“CUDJO’S OWN STORY”
Prior to their December 1927 meeting, Hurston had interviewed Kossola once before. As she states in her introduction to Barracoon, “I had met Cudjo Lewis for the first time in July 1927. I was sent by Dr. Franz Boas to get a firsthand report of the raid that had brought him to America and bondage, for Dr. Carter G. Woodson of the Journal of Negro History.”4 From February to August of 1927, Hurston conducted fieldwork in Florida and Alabama under the direction of Franz Boas, her mentor, the renowned “Father of American Anthropology.” Boas had early on approached Woodson, the “Father of Black History,” about a fellowship for Hurston, in support of the research. In accordance with their arrangements, Hurston was to collect black folk materials for Boas and scout around for undiscovered black folk artists. In addition to the gathering of historical data for Woodson, she was also to collect Kossola’s story.5
Woodson supported Hurston’s field research with a $1,400 fellowship. Half of the funds came from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization founded and directed by Woodson. Elsie Clews Parsons, of the American Folklore Society, granted matching funds. As a fellow and “investigator” for the association, Hurston was expected to contribute material to the Journal of Negro History, a publication of the association. During the latter part of her time in the field, Hurston drove to Plateau, Alabama, to undertake her last task for Woodson and conduct the interview with Kossola. Along with various reports and archival data, Hurston submitted to Woodson materials she had collected on Fort Mosé, a black settlement in Saint Augustine, Florida. Woodson published this material as an article entitled “Communications,” in the October 1927 issue of the Journal.
In the same issue, he published Hurston’s Kossola interview as “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver.”6 A footnote at the beginning of the article stated that as “an investigator of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History,” Zora Neale Hurston had traveled to Mobile to interview Lewis, “the only survivor of this last cargo.” The note states further, “She made some use, too, of the Voyage of Clotilde and other records of the Mobile Historical Society.”7 In reality, Hurston made more than a little use of the society’s records. And though part of the article was “a first-hand report,” the larger portion of the article was secondhand information drawn from Emma Langdon Roche’s Historic Sketches of the South (1914). Emma Roche was a writer, artist, and farmer born in Alabama in 1878. Her book is an account of the origins of slavery in America, couched in proslavery tenets and paternalistic perspectives. Her narrative recounts the history of the Clotilda and follows the fate of the Africans who were stored in its hold.
Only decades later would the literary critic and Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway bring the matter of Hurston’s “borrowing” to scholarly attention and discussion. Hemenway credits the finding to the linguist William Stewart, who discerned it in 1972. “Stewart’s discovery was conveyed to me,” Hemenway noted in Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, “by John Swed of the University of Pennsylvania. I am grateful to Professor Stewart for granting me permission to cite his research and findings.”8 Though the footnote in her 1927 article acknowledges the Mobile Historical Society as a secondary source, it does not reference Historic Sketches specifically, and Hurston makes no direct reference to Roche’s book within the body of the article itself. Rather, improperly documented paraphrased passages and near-verbatim appropriations from Roche’s work constitute the larger part of the article. “Of the sixty-seven paragraphs in Hurston’s essay,” Hemenway relates, “only eighteen are exclusively her own prose.”9
Hemenway speculates that Hurston found her interview with Kossola lacking in original material and therefore resorted to the use of Roche’s work to supplement it. He supposes, too, that Hurston, writing at the outset of her career, suffered a quandary of purpose, direction, and methodology: How, exactly, was she to introduce the world to African American folklore, which she perceived to be “the greatest cultural wealth on the continent”?10 Hemenway observed that Hurston, as one of the folk herself, struggled to negotiate the sociocultural chasm between her rural hometown of Eatonville, Florida, and the wealthy enclaves of New York City. He believed that her frustration with the academic study and presentation of the African American folk and folk culture was a reflection of the same struggle.
