One of the first things enslaved people experience after being kidnapped, the Middle Passage symbolizes the horror of the slave trade. Packed into shelf-like bunks into the hold, victims suffered overcrowding, terrible hygienic conditions, illness, and mistreatment; fatalities during the Middle Passage are estimated at about 15%, and Cudjo’s memories of the experience are so awful that he can barely discuss them. Besides physical suffering, the Middle Passage is the site of psychological trauma. Crammed below the decks, enslaved people are treated explicitly like objects, to be traded for other property on arrival in America. In the introduction, Hurston calls it “the first leg of their journey from humanity to cattle.” In this sense, the Middle Passage enacts the policy of dehumanization and white supremacy on which the institution of slavery rests.
Moreover, the Middle Passage represents the conflict between cultures that will dominate the rest of Cudjo’s life. While he is on the ship, Cudjo is suspended between Africa and America, belonging to neither; his old life is gone completely, but in America he will be denied rights and treated as a piece of property. Similarly, after gaining his freedom, Cudjo adopts certain aspects of Western culture (such as Christianity and the English language), but he still preserves his native traditions any way he can. Return to West Africa is impossible, but it’s also impossible for Cudjo to feel accepted and at home in a society that discriminates against him at every turn. Thus, the Middle Passage is a foretaste of the cultural alienation and marginalization that persists long after slavery is officially ended.
Boats and the Middle Passage Quotes in Barracoon
Oh Lor’, I so shame! We come in de ‘Merica soil naked and de people say we naked savage. Dey say we doan wear no clothes. Dey doan know de Many-costs snatch our clothes ‘way from us.
We lookee and lookee and lookee and lookee and we doan see nothin’ but water. Where we come from we doan know. Where we goin, we doan know.
Dat de first time in de Americky soil dat death find where my door is. But we from cross de water know dat he come in de ship with us.