Zora Neale Hurston’s Interviews With Cudjo Lewis Set To Be Published After 80 Years

Published May 4, 2018

Her book chronicles the life of Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving slave from the last slave ship to bring Africans to the United States.

Lewis Hurston

History.comCudjo Lewis, left, and Zora Neale Hurston.

In the early 1930s, famed author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston attempted to publish a book of interviews she’d conducted with former slaves, but to no avail. Now, more than 80 years later, the interviews are being released to the public.

The book, titled Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”, chronicles the life of Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving slave from the last slave ship to bring Africans to the United States.

Hurston first met Lewis in the early 30s, in the midst of researching American slavery. Years before she would publish her famous novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, she set out to bring to light the horrors of what slaves brought to America went through.

Upon locating Lewis, she decided to tell his story, and use his narrative as the basis for her tale. While her relationship with Lewis was well known, this is the first time that her interviews with him have been opened up to the public. It is also the first time that the world will hear Lewis’ story in his own words.

He explained to Hurston that he was abducted from his home in Africa, before being loaded on to the slave ship Clotilda. For several months, he bonded with his fellow abductees, only to be forced apart upon reaching Alabama.

“We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother,” Lewis told Hurston. “We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.”

He described living in a new place where no one spoke his language, and not knowing what was going on or how to find out.

“We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis,” he said. “Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say.”

When she first showed the manuscript of interviews to publishers, they shot her down. Hurston had kept Lewis’ dialect intact, though at times it resulted in phrases that didn’t make sense. The publishers wanted her to clean it up, and make it easier for white readers to understand, but Hurston refused, resulting in no publishing deal.

Today, the new manuscript will honor Hurston’s wishes, and keep Lewis’ dialect the way she intended it to be read, allowing readers not only to read his story but hear it in the way he intended.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” comes out on May 8, 2018.

Next, read about Annie Besante who published a book on birth control, and was arrested for it. Then, read about Robert Smalls, who escaped slavery by stealing a Confederate ship.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.