Zora neale hurston ‘barracoon’ excerpt

Their Eyes Were Watching God is required reading in high schools and colleges and cited as a formative influence by Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. It’s been canonized by Harold Bloom — even credited for inspiring the tableau in Lemonade where Beyoncé and a clutch of other women regally occupy a wooden porch — but Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel was eviscerated by critics when it was published in 1937. 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.”


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. (Hurston was raised in Eatonville, Florida, which wasn’t the “black backside” of a white town, she once observed, but a place wholly inhabited and run by black people — her father was a three-term mayor.) She proved adept at the task, but, as she noted in her collection of folklore, Mules and Men , the job wasn’t always straightforward: “The best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, usually underprivileged, are the shyest. They are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive … The Negro offers a feather-bed resistance, that is, we let the probe enter, but it never comes out.”

As the slaves were being rowed out to the Clotilda, the ship’s captain began to suspect that the Dahomey were going to trick him and try to recapture the people he’d just bought, so he gave orders to “abandon the cargo not already on board, and to sail away with all speed.”

When I see my friend Keebie in de boat I want go wid him. So I holler and dey turn round and takee me. When we ready to leave and go in de ship, dey snatch our country cloth off us. Dey say, “You get plenty clothes where you goin’.” Oh Lor’, I so shame! We come in de ’Merica soil naked and de people say we naked savage.

On de thirteenth day dey fetchee us on de deck. We so weak we ain’ able to walk ourselves, so de crew take each one and walk ’round de deck till we git so we kin walk ourselves. We lookee and lookee and lookee and we doan see nothin’ but water. Where we come from, we doan know. Where we goin, we doan know. Cudjo suffer so in dat ship. I so skeered on de sea! De water, you unnerstand me, it makee so much noise! It growl lak de thousand beastes in de bush. De wind got so much voice on de water. Sometime de ship way up in de sky. Sometimes it way down in de bottom of de sea. Dey say de sea was calm. Cudjo doan know, seem lak it move all de time.

We want buildee de houses for ourselves, but we ain’ got no lan’. We meet together and we talk. We say we from cross de water so we go back where we come from. So we say we work in slavery five year and de six months for nothin’, now we work for money and gittee in de ship and go back to our country. We think Cap’n Meaher dey ought take us back home. But we think we save money and buy de ticket ourselves. So we tell de women, “Now we all want go back home. Derefo’ we got to work hard and save de money. You see fine clothes, you must not wish for dem.” De women tell us dey do all dey kin to get back, and dey tellee us, “You see fine clothes, don’t you wish for dem neither.”

But it too much money we need. So we think we stay here. We see we ain’ got no ruler, no chief lak in de Affica. Dey tell us nobody doan have no king in ’Merica soil. Derefo’ we make Gumpa de head. He a nobleman back in Dahomey. We ain’ mad wid him ’cause de king of Dahomey ’stroy our king and sell us to de white man. He didn’t do nothin’ ’ginst us. We join ourselves together to live.

Abila, she a woman, you unnerstand me, from cross de water. Dey call her Seely in Americky soil. I want dis woman to be my wife. Whut did Cudjo say so dat dis woman know he want to marry her? I tellee you de truth how it was. One day Cudjo say to her, “I likee you to be my wife. I ain’ got nobody.”

We didn’t had no wedding. Whether it was March or Christmas day, I doan remember now. We live together and we do all we kin to make happiness. After me and my wife ’gree ’tween ourselves, we seekee religion and got converted. Den in de church dey tell us we got to marry by license. In de Afficky soil, we ain’ got no license. So den we gittee married by de license, but I doan love my wife no mo’ wid de license than befo’ de license. She a good woman and I love her all de time.

Me and my wife we have de six chillun together. Five boys and one girl. Oh, Lor’! Oh, Lor’! We so happy. We been married ten months when we have our first baby. We call him Yah-Jimmy, just de same lak we was in de Afficky soil. For Americky we call him Aleck.

Most of the descendants attended Union Missionary Baptist Church, which Cudjo and the other former slaves had founded in 1872 and named in honor of the soldiers who’d let Cudjo know he was free. There was also an extra home in the community called the “big house,” where any family could stay who’d fallen on hard times, Lumbers says. “It wasn’t really that big, but it had a big front yard,” where several times a year his cousins, aunts, and uncles would gather for a barbecue.

Africatown once had a main commercial district — including a grocery store, post office, nightclub, and hotel — but it was bulldozed in the early 1980s to build a highway. The middle school is in danger of shuttering owing to low enrollment.

The land that Cudjo and his fellow Africans bought from their former owners to build a settlement is now encircled by factories that locals believe have polluted the area, causing cancer and other illnesses. Last year, an Alabama law firm sued International Paper, which for many years had the largest footprint there, for releasing dangerous chemicals in violation of EPA rules.

Lumbers is returning to his birthplace after he retires next year. “I’m going to get that piece of land, near the church, and I’m going to build a family house. For all my kids” — he has six — “and my kids’ kids” — there are 21 — “and anybody that needs help. As long as you’re not doing drugs or acting a fool, you’ll be able to stay there until you get back on your feet. The big house. We’ll do it just like we used to.”