Barracoon

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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Barracoon: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Cudjo is very happy at this stage of his life and looking forward to being invited to the men’s councils. He sees a girl whom he would like to marry one day, and his parents say that they will ask for her when he is a little older.
For Cudjo, marriage is another moment of continuity with his family, since his parents will be so involved in his choice.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
One day, three men from the neighboring kingdom of Dahomey arrive in the market, asking to talk to Akia’on. They warn the king how strong and powerful Dahomey is and demand that the king pay half his crops in tribute. The king says that the crops belong to his people and he refuses to give them. He points out that the king of Dahomey has plenty of land, which he would have time to cultivate if he wasn’t always sending his soldiers to hunt for slaves.
Again, Akia’on shows that the Dahoman king’s slave-trading practices are not an extension of but a break with African traditions. The unnatural nature of his practices is shown through the abandonment of the land. Throughout the next chapters, Cudjo will focus on the role of tribes like Dahomey, who cooperate with slave traders, in destroying his community and causing his enslavement.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Cudjo says that a traitor from his kingdom, who was previously banished for unrelated crimes, goes to Dahomey and tells the king what tactics he should use to attack Cudjo’s village. The Dahoman army marches all night and arrives at the village while everyone is sleeping.
Despite the tribe’s complex system of justice, it is essentially vulnerable before the brute force mustered by the Dahomans.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
The Dahoman army breaks down the enormous gates surrounding the village. Leaping up, Cudjo sees soldiers holding French guns swarming the compound. There are female soldiers, as well, who catch people and decapitate them with large knives. Cudjo sees old people killed in front of their houses while trying to run away. Some soldiers cut off villagers’ jawbones before they are even dead.
For the last chapters, Cudjo has been extolling the privileged position of elders in the community, and his own hope to attain such a position. Seeing old people so brutally treated shows the end of such possibilities for Cudjo and the demise of these communal values generally.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
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Cudjo runs from gate to gate, but finds that each is surrounded by enemy soldiers. At the last one, the Dahoman soldiers grab him and tie up his wrists. He pleads with them to let him go and find his mother, but they act as if they can’t hear.
Pretending they can’t understand him, the Dahomans are creating a stark emotional distance between themselves and their captives. In this sense, they are aligned with slave traders more than fellow Africans.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
When the soldiers find Akia’on, they take him to the king of Dahomey, who is waiting in the bush outside the village. Akia’on asks why the Dahomans don’t fight him in the daytime, “lak men.” The King of Dahomey announces his intention to parade Akia’on around his own city as a captive, but Akia’on says that he would rather die a king on his own territory than be a slave. The King of Dahomey gives a signal and a soldier beheads Akia’on.
Here, Akia’on’s strong sense of honor and tradition contrasts with the King of Dahomey’s treacherous tactics and abandonment of tribal solidarity in favor of material riches. For Cudjo, the king’s death marks the end of his tranquil and protected existence within his tribe.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Seeing the king dead, Cudjo tries to run away, but the soldiers catch him and tie him in a line with the other young villagers. He cries and calls out for his mother; he doesn’t know where she is, and he doesn’t see any of his family among the captives. All day he and the other captives march through the bush, while the king of Dahomey is carried in a hammock. The soldiers are carrying the heads of people they killed in battle, to be displayed at home as trophies.
It’s terrible to know that Cudjo will never learn anything about the fates of his family members. Although Cudjo has rarely dwelt specifically on his mother, his longing for her and the uncertainty of her fate represent the total collapse of family that enslavement entails and explains the inability to gain closure after such a trauma.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
The march continues for a few days. Every time they approach a village, it displays a white flag, meaning that the leaders will give food and gifts to the Dahomans in order to stave off attack. By this time, the severed heads are beginning to rot and smell. Cudjo is anguished to see the bodies of people he knows treated this way. Eventually, the march halts several days so that the soldiers can smoke the heads and preserve them.
Although Cudjo has seen brutal things before—such as the heads of criminals mounted on sticks—this is especially appalling to him because it contravenes norms of behavior, representing not a system of justice but the abandonment of any such systems.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Cultural Relativism Theme Icon
Cudjo stops talking, and Hurston says it feels that he’s no longer with her but “squatting about that fire in Dahomey.” To her, his face looks like “a horror mask” and it seems as if his anguish has rendered him unable to talk. She leaves quietly.
Here, it seems that storytelling is almost able to recreate the past; describing Cudjo’s total absorption in this trauma, Hurston signals the ability of oral histories to contribute greatly to the body of historical knowledge.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon