HomeBooksA Review of Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’

A Review of Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’

Zora Neal Hurston’s posthumous release tells a complicated story of a life rife with loss and injustice, though it never loses track of the hope inherent in the present.

Barracoon is the story of one man in two parts: Kossula, the boy torn from his family, village and way of life in Africa by slavery, and Cudjo Lewis, the man Kossula was forced to become when he found himself torn from the life he lived, trapped in a strange land with no way to return to his home. Zora Neale Hurston Hurston travels to Mobile, Alabama, and interviews Kossula over the course of two months to record and preserve his experiences. The pair share food, stories and pass hours on Kossula’s porch becoming friends.

When the interviews begin, Kossula describes the life he remembers in Africa; he bars no details as he delves into the history of his family and tribe leading up to the slave raid that brought about his capture and enslavement. Subsequently, Kossula explains the process of being sold and transported to America, as well as his life as a slave in Alabama. Rather than ending Kossula’s story with his emancipation, Hurston and Kossula continue to speak about his experiences in the antebellum South and the family life he lived, as well as his desire to return to Africa with his family.

Kossula is a vibrant character, both in the stories he tells and the visits Hurston records within Barracoon. Hurston transcribed Kossula’s distinct dialect phonetically, which brings Kossula to life by capturing precisely how he spoke. While certain words can briefly throw off readers, Hurston makes certain that the context of each passage provides a means for confused readers to determine what Kossula is saying without impeding the flow of the story. Hurston includes an appendix full of other stories from Kossula, which are a combination of his retellings of stories from Africa and original parables he created.

Hurston’s writing captures the emotions Kossula is feeling at any given time, from the mirth of laughing at one of his own jokes to the quiet intensity of his self-reflection. By telling Kossula’s story, Hurston brings life and human intensity to the already tragic period of slavery.

Though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going.” – Foreword by Alice Walker

As the novel was published posthumously by nearly six decades, author Alice Walker and editor Deborah G. Plant’s respective contributions to Barracoon help the novel to excel. Walker’s foreword homes in on the fact that while Kossula’s narrative is not a pleasant one, the story validates the idea that even in sadness, there can be happiness in moments as simple as sharing food and stories with a friend. Plant’s introduction provides a historic timeline of the events of Barracoon; this timeline affords readers a greater comprehension of the general background of Kossula’s life, which in turn helps the story proper to make more sense.

Not only does Plant provide context for Kossula within the introduction, but she also explains the process Hurston endured when writing and publishing Barracoon. The recounting of the publishing process in particular justifies why Hurston never saw the book published in her lifetime; when submitted for publication, Barracoon was rejected on the basis of it being written in a dialect. Rather than caving to pressure and rewriting the novel in a more traditional manner, Hurston refused and chose not to have the book published in order to preserve the integrity of Kossula’s story.

While Hurston’s narrative is more than capable of standing on its own, the combination of Walker’s foreword and Plant’s supplemental historical background lay a foundation for the narrative that provide the story with a context rooted in the past and a relevance to the present.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon is not only a piece of literature, but an anthropological and historical study. While the interview style of the story could have easily come across as a lifeless manuscript, Hurston succeeds at characterizing Kossula and capturing his essence in such a way that his narrative, while dark in theme, is vibrant and a celebration of life.

Though Barracoon may not be the most light-hearted summer read, it is a singular blend of anthropology, history and literature that at its core highlights both the somber reflection and hopeful perseverance of a man who lost everything he loved, but still held on to happiness and hope. As he told Zora: “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.’”

With Apologies to th
Gnat Magnet
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