Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
Keeping your true name. Keeping your customs. Building your home. Building a community. Zora Neale Hurston of all-Black Eatonville, Fla., understood this African combination of self-respect and self-reliance well. It made her the perfect person to go on the mission that historian Carter G. Woodson and anthropologist Franz Boas needed: interview Kossola (Cudjo Lewis), the last African alive brought on the last American slave ship. Pieces of the product have been long known, but the entire manuscript was hidden in archives because Hurston, a stickler for authenticity, did not want Kossola’s dialect changed. She wanted to keep his poetic inflection alive, to let the uncut, un-sanitized discomfort show.
In 1927, Hurston had not yet become “Zora Neale Hurston,” one of the greatest 20th century producers of African American Letters; her eyes were not yet watching God. But the care the anthropologist took in interviewing this survivor for three months is noted. She waited. She listened. She asked. He answered. The saga would suddenly become alive and present in Kossola’s small cabin, and envelop him with agony—fresh pain, because even though Kossola, born in 1841, was 86, he was shackled before he was 21, with a complete recall of his entire young life in a West African village. Hurston, seeing the heretofore invisible African holocaust fill the American space and freeze the clock, would abruptly leave. And wait. And come again. Time was kept, made and pulled back and forth, from Africa and the Middle Passage, through the Civil War and Reconstruction.
The book’s title comes from the staging pens the newly-captured Africans were kept, frozen in betrayal by other Africans, who sold their humanity to the most civilized of savages. The cages represent the transition from the stolen African life to the subjugated American one. Did the enslaved Africans resist? Without question: “Cap’n Tim and Cap’n Burns Meaher workee dey folks hard. Dey got overseer wid de whip. One man try whippee one my country women and dey all jump on him and takee the whip ‘way from him and lashee him wid it. He doan never try whip African women no mo.’”
After the Civil War, those from the last ship, enslaved for (only) five years, decided to separate from racist whites and unhelpful free Blacks and create their own town. “We say dat (calling it Africatown) ‘cause we want to go back in de Affica soil and we see we cain go. Derefo’ we make de Affica where dey fetch us.” The African outpost, the first of its kind in America, would eventually be named Plateau-Magazine Point, Alabama, but Hurston allows Kossola to explain that Africa is both a place and a concept to the survivors, the town a product of more than one Reconstruction.
This book is an example of why writers (must) write, and why the time to create quality nonfiction not only matters, but cannot be substituted. No witty Twitter comment or 10-minute YouTube video can equal what Hurston did almost a century ago with a pen, pad, gifts of fruit and ham, and lots of patience. Hurston of Eatonville and Kossola from Africatown speak to us now, through the slow, patient page, demanding recognition, if not reparations, from the still-close African past.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His 2014 audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the first mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark.