Back in December 1927, Zora Neale Hurston, a Columbia University-trained anthropologist and Harlem Renaissance darling, traveled from New York to Mobile, Alabama. There, in an outlying region, she met Kossula, the last known survivor of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The man she found was often taciturn, more interested in tending his garden than recounting his story. But when she finally coaxed him to talk, she found him eager to share nearly a century’s accumulated experience.
Kossula (alternately spelled Kossola or Kazoola) was captured by Dahomey warriors, aged about 19, and sold to American smugglers, who got him and over 100 other Africans into Alabama in 1859. This despite America having banned the importation of Africans in 1808. Had the smugglers been caught, they could’ve been hanged, though few ever were. Kossula’s ship became the last ever slave vessel before the Civil War; his “owners” held him less than three years.
Hurston, born relatively poor in segregated Florida, proved an apt student, eventually studying under “The Father of American Anthropology,” Franz Boas. In 1927, she hadn’t published any books yet, only some scholarly articles. However, according to editor Deborah Plant, an independent scholar specializing in Hurston’s works, she already chafed at scholarship’s restrictions. Interviewing Kossula offered her an opportunity to immerse herself in the stories she considered most important, a hallmark of her later classic work.
When Hurston bribed Kossula with fresh fruit and country ham, he opened up. (Early pages also stress that he appreciated being called by his African name, rather than his Americanized name, Cudjoe Lewis.) He begins telling his story, mostly in order, though Hurston probably edited that for print. His voice is distinctly reminiscent of the rhythms of folktales and traditional songs, and often has neatly packaged morals; he admits being a well-regarded teller of “parables.”
The product is essentially Kossula’s autobiography, merely prompted along, Boswell-like, by Hurston’s probing questions. He recounts an interesting childhood in Bantè, a little-known region of Benin ultimately subsumed by Dahomey, and later France. He describes a childhood of relative privilege, raised by a minor nobleman’s family, and training for initiation into manhood and soldiery. Sadly, he cannot tell the entire story; Dahomey forces sacked his village for lucrative slaves before he reached the final initiation.
|Kossula (Cudjoe Lewis) as photographed by Zora Neale Hurston,|
left, and Hurston herself (click to enlarge)
Kossula tells extensively about the forced march from his village to the barracoons (slave barracks) of the Benin coast. Those among his people who weren’t enslaved, were murdered outright in the war. He also talks at length about the shipment in a shallow-keeled blockade runner across the Atlantic Ocean, where villagers who’s known each other for years found themselves divided among plantation owners who didn’t respect that history. Surprisingly, he talks little about slavery itself.
Liberated as suddenly, and as violently, as they were enslaved, Kossula’s people first wanted to return to Africa. However, the whites who liberated them cared little afterward, and they couldn’t afford the return passage. So they created “Africatown,” a village neighboring Mobile, Alabama, where they recreated their African lifestyle wherever possible. Kossula recounts building his people’s first church and school, having legal troubles with the railroad, and eventually outliving his wife and all five children.
Unfortunately, this volume never found a publisher during Hurston’s lifetime. Scholars speculate why: perhaps because Hurston spells Kossula’s dialect phonetically, already considered borderline racist in the 1930s, or because it implicated fellow Africans in slave trading. Though scholars have known multiple typescripts of this book exist, and have studied it extensively, opaque areas of copyright law kept it from being published until 2018, even as Hurston has become posthumously recognized as a major American writer.
Deborah G. Plant provides valuable front and back matter to place Kossula’s story in its historical context. Hurston’s draft runs barely 100 pages, very short even for oral history, and though she provides some explanatory endnotes, they’re sparse, sometimes contradictory, and based on outdated scholarship. As an anthropologist, Hurston was a remarkable storyteller and literary stylist; but, compared to her landmark researches into African American folk religion, this volume is very much a journeyman effort.
Despite very minor shortcomings, this book provides welcome insights into America’s past. As Hurston writes, slavery’s history usually comes from a White perspective: “All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.” Kossula, the last storyteller capable of closing that gap, does so with poetic grace and dignity. This volume also helps cement Hurston’s role as an eminent Black scholar and stylist, and hopefully a new generation will read her works.