Barracoon

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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Barracoon: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At the bay, some friends of Cudjo’s catch many crabs, which they all share. On the way home, Hurston buys some melons and leaves them with Cudjo. He tells her to come back the next day and share the remaining crabs. He likes her company.
Exchanges like this show that Hurston and Cudjo are starting to enjoy a genuine friendship, instead of the formal relationship between an interviewer and her subject.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
The next day, Cudjo tells her about the fates of his other children. One Easter Sunday, Cudjo and his family are preparing for a big dinner. David asks Seely for some food, but his mother says he’s not getting anything to eat before his father. David urges Cudjo to finish chopping the wood so that they can all have dinner. After eating dinner, David bathes and starts to put on his clean clothes. Cudjo scolds him for wearing an undershirt without anything on top, saying that he shouldn’t appear like that in front of his mother. David laughs good-naturedly. He says that he will go into Mobile and collect the family’s laundry so that he will have clean clothes.
Cudjo foregrounds the tragedy that is about to occur in this scene of quotidian family affairs. Even though he’s lost two children, the family is still grounded in shared rules, like the importance of eating together and wearing clean clothes; although they suffer discrimination, they’re able to maintain a dignified and fulfilling way of life. Their happiness and tranquility now makes the pointlessness of the death that’s about to occur even more stark and troubling.
Themes
The American Dream Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
David leaves, and after a while Cudjo hears some people approaching the house. He assumes that David has brought a friend home, but in fact it’s two other men who tell Cudjo that David is dead in Plateau. In shock, Cudjo argues that David is in Mobile, not Plateau; the men tell him that the railroad has killed him in Plateau.
Cudjo is usually stoic in the face of tragedy, but here he’s so unable to cope with the loss of his son that he won’t even acknowledge the fact.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Cudjo rushes into the town, hoping that in fact it’s not David who has been killed. At the railroad track, he sees a man’s body without a head. He refuses to believe that it’s David and says that “dis none of my son.” However, some other men bring the head from the other side of the train track, but he still won’t acknowledge the terrible reality.
In retelling this event, Cudjo speaks as if he still believes his son is alive. In this sense, storytelling forces Cudjo to live through the painful illusions of the past another time.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
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As the sexton of the church, Cudjo usually tolls the bell for the dead, but he won’t do so now or let anyone else. The men convey the body to Cudjo’s house on a window shutter; Cudjo hopes that David will come home from Mobile soon “so de people stop sayin’ dat my son on the shutter.” When they arrive at the house, Seely screams and faints. Cudjo looks at the head again and finally realizes that this is David. He opens his son’s shirt and feels his wounds. Then he tells the men to toll the bell.
Just as with his daughter Seely’s death, funeral customs are extremely important to Cudjo. However, while they signal the finality of his son’s death here, they don’t provide any kind of emotional comfort.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Seely falls to the floor weeping and screaming; Cudjo is so overwhelmed that he runs into the forest. Some men who had crossed the ocean on the Clotilda seek him out and bring him home, telling him that Seely has calmed down.
It’s implicit here that the shared experience of suffering on the Clotilda equips the men to comfort each other in the midst of tragedies in America.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Another man arranges David’s body so that it’s not obvious he’s been decapitated. The next day, all the townspeople come to the house for a viewing, and David is buried. Cudjo says that it’s as if “all de family hurry to leave and go sleep on de hill,” or the graveyard.
Just as Cudjo often expresses a wish to be back in Africa, he feels that his children don’t want to live in America either. This contributes to the sense that America is a hostile environment for his family.
Themes
The American Dream Theme Icon
Poe-lee is particularly upset by his brother David’s death. He wants Cudjo to sue the railroad company again, but Cudjo points out that it didn’t work before and that he doesn’t “know de white folks law” well enough to try again. Poe-lee is outraged by the misfortunes that have overcome the family and the inability to achieve any justice. He starts to talk often of Africa, saying that things must be better than in America.
While Cudjo usually resigns himself to the injustices that befall him, Poe-Lee wants to take action. However, there are no institutions in place to help him and all he can do is daydream. Here, his parents’ stories are a powerful agent of his restlessness and refusal to accept his dismal fate as a black man in Alabama.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Cudjo and Seely try to talk to Poe-lee and persuade him to be satisfied with his life, but to no avail. He’s been ostracized and bullied by African Americans as a child, and now that he’s an adult his brother is dead and his father is crippled. Cudjo says that Poe-lee “doan laugh no mo’.” After some time, he goes out fishing one day and never returns. Cudjo believes he has run away for good.
While Cudjo and Seely have generally been able to find fulfillment within their family, this doesn’t work well for Poe-lee, who is more concerned with the larger pattern of racism than trying to mitigate its effects on those around him.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
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After telling about this, Cudjo pauses for a long time and cries a little before resuming his narrative. He says that he can’t help it, because he misses his sons so much. He still wonders if Poe-lee has been killed. So many people hate Cudjo’s sons because “de doan let nobody ‘buse dem lak dey dogs.” He hopes that Poe-lee has somehow made it to Africa, but he will never know.
It’s important that best future Cudjo can imagine for his son is a return to Africa. This reinforces his sense that it’s impossible for him and his family to live a good life in America.
Themes
The American Dream Theme Icon
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Cudjo tries to be especially kind to Seely, who is distraught by the loss of her children. Still, she’s taken to crying all the time. Only one son, Jimmy, lives at home now; Cudjo’s other remaining son, Aleck, has gotten married and built a house next door.
Usually, Cudjo talks about feelings he and Seely share, but here he seems to view his wife from a distance. Perhaps the loss of the children leads to a change in their marital dynamic as well.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
When the family is still mourning David’s death and Poe-lee’s disappearance, Jimmy comes home sick one day. A few days later, he dies while holding Cudjo’s hand. Cudjo says that his children are “lonesome for one ‘nother,” and would rather “sleep together in de graveyard” than be alive.
Even in their deaths, Cudjo is still fundamentally convinced of his family’s love for each other and desire to stay together at all costs.
Themes
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After they bury Jimmy, Cudjo and Seely are alone in their house, which was once so full. They know that they can’t have any more children and they can’t bring back the dead, so they try to be good company to each other. Seely helps Cudjo perform his tasks as church sexton.
Although Cudjo and Seely still love each other deeply, the bleakness of their life now is a sad contrast to the beginning of their union when they were able to “make happiness” for each other, rather than just cheering each other up.
Themes
The American Dream Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
At the end of this session, Hurston asks permission to take Cudjo’s photograph. Three days later, she comes back with a camera. Cudjo is interested to see what he looks like. He dresses in his best suit but takes off his shoes, explaining that “I want to look lak I in Affica, ‘cause dat where I want to be.” At Cudjo’s suggestion, Hurston photographs him in the cemetery near his family’s graves.
Cudjo’s combination of the American suit and African absence of footwear is emblematic of his fusion of African and American cultural values. At the same time, it’s understandably clear that Cudjo’s nostalgic longing for Africa is stronger than any positive feelings for America.
Themes
The American Dream Theme Icon
Cultural Relativism Theme Icon
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