“I had spent two months with Kossula, who is called Cudjo, trying to find the answers to my questions. Some days we ate great quantities of clingstone peaches and talked. Sometimes we ate watermelon and talked. Once it was a huge mess of steamed crabs. Sometimes we just ate. Sometimes we just talked. At other times neither was possible, he just chased me away. He wanted to work in his garden or fix his fences. He couldn’t be bothered. The present was too urgent to let the past intrude. But on the whole, he was glad to see me, and we became warm friends.”
A few weeks ago, I went to the library to look for Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God. Instead, I checked out Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”. In this work, Hurston tells the story of Kossula, one of the last men taken from his home in Africa and sold into slavery in the U.S.A.
Or rather, Hurston lets Kossula, also called Cudjo, tell his story.
When I read the back of the book, I expected it to be hard to read. I knew it would be eye-opening. What I didn’t expect was to experience the comfort of the front porch and a sprouting friendship. Hurston took me by surprise by bringing me to Cudjo’s doorstep. She sits her readers down with her as she listens to an old man share his memories. And Cudjo repeatedly expresses gratitude toward her for taking an interest in his story.
Kossula shares good memories along with the painful ones and spends far less time describing his experience in slavery than I expected he would. As painful as that chapter is in his life, he had other chapters to tell. His life radically changed the moment he was taken from Africa, but when he became a free man, he built himself a new life. The family and homeland of his childhood and the new family that came after slavery are the focus of his recollections.
The power of this book lies in Hurston’s interview method of telling it. By letting us hear Cudjo’s story from his own mouth, she gives him a voice. Kossula isn’t a stock picture of America’s broken past or an example used to remind readers of America’s history of injustice. Instead, Kossula is wholly himself. His story matters not because of the history it represents but because it’s his story. And we get the opportunity to get to know him.
When Hurston goes to ask Kossula to tell his story, he responds, “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.’ ” This books gives a voice to someone who wants to be known.
Sometimes it’s easy for us to look at history and think of the people involved in tragic events in a lump sum. Our sympathies go out to the group of victims, but we forget their personhood. We forget to wonder who these individuals were, what their lives were like. The people become a background factor in the scenes of history. Here, the situation is flipped. The events of history fade into the background as the life of one man takes the center stage. Kossula is what matters, the man who plants peaches for his grandchildren because he loves the children so much. The man who gardens and preaches and tells parables. The man who becomes friends with a stranger who comes simply to listen.
If you read this book, you’ll learn about Africa. You’ll learn about the experience of slavery and the hardships of building a life after being freed. But more importantly, you’ll meet an elderly man who will share his memories and wisdom with you, and who’ll touch your heart in the process.
And Kossula is a man worth meeting.