This spring, 87 years after acclaimed Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston wrote Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo," the previously unpublished work spent nine weeks on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.

Posthumously edited by celebrated Hurston scholar Deborah G. Plant, Barracoon is the riveting story of 86-year-old Cudjo "Kossola" Lewis, a survivor of Clotilda, the last slave ship known to have made the Middle Passage.

Hurston recounts Lewis' time in the barracoon, the underbelly of the ship where he was transported as human cargo. It then moves on to his five years working on an Alabama plantation and his role as a founder of Alabama's historic Africatown, where he lived out his post-Emancipation life — all told in Lewis' authentic voice, a mix of his native West African tongue and African American Southern dialect.

“Barracoon, The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ ” (Amistad, 2018) spent nine weeks on the New York Times best-seller list
Courtesy of Amistad
“Barracoon, The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ ” (Amistad, 2018) spent nine weeks on the New York Times best-seller list

Plant will be in town Tuesday at the WHYY studios for a public conversation with WHYY journalist Annette John-Hall to discuss both Barracoon and Hurston's most famous book, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

I read Eyes in the 1990s during one of Hurston's many literary revivals, and I found her pigtailed protagonist Janie Crawford heroic. I became a Hurston fan.

And though I knew a few things about her studies as an anthropologist — Hurston attended Howard University, then spent years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University — I never gave much thought to how her intense study of people may have informed her prolific, fanciful fiction, including Janie's authentic black vernacular of the Jim Crow South.

That was until I chatted with Plant, a scholar of African American and literary studies who has written three books on Hurston, about the author's profound use of dialect in Barracoon.

How did Zora Neale Hurston’s work as an anthropologist inform her work as an author?
Zora Neale Hurston, author of “Barracoon.”
Carl Van Vechten
Zora Neale Hurston, author of “Barracoon.”

She was both the storyteller/writer and the anthropologist. … In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, she talks about going to the store [as a girl] and listening to men on the porch telling stories, making fun of each other, signifying, and all of these kinds of things.

The details of these stories fall into her ears. She's developing her ear as anthropologist then.

This is not separate from her. This is not something she has to figure out how to do. She knows how to do it, and she knows how to give it her academic background and parlay that into fiction.

How does her use of language add to the authenticity that permeates Hurston’s work?

If you want to really reveal the quality of the character, the inner sensibilities of a character … if you want to capture them perfectly, then capturing the language is important.

Repetitions. Redundancies. These things you have to leave as-is. These are the authenticating features that are a part of their ethnographic profile. [Hurston was] that social scientist who was able to give us a narrative that is authentic and original. In this way, we know her characters — real and fictional — to be real human beings.

And this is why Lewis’ story feels so authentic? I mean, she barely gives any description of him.

Yes, we can visualize him without seeing him or even having a detailed description. That goes to show what kind of skill she has.

Scholars of the day pooh-poohed this. And even today we laugh at black vernacular, calling it “ghetto,”  “unschooled,” “not cultured.”  We make fun of this as a part of our uncivilized past. You are saying it is to be celebrated?

Yes, because grammar is a celebration of yourself.  You start picking up the grammatical structure of your people from the moment that you are born. Many feel it is formulated in your brain when you are still in your mother's womb.

It defines your worldview, everything you understand about your world, the relationship between yourself, your people, your spirituality.

The words are superficial. Your grammar is real.

We haven't taught this to our young people. They, we, are not aware of how our grammar and syntax is part of a rich history that people try to erase. This is why Hurston's work is so important. She captures it. She keeps it alive.

How does Lewis’ story add to what we already know about slave narratives and black history?

Barracoon fills in a lot of blanks that narratives like Frederick Douglass and Linda Brent just don't.

Think about how many narratives you know written by people who have been enslaved that give you information about their capture, the Middle Passage. How many narratives talk about their experience coming across the Atlantic?

You find this first-hand account in Barracoon. Lewis wasn't born into the condition of servitude. He was free for 19 years on his African continent. Other narratives tell you about the harshness and inhumanity of the condition. But they don't tell you what it's like to be uprooted from your entire world and dramatically and violently taken away in such a terroristic way.

And this is important to understanding the history of African Americans today, because …?

This reminds us of the kind of the kind of unimaginable pain and grief that our ancestors went through. And it doesn't go away. … Hurston honors our ancestors and their ability to survive. Their words illustrate their resilience and their insistence on being self-expressed in a world that denied their being. They were denied their own presence as human beings.

Author talk

Celebrate the Great American Read with Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

  • 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, July 31, WHYY studios, 150 N. 6th St., $30 (sold out, with limited walk-up tickets to watch the simulcast in an overflow area)