"Yeah, I know Kossula."
April 30, 2018 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Sometime before 1931, Zora Neale Hurston visited Plateau, Alabama and interviewed the 95-year-old man who was the last survivor of the Middle Passage. “I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?” His head was bowed for a time. Then he lifted his wet face: “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.’ ” 87 years after she tried to publish Barracoon, his story is now in print.
posted by ChuraChura (49 comments total) 181 users marked this as a favorite
Oh my God.
posted by yhbc at 7:47 PM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks. This is amazing.
posted by clockwork at 7:57 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wow. I just bought a copy of Hurston's autobiography, which looks like it'll be amazing, and could do with a reread of Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time in, uh, 20 years. But a whole new novel? Wow. Thank you for sharing this!

Relatedly, FPP on the Clotilda a few months ago.

And if anyone needs more Zora Neale Hurston, check out previous posts. There aren't many, but they're good.
posted by asperity at 8:03 PM on April 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is amazing, thank you for posting it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:05 PM on April 30, 2018

De war commences but we doan know ’bout it when it start. Den somebody tell me de folkses way up in de North make de war so dey free us. I lak hear dat. But we wait and wait, we heard de guns shootee sometime but nobody don’t come tell us we free. So we think maybe dey fight ’bout something else.

posted by Dip Flash at 8:06 PM on April 30, 2018 [8 favorites]

Was just coming to post this! The upcoming book by Zora Neale Hurston being released (finally!) “Barracoon” looks fascinating. I’ll definitely be reading it. Side note - I’d never seen a picture of ZNH before omg that flapper look holy shit. Love.

From the article: “As Walker writes, “Who would want to know, via a blow-by-blow account, how African chiefs deliberately set out to capture Africans from neighboring tribes, to provoke wars of conquest in order to capture for the slave trade. This is, make no mistake, a harrowing read.”” The thing is when you reckon with the slave trade you have to reckon with two evils - yes racism but also colonialism. America’s two original sins. We’re still suffering from their echos today and will do until their twin realities are looked in the eye and met by us all. Until then all ends turn to evil I feel sometimes.

I’ve had the Atlantic slave trade on my mind a lot lately after reading “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi earlier this year. I have a five month old at home with me so families are topmost in my mind, but I can’t get over the horror of the thought of someone taking your child from you and selling you and your child into slavery. And yet this happened hundreds of times, thousands of times, hundreds of thousands of times. The caplitalist, racist, colonialist exploitation of the world has lead to such an incredibly amount of suffering to enrich so few.

Again fom the article: “Cap’n Tim Meaher, he tookee thirty-two of us. Cap’n Burns Meaher he tookee ten couples. Some dey sell up de river. Cap’n Bill Foster he tookee de eight couples and Cap’n Jim Meaher he gittee de rest. We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother. 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.”” Horrifying.

What an incredible achievement for ZNH, who had training in anthropology, to be able to meet Kossula and preserve his story.
posted by supercrayon at 8:14 PM on April 30, 2018 [22 favorites]

It amazing that this exists, and I'm glad it's being published.
posted by nangar at 8:19 PM on April 30, 2018

When I think ’bout dat time I try not to cry no mo’. My eyes dey stop cryin’ but de tears runnee down inside me all de time.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:21 PM on April 30, 2018 [15 favorites]

Some more info about him on Wikipedia, including another photo of him, and other stuff - he had apparently been interviewed before, so there are additional materials.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:22 PM on April 30, 2018 [7 favorites]

Relatedly, FPP on the Clotilda a few months ago.

Side note, turns out it maybe wasn't the Clotilda.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:27 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

And is the cover photo of the Silviane Diouf book about the Clotilde captives, also the photo on Garry Lumbers's t-shirt described in the article?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:30 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh, wow. This is amazing, thank you.
posted by jameaterblues at 8:48 PM on April 30, 2018

Wow, just wow. Wow.
posted by Fizz at 8:48 PM on April 30, 2018

I'm so undone by this, all I can do is try to honor Kossula/Cudjo somehow.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:16 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

What a fantastic read.
posted by gryphonlover at 9:21 PM on April 30, 2018

Wow. Thanks for the post. Here is more on how the town is now surrounded by industrial pollution, mentioned at the end. The second link has a link to the class action filing against International Paper.
posted by salvia at 9:28 PM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

The fact that he lived until 1935 made me think of this graphic.
posted by Harald74 at 9:39 PM on April 30, 2018 [20 favorites]

Wow. I am bowled over and speechless.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:34 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Amazing. Thank you for posting.
posted by Malingering Hector at 10:44 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

“Africatown once had a main commercial district — including a grocery store, post office, nightclub, and hotel — but it was bulldozed in the early 1980s to build a highway. ”

Of course it was.
posted by shalom at 11:16 PM on April 30, 2018 [18 favorites]

And just in case someone hasn't seen the amazing Slate animated interactive on the slave trade from 1545 - 1860, here it is.
posted by Thella at 1:22 AM on May 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

