Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon is one of the latest additions to one of America’s oldest original literary genres, the slave narrative. This genre stretches from those published before the off-anthologized Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano to an example published in 1853 and mostly forgotten until it became the basis for an Oscar-winner film adaptation in 2013: Twelve Years a Slave. Both before and after those and many more famous examples from such distinguished literary figures as Frederick Douglass, the slave narrative can truly—and quite sadly—make a serious argument for a position as the definitively American contribution to literature. While the genre is, of course, by no means limited to just the stories of African American slaves, they make up the bulk of the most famous and highly regarded.
Hurston’s contribution to this esteemed branch of non-fiction was not, perhaps surprisingly, one which she lived to enjoy herself. Although Hurston penned the story of the last living survivor of the treacherous slave trafficking route known as the Middle Passage in the late 1920’s, it would not be published until nearly a century later by which time Hurston—as well as the protagonist of her tale, Cudjo Lewis, of course—had passed away.
In what can only be termed one of those infinitely curious cases of just plain historical weirdness, almost one year to the day after Barracoon finally achieved publication, the long-lost ship which secretly brought Lewis and more than one-hundred others from their homeland to American via the port of Mobile was officially announced as having finally been located and verified. Ironically, of course, the racist-tinged reasonings behind publishers being unwilling to make the book available at the time it was written wound up becoming a once-in-a-lifetime marketing dream for Amistad Press, an imprint of Harper-Collins.