Cudjo is part of the group of slaves claimed by Jim Meaher. He travels to Meaher’s plantation, where he and the others live under Meaher’s house, which is constructed on stilts. They are given some blankets, but it’s still too cold.
The fact that Cudjo and the others don’t even have an adequate shelter in which to live demonstrates the dehumanizing conditions of slavery.
Now the slaves have to learn their new tasks and the new ways of farming; for example, they’ve never seen livestock used with plows. The work is grueling, and Burns and Tim Meaher are often cruel to their slaves, forcing them to work especially long hours under violent overseers. Cudjo has never worked this hard, but he says “we doan grieve ‘bout dat. We cry ‘cause we slave.”
For Cudjo, the physical demands of slavery are less upsetting than the moral and emotional implications. Here, he’s characterizing slavery as unnatural and antithetical to his being, pushing back against contemporary arguments that it was normal and acceptable to enslave Africans.
At night, the villagers mourn their lost freedom and their country. Everyone here seems strange, and it’s hard to even talk to the other slaves because they don’t speak English. Sometimes the slaves born in America make fun of them.
This is the first taste of the divisions between people born in Africa, like Cudjo, and black people who have lived in America their entire lives. Cudjo will experience prejudice from these black communities as well as white Americans.
Jim Meaher is kinder towards his slaves than his brothers. For example, he sees that Cudjo’s shoes are in pieces and gets him another pair. Cudjo has to work hard, but not as much as if he were on one of the other plantations.
Cudjo’s lenient attitude towards Jim Meaher is somewhat troubling, given that this man is responsible for his captivity. However, it demonstrates his determination to acknowledge the humanity in everyone—an attribute that sets him apart from the men who enslave him.
Cudjo suddenly exclaims out loud, saying he’s so thankful that he’s free now. The slaves never have enough clothes and bedding, and even the women have to work hard in the field. Cudjo himself usually works on Jim Meaher’s boat, which carries freight and lumber from Mobile to Montgomery. Every time the boat stops he has to transport things on and off, and he barely gets any sleep because the boat leaks and they have to pump water out of it.
The American Dream promises opportunity and social mobility to everyone who is willing to work hard. Here, Cudjo and the others are compelled to do grueling work, but they don’t benefit at all. Moments like this imply that the tenets of the American Dream only apply to specific demographics.
Every time the boat stops, the overseer stands at the gangplank with his whip and yells at the slaves to move faster, lashing them with the whip if he thinks they are working too slowly or haven’t taken a large enough load. Cudjo woefully exclaims, “Oh, Lor’,” remembering that he endured this life for five and a half years. He still remembers all the landings on the boat’s route, and he recites them all for Hurston. Even though he hasn’t been to most of these places since 1865, he thinks he will never forget.
In the context of this storytelling project, Cudjo’s memory usually emerges as an asset, helping him preserve precious memories from his youth. Here, however, it seems as if he would rather forget about the cruelties of enslavement, but is unable to put it behind him. His ability to remember thus prolongs his trauma.
The Civil War begins (in 1861) but the slaves don’t know what is happening at first; all they know is that “de white folks runnee up and down.” Eventually they hear rumors that people in the North are fighting to free them, and Cudjo becomes hopeful even though he’s not completely sure that this is the purpose of the war.
Here, Cudjo emphasizes his feelings of distance from even the most important events of American history. Throughout his life, his sense of exclusion and racism is such that he can’t feel truly invested in the American narrative.
Union soldiers reach Fort Morgan in the Mobile Bay and establish a blockade, so little coffee or foodstuffs reach the village. To keep his slaves from starving, Jim Meaher allows them to kill some of his hogs, saying that “de hogs dey his and we his, and he doan wantee no dead folks.”
While Cudjo portrays this as evidence of Jim Meaher’s relatively generous character, praising him for keeping his slaves from starving merely shows how appallingly low the standard of conduct for slave owners is.
On Sundays, the slaves don’t have to work, so they dance the traditional dances of their homelands. The American slaves laugh at them, saying that they are “savage.” However, a black preacher and ex-slave called Free George visits the plantation and talks to the villagers, explaining the Christian importance of Sunday and telling them they should observe the Sabbath. After this, the villagers stop dancing on Sundays.
While Cudjo respects Free George and soon becomes a Christian himself, the prevalence of Anglo-American religion over the preservation of African culture is a sad moment. In his own later life, Cudjo proves adept at practicing Christianity without sacrificing the traditions of his native land.
Cudjo describes the moment he’s officially freed, on April 12th, 1865. He’s working on the boat as usual when Union soldiers approach and tell the slaves they can’t stay on the boat anymore, saying “you doan b’long to nobody no mo’.” They ask the soldiers where they should go, but the soldiers just tell them to go wherever they want to.
Even though the Union soldiers have liberated the slaves, they show little concern and do little to create a path forward for these traumatized and impoverished people. This moment implies although slavery took place primarily in the South, the North is also deeply implicated in this tragedy and its aftermath.
The slaves don’t have anything in which to carry their belongings, so they pack small bundles. Still, they have to sleep in the slave quarters until they figure out where to go and what to do. These questions don’t bother Cudjo; he’s just happy to be free again.
While Cudjo says he doesn’t care about his lack of material resources given his freedom, he will eventually learn that the official end of enslavement isn’t enough to create stability and security for him and his family.