Hurston had imbibed Boas’s theory of cultural relativity and understood that there were no superior or inferior cultures; she understood that cultures were to be assessed and evaluated on their own terms. But were the methods of Boas and Woodson conducive to her purposes? Was it possible that “the reportorial precision” of Western scientific investigation could be the means by which she would document and celebrate African American genius and, thereby, challenge European imperialism and Euro-American cultural hegemony? Or, did she believe, as did poet Audre Lorde, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”?11
In a letter to her friend Thomas Jones, the president of Fisk University, Hurston articulated her conundrum. “Returned to New York and began to re-write and arrange the material for Scientific publications, and while doing so, began to see the pity of all the flaming glory of being buried in scientific Journals.”12 She was dubious about Boas’s objective-observer approach to folklore collection, and she chafed under Woodson’s brand of scholarship. She preferred to be in the field, writes Hemenway, and so resented the time she spent investigating court records and “mindlessly transcribing historical documents.”13
Nonetheless, Hemenway wondered why Hurston would risk her career and whether her plagiaristic use of Roche’s work was “an unconscious attempt at academic suicide.” This attempt, Hemenway concludes, “is made because of a lack of respect for the writing one has to do.” If detected and “her scientific integrity destroyed . . . Hurston’s academic career would have been finished.” She would then have been free from Boas’s admonitions and Woodson’s demands, and “the unglamorous labor” of collecting folklore.14 Is it possible, Hemenway speculates further, that footnotes referencing Roche had been included but were lost or otherwise omitted from the “other records” to which the article’s footnote alludes? In any case, Hemenway states that “Hurston’s career needs no absurd apologetics. She never plagiarized again; she became a major folklore collector.”15
Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd has proposed that even though Hurston resented the “hack work” she did for Woodson, it is also just as likely “that Hurston believed the report was only for Woodson’s files; she did not expect it to be published any more than she thought her transcribed ‘Communication’ was worthy of publication.”16 The “Communications” article was a compilation of transcribed excerpts from letters and historical and congressional documents, strung together with brief transitional statements. This style of reporting bears comparison with the composition of “Cudjo’s Own Story.”
Boyd wondered whether Hurston’s submission of material that contained only 25 percent of her original work might have been Hurston’s “way of getting back at Woodson for arbitrarily slicing her pay and cutting into her research time by having her do his dreck work.”17 Hurston had complained to her friend, the poet Langston Hughes, that she had finished her work for Woodson but wasn’t paid in full. “I thought I’d get pay for the month but he only paid me for two weeks.” She vented to Hughes and told him that she felt depressed about the matter.18
As Hemenway conjectured that Hurston may have saved the “juicy bits” of her folklore finds for theatrical collaborations with Langston Hughes, Boyd conjectured that Hurston “had resolved to save her most compelling material from Cudjo Lewis for her own work.”19 Kossola had gained some celebrity as the last living survivor of the Clotilda. Other anthropologists, folklorists, historians, journalists, and artists alike had sought him out. Hurston’s colleague Arthur Huff Fauset had already collected from Kossola the folktale “T’appin” (“Terrapin”), which he published in Alain Locke’
It is possible that the compromised article may have both relieved Hurston of tedium and allowed her a boon of lore for her own purposes, thereby hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick. Or, as Lynda Marion Hill suggests in Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston’s professional faux pas may have been an instance of Hurston masking her emotional response to a troubling event. In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston was new. Although Hemenway may have agreed with Franz Boas that “Hurston was a ‘little too much impressed with her own accomplishments,’” it is equally true that she herself was still very much impressionable.21 In 1927, the career to which critics allude was in the future. Hurston was not the seasoned social scientist who had published the folklore collections Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938). She was not the author of four novels, including the celebrated Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). She was yet at the beginning of things.
“Cudjo’s Own Story” was Hurston’s debut scholarly publication. “In writing her first essay on Cudjo,” Lynda Hill surmises, “Hurston might have been too moved and too uncertain how to manage her subjective response, rather than too frustrated with the rigors of scientific analysis, to produce an authentic text.”22 As Hurston reflected on her interview with Kossola years later in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, “It gave me something to feel about.”23 The interview changed Hurston, Hill observes. This elder, an Isha Yoruba in America, had schooled her in the sociopolitical and cultural complexities of “My People.” In face of Kossola’s recollections, the social constructions of “My People” and “Africans” were deconstructed by the reality of ethnic identifications, which not only distinguished tribes and clans but also generated the narrative distance and the ideological difference that rendered one ethnic group capable of regarding another as “stranger” or “enemy,” and allowed that group to offer up the “Other” to “the trans-Atlantic trade.”
“One thing impressed me strongly from this three months of association with Cudjo Lewis,” Hurston writes. “The white people had held my people in slavery in America. They had bought us, it is true and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on—that the white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard ship and sailed away.”24
Hurston was a collector of folklore. However, the folklore she was “brought up on” contradicted the folklore she was collecting from Kossola. Moreover, “all that this Cudjo told me,” Hurston mused, “was verified from other historical sources.”25 Harlem Renaissance pundits and artists like Zora Neale Hurston were wrestling with the identity of “the Negro.” They had reclaimed the image of black people and asserted the value of black culture (vis-à-vis white people and Anglo American culture). There was a decided movement to do away with the image of “the Old Negro” and usher in “the New Negro,” whose authentic culture and ethos were rooted in African origins. How did the butchering and killing of African “others” and the extirpation of whole societies fit within the profile of this modern, authentic “New Negro”?
