An important part of American ideology, the “American Dream” is the idea that the United States is a uniquely egalitarian society in which opportunity and upward mobility are accessible to anyone who works hard. Barracoon is a story of American society; however, the protagonist Cudjo’s life is largely a story of downward mobility. In telling his narrative, Cudjo emphasizes the abundance and tranquility of his upbringing in West Africa, comparing it to the suffering and instability he experiences as a slave and later a free man in Alabama. While the achievements of his life—founding a town that preserves his native culture, forming a happy marriage, and raising six children—are significant, Cudjo focuses on the impossibility of attaining equality or acceptance within a discriminatory American society, retaining strong emotional ties to Africa and frequently stating his wish to return. His lasting dissatisfaction with America and the downward trajectory he describes are a powerful critique of the American Dream, ultimately arguing that it is an essentially fallacious idea that attempts to justify the dominance of white men through presumptions of equity that, practically speaking, do not exist.
While the American Dream stresses the potential to improve one’s life, Cudjo’s life deteriorates as a result of contact with America. Cudjo nostalgically describes his childhood as taking place within a fairly ideal society. Even though his family is not wealthy (he modestly states that he’s only the son of a second wife), his material and emotional needs are met by the community. As a teenager, he looks forward to being trained as a soldier and getting married. Instead, he’s snatched away from his tribe and taken to America, where he endures years of slavery and a lifetime of racial discrimination—an outcome markedly worse than his expectations as a boy.
It’s important that even after his liberation during the Civil War, Cudjo is not able to access the equality promised to all Americans. Notably, the American Dream often centers around the abundance of land in America and the ability of any individual to become an independent landowner; however, when Cudjo asks the brother of his former owner to give him a piece of land, Tim Meaher dismisses him instantly. His reaction, and the difficulty with which Cudjo and the villagers eventually acquire land, show that these promises apply mainly to white men, whose dream of landownership and wealth often requires slaves to come to fruition.
While Cudjo lives a remarkable life in America, his continuous longing for his homeland shows his strong sense of the limitations he faces in America and argues against the veracity of the “American Dream.” As the founder of a town, sexton of a church, and father of several children, Cudjo is a distinguished member of his community. When Hurston meets him, he takes pride and satisfaction from his garden and the grandchildren who often visit.
However, even in these accomplishments he communicates his desire to return to Africa. He and his comrades only build a town after concluding it’s impossible to go back to Africa; they name their village Africatown, signaling their love for their homeland and reluctance to be absorbed into a society that disenfranchises them. Cudjo gives all his children names in his native language, and is grateful and proud when Hurston addresses him by his original name, Kossula. Throughout his narrative, he constantly describes feeling homesick for Africa. At the end of the book, Hurston asks permission to take Cudjo’s photograph; the elderly man takes off his shoes, saying, “I want to look lak I in Affica, ‘cause dat where I want to be.” This final image aligns Cudjo again with Africa and emphasizes the extent to which American society prevents his assimilation.
Cudjo’s clear dissatisfaction with America and frequent evocations of Africa demonstrate that the American Dream is completely inaccessible to him, and in fact empowers other people at his expense. Rather than taking advantage of America’s theoretical opportunities, Cudjo has to liberate himself from its injustices, which he does by surrounding himself with West African culture as much as possible.
The American Dream ThemeTracker
The American Dream Quotes in Barracoon
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.