Zora Neale Hurston's Book on the 'Last Slave' Is Being Published—Nearly 90 Years After it Was Written

Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain
Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain / Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain

A “new” book by Zora Neale Hurston is finally being published, 58 years after her death. The anthropologist, author, and Harlem Renaissance icon is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she had an impressive body of written work—both published and unpublished.

Her book Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" was originally written in 1931, but no one wanted to publish it—until now. Set to be released by HarperCollins on May 8, Barracoon (named after a type of barracks where slaves were confined) tells the true tale of Cudjo Lewis, “the last survivor of the last slave ship to land on American shores,” according to Vulture, which published an excerpt of the book.

Before Hurston started writing, she studied as a cultural anthropologist at Barnard College, during which time she traveled to the South on an assignment to interview people of African descent. This fieldwork gave rise to Barracoon, which details the information she gleaned from three months spent interviewing Lewis at his home in Plateau, Alabama, a historic community located just a few miles from downtown Mobile.

Hurston learned that Lewis (née Oluale Kossola) had been captured by a neighboring tribe in what is now Benin when he was just 19 and brought to America on the Clotilda, which set sail in 1860 despite the fact that the international slave trade had been outlawed in the U.S. 50 years prior. After surviving the 45-day journey, Lewis was forced to work on the docks of the Alabama River until he was freed in 1865, after the end of the Civil War. He passed away in 1935.

In the foreword to Barracoon, Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker writes that at the time it was written, black intellectuals feared it would reflect negatively on Africans’ complicity in the slave trade—which may partially explain why Hurston was ultimately unable to find a publisher. One publisher, Viking Press, did show an early interest in the book, but objected to the black dialect in which it was written. Hurston refused to change the dialect, which she later employed in Their Eyes Were Watching God, since using it was an important part of her anthropology training.

Barracoon is available for pre-order on Amazon.

[h/t Vulture]