Ep. 168 Embodying History with Clint Smith

Today we are joined by Clint Smith author of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Clint is also a staff writer at The Atlantic and the poet behind Counting Descent. We talk about how Clint’s poetry informs his nonfiction writing, the capacity to be surprised, and the recency of slavery.

The Stacks Book Club selection for June is The Undying by Anne Boyer. We will discuss the book with Mychal Denzel Smith on Wednesday June 30th.

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Everything we talk about on today’s episode can be found below in the show notes. You can also find everything we talked about on Amazon.

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Barraccon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neal Hurston

I had zero plans to read Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston any time soon, but was invited to join a buddy read (one time book club) with some friends I’ve made on the internet. Which, sounds a little creepy, except that people who talk about books on the internet are the best. So I got the book a dug in.

Here is some insights into this book.

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. 

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, and spent more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past—memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

Barracoon is hugely important. I hate when people call books important, mainly because I find it to be an overstatement. However this book is deserving of the moniker. This book comes from such a unique perspective, an African adult enslaved and taken to America who went on to live long enough to see freedom, and have his story documented in his own words. There are not many of these stories. Mainly because the legal slave trade ended in the early 1800’s and Slavery did not end until 1865, so one would have to be have been recorded right after slavery, when most people were not doing that type of work.

With all of that being said, to have this story is a gift. To give a singular voice to the tragedy of slavery and racism in The United States is rare. We are often told the story of many slaves (Amistad), or a generic fictitious narrative (Roots). This book is not that. This book is one story. The story of a man who is the link between Africa and America. A man who is afforded the luxury to not have to speak on behave of the many, but is allowed to speak for himself. This is not a luxury that Black people in America are often given. Hurston gave this gift.

The story of Cudjo is told in his own words. Hurston transcribes his words in his own dialect and does not compromise that for the sake of the reader. She wants you to hear what Cudjo says, and how he says it. His idiosyncratic phrases are as important to his story as the events themselves. They help to create the man. She gives the book its shape, but it is Cudjo who gives this book its heart.

The book is surrounded by a forward (by Alice Walker), a couple of introductions, an appendix, an afterward, and a glossary, all of which give this story a place and gravitas. I found these additional writings to be powerful in their own way. They helped to contextualize both the work of Hurston, and the world of Cudjo.

I do wish this book was longer. While it talks about Cudjo’s journey and his life as a free man, I wished there was more about his time as a slave, the world around him as he saw it. His opinions on moments in the world, or in his world. I wanted to hear more from him. Honestly it could have been about anything. I just wanted more.

Since this book was written in 1931, and not published until 2018, I would have loved more context on Cudjo and his family and their life after his passing. I wanted to know more about where Cudjo fits into our current world. What became of his legacy.

In truth, my only complaint is that I could have read so much more. I want more of Cudjo, and also more of these types of stories. More uniquely individual tales from Black people. The stories are there, and they are interesting and important, and Black people deserve to be heard and heralded. I hope this book opens those doors.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad; 1st Edition edition (May 8, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Barracoon on Amazon

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