belonging to West African Creole English, which was probably spoken all along the Guinea coast.

    "In Africa"
    Para 3: "He want see all de boys dat done see fourteen rainy seasons."
    Perfect aspect "done" with unmarked form of verb rather than past participle ("…boys that have seen fourteen …"); "want see", lacking the "to".

    Para 4: "… de king … say he doan go make no war."
    Taking "doan" as relatable to the negative morpheme 'noh', "go" as the morpheme indicating future time reference, one can see "… i noh go mehk noh woh" ("he won't make any war"). (In "Capture", para 9: "I no see none my family." for "I didn't see any of my family.") ("oh" as cardinal 6 open o, "eh" as cardinal 3 open e)

    "Capture", para 2: "… dey come make war …"
    This seems a very WAC way of presenting the situation with a serial verb construction, as in, "denh kam mehk woh", "they came in order to make war"; BTW, although these are narratives, the narrator regularly uses the simple form of the verbs when expressing past time reference, where the simple form in WAC indicates perfective aspect, with no tense morpheme. (Also, I suspect the "-ee" on the ends of some verbs has significance, e.g., perhaps derived from the "-ing" of English (but no Eng. AUX).

    I have to go now, but I'll look at the excerpts with interest.

  6. tangent said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 10:57 pm

    It's amazing that such a thing was buried in an archive; I'm glad it wasn't lost or forgotten. Had no idea she studied with Boas.

    If anyone's curious about the Bee Brand, it's powdered Dalmatian pyrethrum flowers, to be blown into the air.

  7. maidhc said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 3:02 am

    Some people on other sites have commented that the dialect has some things in common with Cajun dialect.

    We're on the waiting list for the book from the library. Looking forward to reading it. Sounds fascinating.

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