Like a relic pulled up from the bottom of the ocean floor, Barracoon speaks to us of survival and persistence. It recalls the disremembered and gives and account for the unaccounted.
Barracoon is an experience. It is brief introductions from Zora Neale Hurston followed by pages of dialogue from a former slave who remembers what it means to be African. He tells of the time before his capture, his 5 years and 6 months in slavery, and the whirlwind that was life as a free man. It is mostly uninterrupted, somewhat sporadic storytelling written in a language laden with a severed culture and unmatched resilience.
But it’s really only a glimpse. While Oluale Kossola tells of his village being raided in detail, there are notable holes in other parts of his story. At times it feels like racing through decades of a life, just trying to hang on. There’s no real detailed discussion of life in slavery, just brief mentions of sorrow:
In night time we cry, we say we born and raised to be free people and now we slave. We doan know why we be bring ‘way from our country to work lak dis. It strange to us.
The weight of his children’s deaths barely sink in. They come so quickly, shockingly, one behind the other. His story twists and turns. It feels like I assume it felt to sit, listening to Kossola tell his story, his way.
What’s most intriguing about reading Kossola’s story is the inextricable tie he still had to his African home:
Kossola’s nineteen years of life in Africa were more real to him than a declaration of independence in America. His narrative does not recount a journey forward into the American Dream. It is a kind of slave narrative in reverse, journeying backward to barracoons, betrayal, and barbarity. And then even further back, to a period of tranquility, a time of freedom, and a sense of belonging.
He talked of creating Africatown, of giving his children African and American names. While he and his family accepted their new Christian ideals, the African rituals he learned during his nineteen years on the continent were ever-present memories.
We call our village Affican Town. We say dat ’cause we want to go back in de Africa soil and we see we cain go. Derefo’ we makee de Affica where dey fetch us.
It was a new and thoughtful experience to read of a once enslaved man who still remembered his African home and customs even as he was forced to make a new home in a strange land.