According to Wikipedia, the start of this video may depict Kossula/Cudjoe Lewis. This book, Historic Sketches of the South by Emma Langdon Roche, has another account of his life.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:39 AM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I should say that Emma Langdon Roche was a vile apologist for slavery and her book is largely a paean to the supposed virtues of the American South. Her foul sentiments and wholehearted defense of brutality are hard to stomach and there's no real reason to bother with them except for the account of the Clotilde's captives. The relevant section begins around page 73.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:57 AM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

The Museum of Mobile has a display on this guy, which among other things make the point that there are still people around in Mobile today who remember him. But I don't think it mentions this. Amazing.
posted by texorama at 5:17 AM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

The other side

In Benin, where the government plans to build two museums devoted to the slave trade in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, slavery is an embattled subject. It is raised in political debates, downplayed by the descendants of slave traders and deplored by the descendants of slaves.
posted by infini at 5:33 AM on May 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Amazing. I wish there were more primary source research like this to read. Thanks for posting.
posted by waving at 5:53 AM on May 1, 2018

One of my favorite writers in the world right now, Hanif Abdurraqib, just wrote about Barracoon for 4Columns.
posted by Stanczyk at 6:26 AM on May 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

One publisher, Viking Press, did say it would be happy to accept the book, on the condition that Hurston rewrote it “in language rather than dialect.” She refused.

I really wish there were a translation of this from dialect into English, because from what I slogged through, it is quite interesting and a good read, but it is very painful to read. In an ideal world Viking would have published both versions, possibly also along with other translations into different languages as well.
posted by koolkat at 7:56 AM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

but it is very painful to read.

Well, I can't argue but I appreciate it and take that as part of, maybe even an important part, of the point. To me it illustrates (not to mention preserving as best the researcher could perhaps) the difference in Kossula's place in life as opposed to those around him.

I can understand wanting a translation in places though. I grew up near Mobile, AL and the various dialectics found in modern times in that area are no stranger to me but what surprised me was that, and perhaps this is perhaps more bug than feature insofar as I'm not reading it as a period reader would read it, the transcription seemed like more of a Cajun dialect than what I would have expected it to be. That's not to say that Mobile doesn't have strong ties to that culture, nor am I a stranger to Justin Wilson, oil rig workers from Baton Rouge, or a good crawfish boil, but it was stronger than I expected in that direction.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:11 AM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

So Zora Neale Hurston believed strongly in the use of dialect in her work. It was political, it was purposeful, and I think it is an integral part of her writing (certainly of Their Eyes Were Watching God - probably here too).
Black dialect was at the heart of her work, and that was a dangerous business. Disowned by the founders of the Harlem Renaissance for its association with the shambling, watermelon-eating mockeries of American stage convention, dialect remained an irresistible if highly self-conscious resource for writers, from Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown to Wright himself (whose use of the idiom Hurston gleefully dismissed as tone deaf). But the feat of rescuing the dignity of the speakers from decades of humiliation required a rare and potentially treacherous combination of gifts: a delicate ear and a generous sympathy, a hellbent humor and a determined imperviousness to shame.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:30 AM on May 1, 2018 [24 favorites]

I agree that it is important to keep it in dialect, but it also means that I am not going to read it because the few minutes I spent reading it already gave me a headache. To me I mean painful as in actual pain in my head, not evoking a minstrel stereotype that causes me to wince.
posted by koolkat at 8:47 AM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

It is critically important that we come to know people through their own voices. Maybe that means that we experience some discomfort in the process. So it’s hard to read? It was a lot harder to be Kossula, and maybe coming to know him through his own voice is the least we can do.
posted by jesourie at 8:57 AM on May 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

So it’s hard to read? It was a lot harder to be Kossula, and maybe coming to know him through his own voice is the least we can do.

Yeah, but I'm not going to read it even though I think it would be an interesting story. I've also read a number of books in different languages (they were translated into English). Maybe it would be better if he spoke in Yoruba instead and then it was translated into English.
posted by koolkat at 9:30 AM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Perhaps the fact that the other has chosen not to bend over backwards to make it easy is part of the author's originating intent.
posted by infini at 10:32 AM on May 1, 2018 [18 favorites]

From Stanczyk's link:

Hurston writes Cudjo’s voice as it was spoken out loud to her. Her strength in articulating dialogue is something that shines in her later work, but it is seen brilliantly here, despite this being language transferred to her from a person in front of her. Cudjo’s dialect is singular and unique, and the greatest thing Hurston does in the book is honor the sonic qualities of it. Not sacrificing “dey” for “they” or “lookee lak” for “looks like.” Cudjo’s story is one of an aging man piecing together several disparate horrors, and Hurston lets his language exist, trusting readers to find their way through it. Cudjo is at times funny, heartbreaking, sharp, and metaphorical. At the end of one passage, after describing witnessing the dissolution of a family, he says:

“Our grief so heavy look lak we can staind in it.”

posted by infini at 10:34 AM on May 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

and then I'll say it out in so many words
posted by infini at 10:35 AM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, but I'm not going to read it even though I think it would be an interesting story.

