By David Canfield
May 30, 2018 at 09:30 AM EDT

Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, released earlier this month, is a heartbreaking book from a renowned 20th-century author. Telling the story of a man who is thought to have been the last-known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade, and featuring a new foreword by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker (The Color Purple), its cultural importance is palpable. And the original copy has been tucked away, secured in university archives, for decades. So why did it take 87 years to get published?

Barracoon introduces readers to Cudjo Lewis, who was abducted from Africa on the last-ever “Black Cargo” ship to arrive in the U.S. “I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave,” Hurston says to him early on. The book is structured along these informal lines, as if writer and subject are in conversation — we’re made privy to the food they share as they chat, from crabs to peaches — and much of the back-and-forth consists of Lewis relaying to Hurston feelings of profound loneliness, loss, and trauma. His story of survival is a devastating but essential read. For Hurston, who died in 1960 and is best known for the American classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, it marks an unearthed treasure.

In 1931, the year Hurston interviewed Lewis, Viking Press rejected the Barracoon manuscript, citing Hurston’s preservation of Lewis’ distinct dialect. Viking wanted conventionally “respectable” language instead. But Hurston didn’t consider removing Lewis’ own words, and so she moved on — unable to find a company willing to partner with her and execute her vision. “When we read [Lewis’] stories and his proverbs and his jokes, this is part of celebrating the life he was able to fashion in himself,” explains Deborah G. Plant, a Hurston scholar at the University of South Florida, who edited the book. “Zora knew that. She insisted on presenting Cudjo’s story, his community, his history, in as authentic a manner as possible.”

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The political significance of Lewis’ original voice wasn’t lost on those involved in bringing Barracoon to the public either. “Within his language is embedded his history,” Plant says. “What this language shows is not so much that this is a broken language; what it shows is an attempt to break a human being. But this human being resisted that.” Accordingly, Hurston’s skills as an “ethnographer” come through in Barracoon, Plant argues, because of the way Lewis’ language reflects his traumatic background, his being “forced to learn the language of the oppressors.”

Two years ago, the literary agent Joy Harris began representing Hurston’s trust and searched for work of hers that hadn’t been made public. Barracoon, still unpublished, was in the archives of Howard University. She sent it to Hurston’s publisher, Harper Perennial, where Tracy Sherrod, editorial director of the imprint Amistad, acquired it. “I cried,” Sherrod remembers of reading Barracoon for the first time. She chokes up: “I could just really feel his loneliness and his longing for home, having all of that taken away from him.” She conveys a mix of joy and exasperation when asked about the past month, as Barracoon hit bookshelves, landed on the New York Times best-seller list, and drew rave reviews. “It’s turned into a whirlwind now,” she says, before cracking, “It’s hard to concentrate!”

Sherrod sought the counsel of Paul Beatty, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Sellout, as well as Plant on how best to approach Barracoon. “I wanted it to be exactly as I imagined [Zora] would want it to be,” she explains. She remembers a few key pieces of advice from Beatty, particularly: “Don’t think about what readers of the time may want, but what Zora would want,” and “You must call it Barracoon, even though people may not know what the word means. You need to go with the title Zora wanted.” (A “barracoon” is an enclosure in which black slaves were confined for a temporary period.)

Barracoon is a challenging read — a reminder of the ugliness of American history and the souls who suffered that hits hard today. “The book … adds Cudjo Lewis’ voice to the vitally important conversation about race in America today,” Harris says. Yet with Lewis’ testimony, we don’t get another textbook version of this national scar. We’re let into the humanity of it. “He allows us to touch what people felt,” Plant says. “He brings to light a historical account — lets us know this history had this heartbeat, and he shares that pulse with us.”

Barracoon is available for purchase.