A non-fiction narrative of the last survivor of the slave trade’s Middle Passage, Barracoon seems to defy genre. In part, it’s a memoir and oral history narrated by the protagonist, Cudjo. However, it’s also an ethnographic study recorded by author Zora Neale Hurston as part of an academic research mission. Hurston structures the book’s narrative to emphasize its contradictions. Rather than erasing herself from the page, she explains the nature of her assignment, describes the interview process, and frequently supplements Cudjo’s stories with editorial notes. On the other hand, she makes a point of recording Cudjo’s words verbatim and in his own dialect, and she’s often deeply moved as she listens to the story of his suffering. Constantly toggling between intimacy and clinical distance, Hurston emphasizes the artificiality inherent in collecting oral histories—and even in reading them—as she simultaneously allows the pathos and lyricism of Cudjo’s narrative to shine through. Ultimately, the book juxtaposes the importance of storytelling in human life with the human inability to encapsulate traumatic memories through stories, written or oral.
Recording Cudjo’s words and emotions faithfully and realistically, Hurston conveys her protagonist’s natural gift as a storyteller and emphasizes the raw and unfiltered nature of his narrative. Cudjo speaks eloquently but without clear organization, sliding from subject to subject; rather than imposing any external structure on his narrative, Hurston encourages him to relate his story exactly how he wishes.
Hurston also records the story in the unique dialect he speaks. Interestingly, she received criticism from all sides for this decision. Feeling that it would alienate white readers, publishers refused to buy the manuscript until it was rendered in “standard” English, while contemporary black writers like Richard Wright said that by presenting Cudjo in an overly folksy manner, Hurston was pandering to racist stereotypes of black people. Now, Hurston is generally lauded for her strategy. By staying true to non-traditional speech patterns, Hurston adapts literature to accommodate Cudjo’s oral history, expanding literary conventions to fit the needs of people usually marginalized by literature and allowing the reader to experience Cudjo’s story exactly as he conveys it.
Moreover, Hurston often relates her reactions to the story, feeling moved to tears by descriptions of his family and at one point turning her face away because his suffering is so intense. This creates a sense of strong emotional connection between the story’s teller and receiver, a feeling in which the reader can share. On the other hand, Hurston also emphasizes the academic and professional nature of her endeavor, creating a sense of distance between the reader and Cudjo’s memories. Hurston is straightforward about the fact that she’s visiting Cudjo as part of an assignment to collect oral histories, even mentioning the charitable organizations that are funding her work. Rather than presenting their interviews as a spontaneous interchange between friends, she describes bringing gifts of ham or fruit in order to ingratiate herself with him and induce him to talk to her. Relating his childhood in West Africa, Cudjo often refers to people or events whose historical importance Hurston explains in editorial notes. Here, she’s treating the story as a subject of ethnographic study, rather than a novelistic memoir. Even as Hurston believes in the importance of collecting and preserving stories like Cudjo’s, she seems to feel that her role as a collector, with an academic and artistic interest in the subject, puts some distance between her and Cudjo. She ensures that the reader feels these differences as well.
These overlapping but distinct approaches to Cudjo’s narrative create a brooding meditation on the nature and role of storytelling, especially when used to commemorate historical trauma. With gravity both emotional and academic, Hurston evinces a belief in the importance and potential impact of storytelling. At the same time, by emphasizing her own presence she disrupts the immediacy of Cudjo’s narrative and suggests that storytelling, especially in this context, is an inherently artificial undertaking. Thus, the reader both experiences Cudjo’s story and views it from a distance. Ultimately, Hurston’s narrative style argues the importance of hearing and valuing stories and oral history, while also cautioning that hearing about a trauma does not equate to experiencing or truly understanding it.
Barracoon both relates an oral history and discusses how a reader should approach oral histories. Hurston encourages the reader to respect oral history and make room for it in the literary canon while also acknowledging its limits in conveying human memory and historical trauma.
Storytelling and Memory ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Memory 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.
Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, “Yeah, I know Kossula.” I want you everwhere you go to tell everybody whut Cudjo say, and how come I in Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’.
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?
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.
I had spent two months with Kossula, who is called Cudjo, trying to find the answers to my questions. Some days we ate great quantities of clingstone peaches and talked […] At other times neither was possible, he just chased me away. He wanted to work in his garden or fix his fences. He couldn’t be bothered.
When I crossed the bridge, I know he went back to his porch; to his house full of thoughts. To his memories of fat girls with ringing golden bracelets, his drums that speak the minds of men, to palm-nut cakes and bull-roarers, to his parables.