It’s summer when Hurston first arrives at Cudjo’s house. She knows he’s at home because his gate is unlocked; he latches it with a wooden peg “of African invention.” Climbing up to the porch, she finds him eating breakfast alongside another man and addresses him by his African name, Kossula. Cudjo is so touched that she knows this name that he tears up, telling her it’s “jus’ lak I in de Affica soil.”
Even though Cudjo’s life is by now firmly rooted in America, so much of it is clearly rooted in his West African childhood. Cudjo’s longing to be addressed by his native name shows how slavery robbed him not only of his freedom but of his heritage.
Cudjo explains that the other man is a caretaker who has been staying with him during a recent illness. However, he seems to be healthy and cheerful now; his garden is planted, and he has several fruit trees growing well. Hurston explains that she has come to talk to him, but Cudjo says he doesn’t care why she’s come; he likes to have company because he is often very lonely. For a while, he ignores Hurston and sits in quiet abstraction.
In seeking out Cudjo, Hurston is on an academic mission—these interviews will help her contribute to a body of historical knowledge which she values and has studied deeply. For Cudjo, this project is of less philosophical than personal importance—it’s a time for him to reflect and gain closure on some of the most traumatic aspects of his life.
After a while, Cudjo returns his attention to her, saying that sometimes he can’t help crying from loneliness. Hurston asks how he is feeling, and he responds that “I thank God I on praying groun’ and in a Bible country.” Taken aback, Hurston asks if he had “a God back in Africa.” She sees that he looks very anguished and starts to feel guilty that she has “come to worry this captive in a strange land.”
It becomes clear that Cudjo doesn’t always express himself the way Hurston expects—for example, she’s surprised to see him voicing what seems like explicit approval of America. One of the most interesting aspects of Cudjo’s story is his complex cultural heritage, which defies categorization.
Eventually, Cudjo clarifies his previous statement. He says that in Africa his people always believed in the existence of God, but called him Alahua. Because they didn’t have the Bible, they never knew that God also has a son, and they didn’t know any Biblical stories like the one of Adam and Eve. He says that his people “ain’ ignant – we jes doan know.” He asks if that’s all Hurston wants to know.
For Cudjo, African and Anglo-American religions—and, in a larger sense, cultures—aren’t inherently opposed to each other but rather are part of the same larger scheme. Rather than judging each culture against the other, Cudjo integrates both into his overarching worldview.
Hurston responds that she wants to know many things, from Cudjo’s captivity to his life as a free man. Cudjo cries again, thanking God that finally someone has come to tell his story. He wants his life to be known, so that one day someone will be able to go to Africa and tell his countrymen about his life. He says that he “can’t talkee plain,” but he will tell his entire story as clearly as possible.
For Cudjo, telling his story is an opportunity to reconnect to his heritage—even if the possibility of it ever reaching people who once knew him in Africa is painfully slim. In this sense, storytelling is a way to overcome the community fracturing caused by slavery.
Cudjo says that his real name is Kossula. When he arrived in America, his master Jim Meaher was unable to pronounce his name. Cudjo asks him, “Well, I yo’ property?” When Meaher responds that he is, he shortens his own name to Cudjo.
For Cudjo, the discovery that he is now “property” coincides with the acquisition of an “American” name. Throughout the narrative, such transitions from Africa to America are usually marked by a loss of freedom, opportunity, or well-being.
Cudjo begins to explain his origins in West Africa. His family doesn’t have “ivory by de door,” meaning they aren’t rich or of royal blood. He wants to be clear on this, in case someone ever goes to Africa and claims that Kossula comes from a rich and important family. His grandfather is an officer for the tribe’s king, Akia’on, and follows him around rather than living at home.
In describing his family’s position within the tribal society, Cudjo gives detail and vibrancy to his life in West Africa, rather than dismissing it as the preliminary to his life in America.
Worried that Cudjo is getting distracted, Hurston interrupts that she wants to hear about his life, not his grandfather’s. With an expression of “scornful pity,” Cudjo says he can’t “tellee you ‘bout de son before I tellee you bout de father” and his grandfather. His grandfather, he continues, has a large compound with several wives and children. In his village, the husband’s house is always in the center of the compound, surrounding by the houses of his wives.
It’s very important that Cudjo conceives of himself primarily in relation to his family. His sense of the importance of family networks to individual character makes the sudden loss of his family even more wrenching, and means that in America he will have to build not only a new family but a new sense of self.
Cudjo explains that it wasn’t his grandfather’s idea to marry so many women. Rather, according to local tradition the wives themselves select subsequent wives. Typically, a wife approaches a young girl she has in mind and makes the case for her husband, telling of all his good qualities. If the girl agrees, the wife speaks to her parents and, if both parties are satisfied, the girl goes to the wife’s compound. The husband must then pay the father a certain amount, depending on the physical beauty, social position, and previous marital status of the girl.
Cudjo’s tribe is obviously very patriarchal—families are centered around the husband, and polygamy is common. However, even within these systems women seem to exercise a good deal of decision-making power. Examples like this complicate stereotypes about tribal society and suggest that strong families must include and value strong women.
When the new wife arrives at her husband’s compound, she lives with the old wife in order to learn the household tasks and how to take care of the husband. When she’s ready, the husband builds her own house, marking the occasion by killing a cow and hosting a celebration for the whole village. In Cudjo’s grandfather’s compound, this happens many times.
In moments like this, Hurston records cultural information about Cudjo’s tribe that doesn’t have direct bearing on his enslavement. In doing so, she’s suggesting that African cultures are worthy of study and research in and of themselves.
Generally, all the wives cook food for their husband. After he eats, the husband goes to sleep, fanned and massaged by the younger wives. Other people guard the compound so that nobody wakes him up. Sometimes a young slave boy in the compound makes too much noise and is taken to Grandfather for a scolding. Grandfather threatens to sell the young boy to the Portuguese, but while other men sometimes actually do this to their slaves, Grandfather never does.
Cudjo’s casual mention of slaves living in the compound demonstrates that slavery would have been a normal part of village life and tribal warfare. However, it was not necessarily and irrevocable state, unlike shipping slaves to the Americas. In this sense, it’s not slavery within Africa but cooperation with European and American slave traders that breaches tribal custom and inspires Cudjo’s anger.
Once, tragedy strikes the chief of the village; his newest wife dies while she is still living with another wife and learning the ways of the household. When he receives the news, the chief shouts and cries, saying that he paid a lot of money for her and has never even slept with her.
This passage is somewhat troubling, since it suggests that the young wife’s only value to her husband is the sexual satisfaction she might have provided. This scene is antithetical to the deep and loving bond Cudjo will later form with his own wife.
Finishing this anecdote, Cudjo looks across his thriving garden to his daughter-in-law’s house. Hurston feels that he has forgotten she is there. Eventually, he tells the man sitting beside him to get him some cold water. Smoking his pipe in silence for some time, he tells Hurston to go away and come back later. He’s too tired to talk now. She leaves him sitting among the mosquitos that populate the house’s porch.
Although the interview process generally draws Hurston and Cudjo closer together and allows them to become friends, sometimes storytelling just emphasizes the distance between the one who possesses memories and the one who can only listen to them.