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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 189-210
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The Last Witness:
Testimony and Desire in Zora Neale Hurston's "Barracoon"
Pushing open that gate with its "African" latch, walking up to that door and standing at the precipice, toes just barely peeking over the threshold, looking across a chasm to encounter the solitary person who has made the distance, who has survived the violence of the Middle Passage and slavery and who has persevered as an African in an American land. . . .
Dr. Franz Boas of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia had sent her on her way through the South and instructed her to stop by this man's house. He was said to be the last surviving African brought to the United States as a slave. A relic, a talisman at ninety-five years who could pull the curtain back and reveal the fissure, where the earth cracked, the African perished and the African American emerged. He was an African called "Kossula" who also went by the slave name "Cudjo Lewis." He had been one of 116 African slaves brought to the United States by the Mehears brothers in 1859, on The Clotilde, supposedly the last slave ship.
Perhaps one can imagine why she plagiarized. Perhaps the first encounter was a failure. Perhaps it yielded little more than a salutation and a repudiation. Who could blame her? She was young. She was an anthropologist, a scientist. She was an African American woman driving though the South alone in 1928 collecting bits and pieces of African American identity—the ephemera, whistles, and [End Page 189] recipes anthropologists loved to busy their fingers with. She was Zora Neale Hurston.
So perhaps Hurston's first attempt to meet with Kossula was a failure. A closure. One door slammed when another opened at the Mobile Historical Society, where a quaint little tome sat smugly on the shelves, beckoning her: Emma Langdon Roche's Historic Sketches of the Old South. The work was "Cudjo's story" told through Roche's eyes, spread across the pages in darling portraiture and dated photographs: "Cudjo and his wife, Abime" under the fruit trees they had grown themselves; hand-drawn maps of the route from his village to the barracoon where he was stripped and sold and loaded on a small vessel bound for the United States. . . .
And so, much of Roche's work and writing found its way into Hurston's first scholarly article: "Cudjo's Own Story of the Last African Slaver." It wasn't provocative. It was plagiarism. Except, of course, where Hurston removed Roche's racist hand, and replaced it with her empowering one. Her transgression did not go unnoticed. There were tears. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston describes the fallout of this failed research trip: "I stood before Papa Franz and cried salty tears. He gave me a good going over, but I later found out that he was not as disappointed as he let me think. He knew I was green and feeling my oats, and that only bitter disappointment was going to purge me. And it did" (688). She was given another try. A chance to make good. A way back. But this time her approach was more effective. She brought peaches. She brought bug powder. She brought the magical ingredients for a recipe that would initiate his story. . . and hers.
After the appearance of Hurston's first scholarly article, "Cudjo's Own Story of the Last African Slaver," and after her plagiarism had been discovered, Hurston returned to Alabama to confront the task of recording this story once again. This time, she visited Lewis repeatedly over the course of three months, and, as she writes, this subsequent trip was not dominated by the anthropological work she initially set out to do on her first trip. 1 The two ate together; Hurston helped Kossula clean the church where he worked as the sexton, and sometimes they chatted as friends. In these new circumstances, Hurston was eventually able to ask Kossula about his life and sometimes he answered...