Zora Neale Hurston was a full ten years away from publishing her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, when she travelled to Alabama for one of her most significant works of anthropology: a series of interviews with a man named Oluale Kossola, called Cudjo Lewis in America.
While the trafficking of slaves from Africa to the United States had been technically illegal since 1807, that never stopped enterprising smugglers from trying to make a profit off human flesh. In 1859, a two-masted schooner called the Clotilda made the last known voyage from Whydah (in present-day Benin) to Mobile, Alabama with approximately 110-160 slaves as cargo. Among their number was Kossola.
His time on a plantation was relatively brief, since he was eventually freed by the Civil War. He was part of a group that founded the settlement of Africatown in Alabama and, as time wore gradually on, he came to be the only living founder. In 1927, when Hurston knocked on his door, this made the 87-year-old Kossola — as far as anyone could determine — the last surviving victim of the Translatlantic slave trade.
I can’t help but be struck by that. Well into the 20th century, the institution of slavery in the Americas was still a living memory. While there are others noted as possibly the last American slaves, what makes Kossola’s story significant is that he was the last former slave to remember Africa, the place of his birth and the home he was stolen from.
I hailed him by his African name as I walked up the steps to his porch, and he looked up into my face as I stood in the door in surprise. He was eating his breakfast from a round enameled pan with his hands, in the fashion of his fatherland.
The surprise of seeing me halted his hand between pan and face. Then tears of joy welled up.
“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me my name from cross de water but you. You always callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!”
“…I want to ask you many things. 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?”
Again his head was bowed for a time. When he lifted his wet face again he murmured, “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.’ I want you everywhere you go to tell everybody whut Cudjo say, and how come I in Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. I can’t talkee plain, you unnerstand me, but I calls it word for word for you so it won’t be too crooked for you…”
For two months, Hurston talked with Kossola at his home, sometimes eating together, sometimes sitting on the porch, sometimes driving him into town. When she was finished, she produced a slim 100-page manuscript that told his story in his own words, with only occasional passages describing their interactions. Only one publisher agreed to distribute the book — on condition that she rewrite it in proper English, removing her representation of Kossola’s dialect. She refused. The book has remained hidden from the public gaze ever since, known and remarked on only by Hurston scholars until May of this year.
Humans are creatures of narrative. Stories are not only how we see the world, stories are also what make our world. They bring us together and make us distinct. The narratives of our myths teach us how the universe works and of our place in it. To tell our story is to shape our identity; for someone to listen is to make ourselves known in the world.
Slavery. Emancipation. Civil rights. It’s easy to reduce these to abstract statistics and paint in broad brushstrokes the magnitude of racism. Kossola’s story doesn’t let us do that. He tells us of life in a West African town, of the games they played and the stories they told. How his home was raided by an enemy tribe and he was sold to American smugglers. How he survived the Middle Passage, then the years on a plantation. How his children become victims of police injustice. This narrative is the African-American experience in a nutshell. Kossola is just one of the faces all too easily buried by the statistics.
Yet for all his story’s importance, Kossola himself is a humble man, always quick to point out that he doesn’t claim to come from royalty, a rich family, or the chief wife of his father. He tries to lend credance to his story by not claiming any importance for himself whatsoever. Kossola lives alone, his wife and sons dead; his loneliness is often palpable. He begs us to believe him and to listen to his tale so that by this act he can somehow make himself known in the world.
The least we could do is listen.