Barracoon tells the story of Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving victim of the Middle Passage, one of the most appalling aspects of the trading network that supplied the Americas with slaves. One of only a few firsthand narratives of this forced journey, Barracoon is clearly important because it bears witness to the historical trauma of slavery. However, Cudjo devotes remarkably little time to describing the Middle Passage or even his five years in slavery. Instead, he pays more attention to other forms of racism that he experienced before and after slavery, during his capture as a teenager and later during his adult life in America. In doing so, he approaches the institution of slavery less through its practices than its consequences. This narrative decision signals Cudjo’s refusal to place slavery at the center of his life but also emphasizes slavery’s ability to blight whole societies, even after its official end.
In describing his capture as a teenager, Cudjo focuses on the role of enemy tribes and their collaboration with European slave traders. Cudjo is captured as a result of internecine struggles between his tribe and a neighboring one. On the night of the raid he witnesses soldiers murdering old people and the very young. After that night, Cudjo never sees his mother or anyone from his family again; it’s probable that they’re all among the dead.
Although these events are brutal, they’re also presented as a longstanding convention of war wherein victors enslave civilians for a period of time. For example, Cudjo casually mentions the slaves living in the familial compound where he grew up, showing that he is accustomed to the idea of slavery. Even when he’s transported to the enemy kingdom of Dahomey, he’s not particularly upset to be kept in the “barracoon,” or slave pen. He and the young people from his village play games in the barracoon until they realize that they’re going to be taken to another continent, and thus that their enslavement will be permanent and irrevocable. In this sense, the true betrayal is not Dahomey’s raid on the village or capture of Cudjo, but rather their collaboration with Europeans and Americans, which contravenes the rules of warfare and makes slavery into a lifetime doom. At this point in his life, it’s the tribe’s behavior that Cudjo resents most.
Once transported to America, Cudjo is enslaved for five years before the Civil War frees him. Describing this time, he focuses less on the material suffering he endures than the injustice of slave owners’ refusal to acknowledge his humanity. Cudjo devotes only a few paragraphs to describing his life as a slave, merely saying that the work was hard to learn and to execute at the pace required by overseers. He notes that he fared better under the slave owner Jim Meaher than his countrymen who were bought by Meaher’s harsher brothers. He even appreciates that Meaher buys him new shoes.
Cudjo doesn’t express any anger until an episode after the end of the Civil War, when he approaches Tim Meaher (one of the brothers who financed the slave-trading expedition that brought Cudjo to America) on behalf of a group of freed slaves from his village, asking him to give them a piece of land on which to build their own town. Meaher rebuffs this request harshly, saying that he won’t “give you property on top of property”—in other words, give land to people whom he still considers chattel. For Cudjo, this dehumanizing comparison is the most wounding aspect of slavery. More broadly, Meaher’s unchanged views show that slavery will outlast its official end through the extreme attitudes of racial entitlement and white supremacy it engenders.
In his postwar life as a free man, one of the most disturbing forms of racism Cudjo experiences comes from other African Americans. When Cudjo first arrives at Meaher’s plantation, he says that the other slaves “makee de fun at us” because they couldn’t speak English. After the war, the black community ostracizes Cudjo and his fellow villagers for retaining their West African customs; Cudjo says that “dey pick at us all de time and call us ig’nant savage,” even though these recently arrived Africans are actually representatives of their heritage. This hostility is the reason that the villagers build Africatown, and it also plays a role in Cudjo’s sons’ inability to find work or build fulfilling lives within the wider community. In a way, this prejudice is the most tragic. It shows the extent to which white supremacy has pervaded society, taking root even amongst the people it actively oppresses, like former slaves.
Cudjo’s relative lack of focus on the Middle Passage and his period of enslavement shows his refusal to place these traumas at the center of his life—even though this is the very reason Hurston has sought him out for an interview. Instead, he focuses on the legacy of racism that is most troubling to him: its ability to disrupt cohesion and goodwill within black communities themselves, both in his West African homeland and in his adopted home in Alabama.
Slavery and Racism ThemeTracker
Slavery and Racism Quotes in Barracoon
All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the “black ivory,” the “coin of Africa,” had no market value. Africa’s ambassadors to the New World have come and worked and died, and left their spoor, but no recorded thought.
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.
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.
Cap’n jump on his feet and say, ‘Fool do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property? I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothing? You doan belong to me now, why must I give you my lan’?’
Den we make laws how to behave ourselves. When anyone do wrong we make him ‘pear befo’ de judges and dey tellee him he got to stop doin’ lak dat ‘cause it doan look nice. We doan want nobody to steal, neither gittee drunk neither hurtee nobody […] When we speak to a man whut do wrong de nexy time he do dat, we whip him.
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.
All de time de chillum growin’ de American folks de picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillum ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey.
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.
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.
Maybe de kill my boy. It a hidden mystery. So many de folks dey hate my boy ‘cause he lak his brothers. Dey doan let nobody ‘buse dem lak dey dogs. Maybe he in Afficky soil lak somebody say.