Zora Neale Hurston's 'Barracoon' Gets Published, More Than 60 Years Later Harlem Renaissance star Zora Neale Hurston is the author of a book only now being published. It's called Barracoon and it spent more than 60 years accessible only to academics.
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Zora Neale Hurston's 'Barracoon' Gets Published, More Than 60 Years Later

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Zora Neale Hurston's 'Barracoon' Gets Published, More Than 60 Years Later

Zora Neale Hurston's 'Barracoon' Gets Published, More Than 60 Years Later

Zora Neale Hurston's 'Barracoon' Gets Published, More Than 60 Years Later

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Harlem Renaissance star Zora Neale Hurston is the author of a book only now being published. It's called Barracoon and it spent more than 60 years accessible only to academics.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Zora Neale Hurston, the legendary writer from the Harlem Renaissance, has a new book. Actually, it's an old book that's only now being published. It's called "Barracoon," and it's based on a series of conversations that she had with Cudjo Lewis. Lewis came to this country aboard the last ship that brought slaves across the Atlantic. NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Zora Neale Hurston first met Cudjo Lewis at his home in Alabama, she called him by his African name, Kossola. Though he was an old man, he was thrilled to hear it again. As one of the last slaves to be brought to this country aboard an illegal vessel, Lewis still had many memories of his life in Africa. Deborah Plant, who edited "Barracoon," says that makes the book special because most slave narratives focus on life in this country.

DEBORAH PLANT: It is so unusual. It makes "Barracoon" a national treasure.

NEARY: It's a national treasure that has spent more than 60 years in Howard University's library where only scholars had access to it. Tracy Sherrod is editorial director of Amistad at HarperCollins, which is now publishing the book. She says Hurston tried to get it published back in the 1930s, but the manuscript was rejected.

TRACY SHERROD: They wanted to publish it, but they wanted Zora to change the language so it wasn't written in dialect and more in standard English. And she refused to do so.

NEARY: Hurston refused, says Deborah Plant, because she understood that Lewis' language was key to understanding him.

PLANT: We're talking about a language that he had to fashion for himself in order to negotiate this new terrain he found himself in.

NEARY: In this excerpt from the audio book, Lewis describes what it was like to arrive in this strange, new country.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "BARRACOON: THE STORY OF THE LAST "BLACK CARGO"")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) We don't know why we bring way from our country to work like this. Is strange to us. Everybody look at us strange. We want to talk with the other colored folks, but they don't know what we say (ph).

PLANT: Embedded in his language is everything of his history. To deny him his language is to deny his history, to deny his experience, which is ultimately to deny him period, to deny what happened to him.

NEARY: What happened to him was horrific. He describes in graphic detail the day his village was raided by another tribe. It was a brutal massacre, and those who survived were sold as slaves. But Lewis also remembered his village before the massacre, like the day he saw a group of young girls in the market.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "BARRACOON: THE STORY OF THE LAST "BLACK CARGO"")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Oh, they look very fine to Cudjo when they walkie. They sling their arms so and the bracelet ring. I like hearing that. It sounds so pretty. One day, I see one girl I like very much to marry but I too young to take a wife (ph).

NEARY: "Barracoon," says Plant, is not only about the brutality of slavery and its aftermath in this country. It's about the pain of what was lost and left behind.

PLANT: Being taken away from everything you ever knew never to see it again, never, ever to know what became of your family, your community, that's terrifying. It's traumatic. It's heartbreaking.

NEARY: Plant says that pain stayed with Lewis for his whole life.

PLANT: So often in the interviewing process he would weep, or he would be so lost in the memories of what happened to him he could not speak.

NEARY: Cudjo Lewis, says Tracy Sherrod, was a vivid storyteller. His language, she says, is not hard to understand. To her, it sounds familiar.

SHERROD: It made me feel incredibly connected to him because I saw patterns in his speech, words that he used, that my grandparents used, and it really felt like a coming home.

NEARY: Sherrod believes Zora Neale Hurston would be happy that the book has finally gotten published and that Cudjo Lewis' photo is on the cover. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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