Book Review: Barracoon

It’s hard to find words to describe this piece. I am honored, blessed, and humbled to have read it. By the end of the book I wonder why and how on earth Kossula is still standing, and then I realize it is because he was waiting to tell his story. We will forever be indebted to both him for recounting it and Zora Neale Hurston for putting it down for us to read.

I had heard of Africatown and watched a documentary about its “rumored” beginnings. The story of the last slave ship to land on American shores was both infuriating and captivating. When I read that Zora Neale Hurston had a book, newly published last year about the last living man from that ship, I had to read it.

If Hurston’s There’s Eyes Were Watching God was any indicator, I knew I was in for a soul-searching, heart-rending tale. The book doesn’t fit neatly into one genre; it’s part slave narrative, part love story, part tragedy, part anthropological study, and it is all essential history. Kossula’s story is unique in that he was a young man when he was stolen from Africa and his culture, language, history, and traditions were firmly embedded in his mind. Unlike the slaves he joined upon entering the states, he knew his history, he had something very real tethering him to his homeland, and he had not been indoctrinated by anti-African propaganda. His life spanned the time from before the start of the civil war, reconstruction, The Jim Crow south, the first World War and the beginning of The Great Depression.

His story is uniquely his and, because of Hurston’s painstaking diligence in bringing Kossula’s story to life in his own words, we get to hear his thoughts and memories as he spoke them without commentary or interpretation. Hurston transcribes Kossula’s dialect phonetically so that it is easy to understand.

There is so much in the text that one can hardly a page is turned without something happening. We feel as if we are sitting with Hurston and Kossula, invisible observers. Hurston seamlessly weaves together one interview after another and Kossula, already steeped in the griot tradition, is a magnificent storyteller.

I do not dare to attempt to retell his story; I could not do it justice. Suffice it to say that it is a gem, a brilliantly tragic gem that should be imbibed, treasured, and passed on to our children once they are able to bear the tremendous weight of the recounting of his life.

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