Barracoon

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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Barracoon: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next time Hurston visits Cudjo, she brings a basket of peaches. Cudjo’s great-granddaughters arrive at the same time, and he gives them each some peaches and sends them off to play. He tells Hurston that the reason he grows sugarcane in his garden is so that he always has something sweet to give the girls when they visit. That day Cudjo shows Hurston his entire garden, but doesn’t say anything about himself.
Cudjo’s affection for the young girls recalls his deep sense of familial connection during his own childhood. In his life in America, Cudjo has preserved his African values as much as possible and tried to rebuild the things he lost forever during enslavement.
Themes
The American Dream Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Coming another day, Hurston brings a bottle of insect repellant. This time, Cudjo is eager to talk to her, and he resumes his story where he left off, by talking about the situations with which his grandfather was faced as an officer of the king, Akia’on. He says that, customarily, any man who kills a leopard must bring it to the king, who takes the animal’s poisonous whiskers as well as some organs, which are used to make medicine. If anyone kills the leopard and takes the whiskers for himself, it’s understood that he wants to poison someone.
At the time of Hurston’s writing it was common and acceptable to dismiss African cultures as primitive and undeveloped—in fact, this was used as a justification for enslaving Africans. By giving detailed accounts of this tribe’s methods for dealing with all kinds of communal issues, Hurston characterizes it as complex and sophisticated, with social systems that are just as valuable as any European counterpart.
Themes
Cultural Relativism Theme Icon
One day, a man kills a leopard, covers its head and ties its body to a pole, and carries it to Akia’on. When the king looks at the leopard’s face, he sees that it is missing its whiskers. The king and the chiefs interrogate the man as to how he killed the leopard and where the whiskers are, but the man claims to know nothing, and says he doesn’t want to kill anyone. However, when the chiefs search the man they find that he’s carrying the hairs hidden on his person.
The emphasis on controlling the poisonous substance and minimizing danger to the tribe shows the deeply communal orientation of the society, and Akia’on’s sense of obligation to protect those he leads. By contrast, when Cudjo is brought to Dahomey as a captive he will see that the kingdom’s leaders view their prerogative as enriching themselves at the expense of others.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
All day Akia’on and the chiefs talk about the case, and the next day they find the man guilty of attempted poisoning and sentence him to execution. The man is imprisoned and left until the next festival day, when executions normally take place. On that day, the man is brought to a “place of sacrifice” where the king and all the chiefs are assembled. The drums start beating and three executioners perform a traditional dance, singing about their duty to “kill him who would kill the innocent.”
Cudjo’s descriptions of his childhood often emphasize the tribe’s justice system, which he characterizes as harsh but fair. Cudjo sees the laws of his homeland as guarantors of safety and prosperity, while the laws of America never protect him from harm and often expose him to discrimination and prejudice.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
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When Akia’on gives a signal, one of the executioners chops off the man’s head. His body is buried, but his head is displayed alongside the heads of other criminals.
The image of the heads on display is harsh, but for Cudjo it represents a clear and logical system of justice governing behavior within the tribe.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
The king only adjudicates major crimes like murder, leaving minor issues like adultery to the local chiefs. Cudjo says that “everything be done open here,” meaning that every crime is addressed in the presence of the entire community.
The openness of deliberations in the tribe contrasts with the murky and unsatisfactory nature of American court proceedings in which Cudjo is involved when he sues the railroad.
Themes
The American Dream Theme Icon
For example, Cudjo remembers a case where one man has murdered another with a spear. The man is arrested and carried to the marketplace, while messengers summon Akia’on to come and deliberate on the case. In the meantime, the elders coat the dead man with a special paste so his body doesn’t decompose before the king examines him. Everyone in the village keeps vigil over the dead man by night, eating and drinking.
Even though the king presides over murder trials like this, the entire community is involved, as their vigil clearly shows. In Cudjo’s childhood, justice depends on the whole community and protects the whole community; by contrast, in America justice seems inaccessible to Cudjo and other African Americans.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
When Akia’on finally arrives, the local chief kills some livestock in his honor and the trial begins. Both the dead man and the murderer are placed in the market, where everyone can see them. Asked why he killed the man, the murderer replies that “de man work juju against him” and caused the death of his child. The king reprimands him, saying that he should have come to the chiefs rather than handling matters himself. After all, there are laws to punish people who “work juju.”
Akia’on emphasizes that there’s no need or excuse for taking the law into one’s own hands, because there are rules to govern every situation. By contrast, in America Cudjo will find that he and his family have no recourse to the law when a sheriff’s deputy murders his son without punishment.
Themes
The American Dream Theme Icon
All day, the chiefs ask the murderer questions. Cudjo notes that, unlike in America, Africans can’t use insanity as a defense in criminal trials. Eventually, the king pronounces that the man is guilty and sentences him to execution. Just as before, the drums begin to beat and the executioner dances around the murderer and touches the man’s neck three times, whereupon other men grab the murderer and tie him face-to-face to the dead man.
In moments of comparison like this, Cudjo merely emphasizes the difference between African and American culture, rather than pronouncing judgment on either one. In this sense, he embodies the principle of cultural relativism that Hurston advances in her writing.
Themes
Cultural Relativism Theme Icon
Cudjo explains that when the executioner touched the man, he declared him dead in the eyes of the community, even though he isn’t physically dead yet. The chiefs leave the man tied directly to the corpse, while everyone goes about their business. Sometimes, if the culprit is very strong, he might be able to walk a short distance with the body, but more often he lies in the market square until he dies. If he asks anyone for water or help, the people don’t listen to him, saying “How can a dead man want to be loose?” Usually, the murderer doesn’t live long; Cudjo says grimly that “no man kin stand de smell in his nostrils of a rotten man.”
Explicitly, Cudjo is saying that the murderer can’t live long amid the stench of death. More figuratively, he’s explaining that the policies of the tribe are so strict because no one wants to live among a morally “rotten” man. The community’s deadly serious approach to justice contrasts to Cudjo’s experience in America, where even after liberation he will have to live among men like the Meaher brothers, who have committed grave moral offenses without punishment.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
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