In Barracoon, Cudjo Lewis describes being torn away from his family in West Africa and eventually forming a new family in Alabama after his enslavement ends. In Cudjo’s narrative, family quickly emerges as the most central aspect of life. In Africa, it’s the foundation of a strong and vibrant society; in America, it helps Cudjo heal after years of suffering as a slave. At the same time, Cudjo loses both his families, the first in a raid by a rival tribe and the second to a series of largely preventable accidents and illnesses. By the end of the book, Cudjo emerges as the sole survivor of both clans. His lonely situation is symptomatic of the racist social order in which he lives, demonstrating that one of slavery’s biggest legacies is the irrevocable fracturing of family networks.
Cudjo’s descriptions of his West African upbringing center around large and tightly knit families. He himself grows up in a large family, among many children. He sees his position within his family as integral to his self-conception. When Hurston tries to cut him short during an anecdote about his grandfather, he says that “I cain telle you ‘bout de son before I tellee you ‘bout de father.” In this sense, it’s family that gives Cudjo’s life existential meaning. Although his tribe is generally patriarchal and polygamous, the women have a surprising amount of autonomy. According to Cudjo, the process of choosing additional wives for husbands and arranging marriages between children—two of the most important aspects in family life—is entirely adjudicated by women. The women’s power to make decisions is an indicator of the family’s overall strength and cohesion. During the raid on his village, Cudjo is appalled most by the murder of the elderly and the almost certain knowledge that his mother has been killed during the violence. For him, captivity is less important than the fracturing of family networks that have been central to him.
When Cudjo eventually rebuilds his life in America, family becomes central there as well. Cudjo’s first sense of happiness and security comes when he marries Seely, another survivor of the Middle Passage. Cudjo describes his feelings for Seely in simple but emphatic terms, saying “She a good woman and I love her all de time.” Here too strong family connections coincide with female autonomy. Cudjo and Seely decide to marry after a frank and equitable discussion, and his descriptions of their marriage evoke an equal partnership between strong characters. This equitable dynamic is largely what maintains the family’s strength throughout successive misfortunes.
Cudjo and Seely have six children in quick succession and Cudjo proves a devoted father, saying “I love my chillum so much! I try so hard be good to our chillum.” While Cudjo derives some comfort from being surrounded by fellow Africans and building Africatown, it’s clear that his children are the central happiness of his life. However, all six of the children eventually die. Most of the deaths stem from preventable causes like illness or accidents that might have been avoided if residents of Africatown had access to public services or better jobs. The children’s deaths show how racial discrimination threatens and ultimately destroys the family unit. In this sense, the demise of Cudjo’s family in America is directly linked to the death of his family in West Africa.
While Cudjo is fairly reticent about the actual Middle Passage, he dwells extensively on the importance of family and the misfortunes that break apart his family in both Africa and America. For him, the legacy of the Middle Passage and slavery as a whole is most evident in its repercussions to black families.
Family 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?
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.
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.
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.’
It only nine year since my girl die. Look like I still hear de bell toll for her, when it toll again for my [Cudjo]. My po’ Affican boy dat doan never see Afficky soil.
I tell her come and drop de beans while I hill dem up […] After a while she say, ‘Cudjo you doan need me drop no beans. You cain work ‘thout no woman ‘round you. You bringee me here for company.’
I say, ‘Thass right.’
Poe-lee very mad. He say de deputy kill his baby brother. Den de train kill David. He want to do something. But I ain’ hold no malice. De Bible say not. Poe-lee say in Afficky soil it ain’ lak in de Americky. He ain’ been in de Afficky, you unnerstand me, but he hear what we tellee him and he think dat better dan where he at.
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.