Baraka portrays the horror of the slave trade from Africa through the narrative of an old slave named Kossola. Today, as exile and migration continue to bring great tragedies to many communities, this work on one of the largest wounds in world history is of great importance.
The slave trade from Africa, started by the Portuguese in the mid-fifteenth century, is one of the darkest, most shameful and merciless pages in human history. It is estimated that between 1801 and 1866, or just sixty-five years, three million eight hundred and seventy-three thousand six hundred Africans were sold for gold, weapons, and other European and American products. This figure alone is enough to outline the terrifying scale of the slave trade.
Let’s continue with history: The British banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and the United States in 1808, by which Africans were enslaved and taken on international journeys. However, the trade continued illegally for a long time. (No one was punished for the thousands of Africans brought to North and South America after 1808, and the one person who was hanged claimed to be innocent.) The last illegal slave ship from Africa to the United States was the Clatilda. 110 Africans were brought to America as “slaves” on this ship. One of these last “slaves” was Cudjo “Kossola” Lewis. In her work Baraka, which was published by Ithaki Publishers, the novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston presents the horror of the slave trade from Africa through the narratives of this former slave Kossola.
From freedom to slavery and back to freedom again…
Kossola was enslaved at the age of nineteen. And by the Africans whom he called “my own people”. He witnessed the murder of his family, loved ones, neighbors, and leaders during an attack on his village by another tribe. They chose to enslave him instead of killing him. He was kept in the “barakas” where the slaves were locked up and their hands and feet were tied. He was soon sold to the “white man”. After a journey across the ocean filled with disease and abuse, he found himself on American soil. Nothing got better here. He did heavy jobs that no one wanted to do, witnessed the deaths of other slaves, and was subjected to hatred and disrespect from white people. The real story of an old slave, Baraka, narrated by the former slave Kossola, portrays the horror of the transatlantic slave trade through his stories. This work on one of the largest wounds in world history is of great importance, especially considering that the exile and migration continue to bring great tragedies to many communities today.
Until April 12th, 1865. With the abolition of slavery, Kossola, now a “free person”, could never return to Africa, the place he longed to live. Along with other African “exiles”, he always remained an “other” on these lands and built a life for himself. In this “free” life he always carried the hardships and the longing for Africa with him.
So far, many research, analysis, or fiction novels inspired by this tragedy have been published that document slavery. But no such story has been told from their language since the people brought from Africa as slaves couldn’t read and write. One of the main sources of power for Baraka is the horrific story of how Africans came to America and how they were treated by both black and white people, told by an ex-slave who lived these experiences firsthand.
Hurston appears only in a few paragraphs in the main text, excluding the introduction and conclusion. She writes Kossola’s stories mainly as a monologue, in the first person singular, without converting them into her own narrative. The story is so much Kossola’s that Hurston even takes care to preserve his accent in the text. The reason for this important work not being published until now is also because of this accent. The publishers she approached to print the book told her that they would print it if she corrected the African accent in Kossola’s storytelling. Hurston rejected this change. Thus, we can say that the writer Zora Neale Hurston honored the storytelling style that originated from African soil by standing behind Kossola’s accent.
Another feature that places Their Eyes Were Watching God in a unique position within the slave-focused literature is that Kossola, a former slave, does not focus on his slave days. Instead, he focuses on his life in Africatown, a settlement established by freed people after slavery was abolished, located in the West Africa where he lived (the settlement today is known as Plateau and is located in Alabama).
And marginalization still existed for former slaves even after the abolition of slavery. This may be the most surprising aspect of its narrative. Another noteworthy point is that Baraka technically is a slave narrative. However, it is told by a “once a slave, now a free man” instead of a slave. One of the things not to be overlooked about this book is that it is not the story of someone living the “American dream” moving forward in time, but rather a slavery story moving backwards in time, told in reverse.
The only drawback in this study may be Hurston’s use of Baraka as the title of her work. She chose this name in reference to the place where captured Africans were held, waiting for the terrifying journey to America. But when we open the cover of the book and start reading, we see that it tells much more than just the story of what happens or happens to “Baraka” (as I mentioned above). In this sense, it can be said with ease that the name “Baraka” does not encompass all that is told in this book.
The African diaspora in the US is one of the largest human groups subjected to forced migration in world history. In today’s world where exile and migration continue to bring great tragedies to many communities, the fact that such a study is made about one of the world’s largest wounds (even if almost a century later) is of great importance. To quote Deborah G. Plant, who took on the editing of the work in its original language: Hurston’s questions about slavery and freedom, greed and fame, personal sovereignty and our common humanity are just as important today as they were in Kossola’s era.