Might Hurston have attempted to avoid “the inescapable fact” of that dimension of African humanity that was motivated by “the universal nature of greed and glory”?26 Could it be that the woman and social scientist whose objectives entailed the discovering and uncovering of African cultural retentions in America was blindsided by Kossola’s recollection of the inhumanity that was integral to his delivery at the port of Ouidah? Perhaps, rather than force herself to deal with such disorienting facts that stuck in her craw, Hurston chose, in the moment, to submit a narrative about the raid that had already been penned.
“Although justifying plagiarism is impossible,” Hill writes, “the reasons for it should be scrutinized in light of its being, to date, a one-time occurrence in the long, productive career of a prolific and widely published author.”27 Hill’s perspective is an important one, especially given the fact that Hemenway levels a similar charge, condemning and dismissing Barracoon, as though the manuscript were but an extension of the earlier published Cudjo Lewis piece. It is not. Hemenway proclaims that the article published in the Journal was an anomaly and reports that Hurston returned to Mobile to interview Kossola anew and did so with greater success. Barracoon, the book-length work, was the result of her efforts.
“Yet, even this unpublished manuscript, written in 1931,” writes Hemenway, “makes extensive use of Roche and other anthropological sources; although it skillfully weaves together the scholarship and Hurston’s own memories of Cudjo, it does not acknowledge those sources, and it is the type of book that Boas would have repudiated.” Hemenway writes further, “The book purports to be solely the words of Cudjo; in fact, it is Hurston’s imaginative recreation of his experience. Her purpose was to recreate slavery from a black perspective . . . but she was doing so as an artist rather than as a folklorist or historian.”28
Although the journal article and the book manuscript have a common subject in Kossola, they are two distinct works. And where the charge of plagiarism is reasonable with the first, it is unfounded with the second. Hurston does draw on Roche’s work in Barracoon, and she acknowledges it only indirectly. In her preface to Barracoon, she writes, “For historical data, I am indebted to the Journal of Negro History, and to the records of the Mobile Historical Society.”29 In her introduction, Hurston describes her interviews with Kossola and states, “Thus, from Cudjo and from the records of the Mobile Historical Society, I had the story of the last load of slaves brought into the United States.”30
In her use of Roche’s work, as with her use of other secondary materials, Hurston makes a good-faith effort in Barracoon to document her sources. She does paraphrase passages from Historical Sketches, and she places direct quotes within quotation marks, though in the manuscript draft she is inconsistent in this. And some sources are actually documented within the text of the introduction and others are footnoted within the body of the narrative.
The historian Sylviane Diouf states that Hemenway’s characterization of Hurston’s manuscript was “uncalled for.” “She may have conflated some of what Cudjo said with some of what she knew as a scholar, but she made a genuine effort at separating the two. With few exceptions, the information provided in Barracoon is confirmed by other sources. Witnesses, experts in Yoruba cultures, contemporary newspaper articles, and abundant archival material corroborate the various events in Cudjo’s life as described in Barracoon.”31
Far from being a fictionalized re-creation, Diouf writes, “Cudjo’s story, as transmitted by Hurston, is as close to veracity as can possibly be ascertained with the help of other records.” She states further that Hurston “had produced an invaluable document on the lives of a group of people with a unique experience in American history.”32 Rather than repudiate her, Boas might well have been pleased and encouraging, as Hurston, in this early phase of her professional writing, endeavored to utilize historical records to support her folklore findings—just as both Boas and Woodson had instructed. What is more significant is that Hurston was struggling to appease neither Boas nor Woodson, but was engaged in the process of actualizing her vision of herself as a social scientist and an artist who was determined to present Kossola’s story in as authentic a manner as possible.
From the earliest known “slave narrative” to the postbellum oral histories collected in works like George P. Rawick’s The American Slave, one glimpses the vicissitudes and the interior lives of a people forced to exist in and toil under inhumane circumstances. Few of these narratives recount the incidents that preceded disembarkation and the holding pens and auction blocks of Ame
The subject of capture in Africa and transport through the Middle Passage is not the experience of those who were born into the condition of servitude on American soil. Narratives like Kossola’s, of which there are but a few, describe the Maafa, the violent uprooting of bodies, the devastation of societies, and the desolation of souls. Rather than chart the journey from slavery to freedom in America, Kossola’s narrative journeys back to Africa and gives us a glimpse into the collective black experience as seen through the openings in the barracoons that lined the African coasts of the Atlantic world.
Barracoon differs from classic slave narratives in a number of ways. The Barracoon narrative is not a conventional bid for freedom and it chronicles no harrowing tales of escape or trials of self-purchase. Unlike the authors of conventional narratives, Kossola was born in Africa. And because he was not born in the United States, he had to obtain citizenship through the naturalization process. Where narratives like those penned by Frederick Douglass speak to the cause of abolition, racial equality, and women’s rights, Barracoon does not articulate an explicit political agenda. And it does not speak with the kind of heroic, self-possessed, and self-realized voice associated with black autobiography.
Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes