The posthumous publication marks a change of pace for the legendary writer

By David Canfield
December 19, 2017 at 11:13 AM EST
Corbis/Getty Images

Zora Neale Hurston, the legendary African-American writer best known for Their Eyes Were Watching God, compiled and wrote a study of the last known survivor of the U.S. slave trade before her death. More than a half-century later, it has finally been acquired for publication.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” traces the years of research and interviews between Hurston and 95-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Lewis was, by 1927, when he met Hurston, the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Lewis’ firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the U.S. She returned to his hometown of Plateau, Alabama some years later, where Lewis told her remarkable stories over months of intimate, personal conversations.

“Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the 20th Century, Barracoon brilliantly illuminates the tragedy of slavery and one life forever defined by it,” HarperCollins, who is publishing the book, says. “Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.”

Per the the Encyclopaedia of Alabama, Cudjo Lewis was born Oluale Kossola in Benin in 1841. He was taken prisoner in 1860, spent 45 days crossing the Atlantic, and was enslaved by James Meaher, a ship captain, in the U.S. until 1865.

Hurston wrote more than 50 short stories in addition to several novels, rendering Barracoon a posthumous change of pace for those familiar with her work. Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered a seminal work of American literature, both for its groundbreaking exploration of gender roles and its rejection of its time period’s racial uplift literary prescriptions. She died in 1960; her manuscript Every Tongue Got to Confess, a collection of folktales gathered in the 1920s, was published posthumously in 2001 in the Smithsonian archives.

Barracoon will be released on May 8, 2018. Pre-order the book here.