That is entirely your choice. It's also entirely your loss.
posted by jesourie at 11:11 AM on May 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm going to imagine HIM speaking as I read the book, preordered on smile.amazon, dialect and all. This is not a play or performance. This is documenting his own words, and in my not-so humble opinion, we could do with a lot more. Thankfully, this happened at a time where it could be brought out to a wide audience.

See Also: Library of Congress, Voices from the Days of Slavery -- Former Slaves Tell Their Stories
The almost seven hours of recorded interviews presented here took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine Southern states. Twenty-three interviewees, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of slaves, their families, and freedom. Several individuals sing songs, many of which were learned during the time of their enslavement. It is important to note that all of the interviewees spoke sixty or more years after the end of their enslavement, and it is their full lives that are reflected in these recordings. The individuals documented in this presentation have much to say about living as African Americans from the 1870s to the 1930s, and beyond.
posted by mikelieman at 11:27 AM on May 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

"I agree that it is important to keep it in dialect, but it also means that I am not going to read it because the few minutes I spent reading it already gave me a headache. To me I mean painful as in actual pain in my head, not evoking a minstrel stereotype that causes me to wince."

What do you mean pain in your head? Everything I read seemed fairly legible, using "d" sounds for when people use a "d" sound for a word with another letter doesn't take much mental work. Ideally I'd like to hear an audio version in the real voice, but that's obviously not possible.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:22 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Reading it reminded me of pidgin, a contemporary language from the same part of Africa.
posted by infini at 12:40 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

I could see how perhaps people with learning disabilities or some kind of related difficulty might have trouble reading that in dialect, yeah. I also see why Hurston chose to keep the dialect and I myself had no trouble reading it. We are just now, in 2018, getting to the point where publishers will actually publish works in dialect, as witnessed by Hurston’s many previous rejections. So many readers really aren’t used to reading that way. (It’s a completely different dialect and subject matter, but I had trouble understanding Irvine Welsh the first time I read his stuff. I think it takes some time to get the “flow” to an outsider... Maybe try again in optimum circumstances, no distractions? Or have another person read it aloud to you? If possible).
posted by shalom at 1:22 PM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yes, I found it initially a but difficult but quickly quite readable, perhaps because I'm one of those slow readers who pronounces the words in my head. (Maybe I am? At least somewhat.) I sympathize with people who find it harder, but for me, it added to the experience, so I'd at least want both versions to be available.
posted by salvia at 2:23 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you can read Chaucer or Shakespeare you can deal with this. Geez.
posted by supercrayon at 4:31 PM on May 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

I read Trainspotting in Scottish dialect so this should be fine.

I've also read Their Eyes Were Watching God and that was fine, too.
"Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ‘tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ‘bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life."

posted by kirkaracha at 5:14 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

What supercrayon said. Every ninth grader in the country reads Romeo & Juliet or The Tempest.

If one can hear the Twenty-third Psalm as translated in the Authorized Version without physical suffering, one ought to be able to read this text.
posted by tivalasvegas at 6:16 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

On second look, I see your reported location is in the UK. Maybe there is a longer dialectical distance, as it were, between your dialect and this one.

Please, though, respect that this is a text which is trying to recognize the humanity of a person who is part of a group that was (and continues to be) physically, mentally, spiritually, culturally and (yes) linguistically brutalized.

This is a history that white Americans and white Britons have not at all dealt with.

Part of that means a faithful attempt to reproduce in text how he actually spoke.
posted by tivalasvegas at 6:23 PM on May 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

It occurs to me that one way to make dialect like this more accessible is not a straight "translation" but rather line-by-line annotation by historians and linguists and other relevant scholars (Black/African-American, obviously, and paid for their work), much the way my favorite high school textbook did with Shakespeare (it was basically a paper version of Genius.com where every line down the left column was annotated on the right, and I loved it), which allows the original voice to remain intact but provides context.

There's a smidge of it in the original work where absolutely necessary, but then at the time it didn't require as much context as we need now, generations removed from the mid-1800s and many of us undereducated about slavery by design.

I'm familiar enough with Southern dialectical English that I don't need it to understand the words, but I probably would get more of the meat of it with that kind of assistance, and then the annotation is feasibly translated into other languages since it's not just English-speakers who maybe need exposure this material.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:10 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

I found the dialect hard to read: I'm not familiar with it and I always have problems with phonetic transcriptions anyway. But, this is what he said; it's his memorial and a "corrected" transcription would still have to deal with his irregular grammar. I'm glad I made the effort, though, because his warmth and love of family just shines through the text.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:06 PM on May 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was wondering if maybe I should avoid discussing the dialect, if it would be seen as some variant of tone policing, but since it appears to be fair game:

A side-by-side version sounds great to this non-native English speaker. I actually can't read this. I'm totally fluent for everyday stuff, work in English, read English for pleasure, am typing this right now. Yet the best I can do is recognize a few key words and guess what the sentence is about.

Also, I'm pretty sure I'm missing a lot of the information encoded in the grammar. I don't know how closely his dialect is related to AAVE, but my vague memories from university are that AAVE has a much richer use of aspect and mood than standard English.

I wonder how one would translate this to another language entirely?
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:43 PM on May 2, 2018

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