The next Saturday, Hurston visits Cudjo but he doesn’t have time to talk to her, saying that he has to clean the church before Sunday. Hurston helps him with some chores and returns on Monday, after the Sabbath services are over.
Storytelling is more of a natural and unhurried process for Cudjo than for Hurston. He won’t allow her to conduct interviews on any kind of fixed schedule, which emphasizes the genuine and authentic aspects of his endeavor.
On Monday, Hurston returns. She tells him about “the nice white lady in New York who was interested in him,” and Cudjo asks her to write the woman a letter thanking her on his behalf. Cudjo says that if it interests this woman, he will tell Hurston more about his time in captivity.
Hurston’s project was being funded by a benefactor interested in African American history, and this passage is a transparent attempt to flatter her. Hurston is truly committed to the project, but moments like this show the logistical and financial concerns to which she must pay attention as well.
When they arrive at Dahomey, Cudjo sees the king’s house; it looks as if it is made of bones. People come out to meet the raiding party carrying white skulls on sticks, and the soldiers march in with their new heads on sticks. The captives are placed in the barracoon, or stockade, without much to eat.
Cudjo’s first entrance into the barracoon is his first real moment of enslavement. The previous chapters marked the end of his childhood, while this moment shows the end of his freedom.
After a few days, the captives are marched to Wydah, a slave port on the coast. They’re kept in another barracoon for three weeks; they can see ships in the ocean, but the view is obstructed by other buildings. Here, Cudjo sees white men for the first time; in his village, he has only ever heard legends of such people. The captives also see other slaves in neighboring barracoons. They try to communicate with them, but each nation has its own language.
The inability to communicate with other slaves shows the differences among African tribes. Hurston usually emphasizes such differences in order to combat American stereotypes that all Africans are the same, but here it’s clear that tribal differences also prevent people from coming together to combat the slave trade.
Cudjo says that he and the other villagers are “not so sad now.” Because they are young, they play games and take turns climbing the fence of the barracoon to peer outside. After three weeks, a white man comes into the barracoon and inspects each captive carefully. He selects 130 captives, choosing an equal number of men and women. After he leaves, the Dahomans bring them a large meal, saying that they are going to be taken away soon. Everyone cries, because they are full of grief for their lost homes and don’t want to be separated.
The image of the young people playing in the stockade is compelling and tragic—it reminds the reader that at this point Cudjo has no idea of the enormous system in which he’s trapped. It also emphasizes the extreme youth of the villagers who are going to suffer so much in America, and will have to mature quickly in order to overcome the obstacles they will face.
The Dahomans return to tie the selected captives in lines and lead them to the beach. The white slave trader (Captain Foster) is carried to the ship in a hammock and the captives follow, wading in the water. Men from the Kroo tribe (a nation that works as servants to the Dahomans) load the captives into small boats. In the confusion, Cudjo is almost left on the shore, but he sees his friend on the boat and doesn’t want to be separated, so he shouts until the Kroo men take him too.
In this passage, Cudjo almost escapes transport to the Americas but seems to board the ship from his own volition. Especially since his family is now gone, the importance of staying close to the people he knows is paramount to him, even though it ends any hope of staying in Africa.
When they reach the ships, the Kroos rob them of their clothes. Cudjo says he is ashamed, because he doesn’t want to arrive wherever he is going as a “naked savage.” He says that when he gets to America, the people there assume that Africans don’t wear any clothes.
This passage shows how slavery both depends on and creates racist stereotypes. Because of the inhumane treatment to which captives are subject before and during the Middle Passage, Americans assume that they are “savages” and thus acceptable to enslave.
Onboard the ship, the crew makes everyone lie down in the dark hold. Everyone stays there for thirteen days, with little food and water. On the thirteenth day, the captives are brought onto the deck, but they are so weakened that they can’t walk unaided. The crew walks each person around the deck until they recover the use of their limbs. In every direction, all Cudjo can see is water. He has no idea where he is going.
The Middle Passage symbolizes the inherent brutality of slavery—shown here in the captives’ inability to walk after so much confinement. It also emphasizes the emotional and cultural dislocation that slavery causes; Cudjo expresses this idea here by saying he has no sense of place or direction during the journey.
Cudjo suffers greatly onboard the Clotilda. He’s very scared by the constant noise and motion of the ship, which pitches up and down even when the water is calm. The journey lasts for seventy days, until the water changes color and they approach some islands. No one has died on the journey, and Cudjo says that Captain Foster is “a good man” who doesn’t abuse anyone.
Even though his experience of the Middle Passage is the reason for his interview, Cudjo devotes only a few passages to describing it. For him, the worst experiences are the most difficult to discuss; his brevity expresses the ultimate inability of storytelling to encapsulate or provide closure for traumatic memories.
For the next day, everyone has to stay in the hold and be quiet, so that the government doesn’t discover the ship is carrying slaves. At night, the ship moves again; Cudjo later learns that it is towed up the river to the island where the Meahers are waiting. When the slaves disembark, they are given some clothes and taken further up the river, where they hide in the swamp. By the time they arrive at Burns Meaher’s plantation, they have been bitten badly by the swarming mosquitos.
According to its ideology, America promise a fresh start and new opportunity to each arrival, but Cudjo enters the country as illegal contraband. For him, this moment marks the end of opportunity and while it’s the beginning of a new phase of his life, it’s certainly not a positive one.
At the plantation, the slaves are divided up into small groups. After losing their home and enduring the Middle Passage, they are distraught to be separated once again. Everyone cries and sings a traditional song of mourning. Cudjo doesn’t know if he can withstand this grief; when he thinks about his mother, he feels he might die.
Cudjo’s invocation of his mother and feelings of insuperable grief suggest that he sees separation from his countrymen as worse than the physical suffering of the Middle Passage. Even in this moment of trauma, the villagers affirm their dignity and their culture by singing the traditional song.
Cudjo stops speaking and tells Hurston he’s tired of talking, and that she has to go home. He spends so much time talking to her, he’s been neglecting his garden. He says he’ll send his grandson to let her know when she can come again.
While telling his story is an opportunity for Cudjo to reflect on and process his life, at times the task is strenuous and exhausting. His remarks now suggest that oral history allows both tellers and listeners to engage with the emotional impact of historical events.