Zora Neale Hurston’s interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the Middle Passage, devotes substantial time to explaining the mores of the West African society in which Cudjo grew up. In doing so, Hurston draws on the concept of cultural relativism articulated by her mentor, the anthropologist Franz Boas. Cultural relativism is the idea that rituals and customs should be understood in the context of their particular culture, rather than evaluated by the standards of another culture. Hurston embraces cultural relativism, showing a deep interest in Cudjo’s childhood and often including explanatory notes, which demonstrate that these social practices deserve academic study on their own terms, rather than in comparison to European cultures. This tactic emphasizes the value and beauty of Cudjo’s culture, and combats the racist stereotypes that, at the time of Hurston’s writing, constituted popular understanding of Africa and justified discrimination against African Americans. However, in his ability to incorporate both West African customs and Anglo-American ideas (like Christianity) into his worldview, it’s Cudjo who truly demonstrates that cultural relativism isn’t just an theoretical concept but a useful mindset that anyone can adopt.
Even though they don’t have an explicit relationship to Cudjo’s story of enslavement, Hurston transcribes detailed explanations of social mores in his native tribe. Cudjo explains the customs that dictate life within family compounds, as well as the rituals surrounding marriage. He also describes the varying punishments the tribe inflicts on wrongdoers and the process of judicial deliberation, which relies on strict and complex ideas of justice. When Cudjo doesn’t adequately explain something, Hurston often includes an editorial note or quotation from another academic source.
Hurston’s analytical approach suggests that African practices deserve rigorous study, just as European concepts do. Moreover, by helping the reader understand the customs that govern Cudjo’s society she combats then-prevalent stereotypes of Africa as inherently savage, lawless, and primitive. For example, Cudjo’s description of the tribe’s complicated and considered approach to different crimes disproves the white supremacist notion that by clinging to their African culture Cudjo and the other villagers are showing themselves to be “ig’nant savage[s].”
While Hurston promotes cultural relativism through her narrative style, it’s Cudjo who, through his behavior, proves most nonjudgmental and inclusive in his evaluation of the two cultures to which he’s been exposed. This is particularly evident in his approach to religion. After being freed from slavery, Cudjo converts to Christianity and eventually works as the church sexton; however, he also retains the belief in spirits and ancestor worship with which he grew up. Rather than feeling that these practices are inherently opposed or that one disproves the other, he integrates them both into his worldview.
For example, at one point he tells Hurston that he’s thankful to be “on prayin’ groun’ and in a Bible country.” For Hurston, this reads as a worrying endorsement of American over African culture, and she asks if Cudjo had “a God back in Africa.” He then explains that in Africa he worshiped a God called Alahua, but “we doan know God got a Son.” Although Cudjo has somewhat conflated two religious systems, he shows his ability to judge each culture on its own terms, rather than by the other’s. Then, when Hurston asks to photograph him at the end of the interview, Cudjo dresses in an American suit but leaves off his shoes, according to African tradition. This final image provides the best representation of Cudjo’s authentic self because it incorporates the influences of both American and West African culture.
Rather than trying to fit African cultural practices within a European or American framework, Hurston asserts the inherent value of these customs. Building on the theoretical groundwork she lays, Cudjo shows how refraining from judging one culture by another’s metrics allows one to cultivate a more nuanced and multifaceted worldview. Both interviewer and interviewee use cultural relativism to counter racist narratives that privilege European societies over African ones.
Cultural Relativism ThemeTracker
Cultural Relativism Quotes in Barracoon
In de Affica soil I cain tellee you ‘bout de son before I tellee you ‘bout de father; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father (et te) till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, (et, te, te, grandfather) now, dass right ain’ it?
But people watch until he die too. How long it take? Sometime he die next day. Sometime two or three days. He doan live long. People kin stand de smell of de horse, de cow and udder beasts, but no man kin stand de smell in his nostrils of a rotten man.
I tellee you whut I know about de juju […] Cudjo doan know. Now, dat’s right. I doan make out I know whut go on wid de grown folks. When I come away from Afficky I only a boy 19 year old. I have one initiation. A boy must go through many initiations before he become a man.
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.
When we at de plantation on Sunday we so glad we ain’ gottee no work to do. So we dance lak in de Afficky soil. De American colored folks, you unnerstand me, dey say we savage an den de laugh at us […] Free George, he come to us and tell us not to dance on Sunday. Den he tell us whut Sunday is. We doan know whut is is before […] Den we doan dance no mo’ on de Sunday.
We call our village Affican Town. We say dat ‘cause we want to go back in de Affica soil and we see we cain go. Derefo’ we make de Affica where dey fetch us. Gumpa say, ‘My folks sell me and yo folks (Americans) buy me.’ We here and we got to stay.
We doan know nothin’ ‘bout dey have license over here in dis place. So den we gittee married by de license, but I doan love my wife no mo’ wid de license than I love her befo’ de license. She a good woman and I love her all de time.
Dey sing, ‘Shall We Meet Beyond De River.’ I been a member of de church a long time now, and I know de words of de song wid my mouth, but my heart it doan know dat. Derefo’ I sing inside me, ‘O todo ah wah n-law yah-lee, owrran k-nee ra ra k-nee ro ro.’
When he came out I saw that he had put on his best suit but removed his shoes. “I want to look lak I in Affica, ‘cause dat where I want to be,” he explained.
He also asked to be photographed in the cemetery among the graves of his family.