Zora Neale Hurston and Barracoon: The Importance of Preserving Dialect in Literature

Book cover of "Barracoon" by Zoea Neale Hurston
From HarperCollins, 2018.

Barracoon is a heretofore unpublished series of interviews between Zora Neale Hurston and a man named Cudjo Lewis who was the last survivor of the Atlantic Slave Trade. It has recently come into the public eye with the announcement of its upcoming release.

 Born in West Africa, Lewis (whose original name is Kossula) relates his harrowing story to Hurston: His abduction from his village as a young man; his trauma at witnessing the deaths of his kinsmen; his forced journey aboard the Clotilda; his time as a slave; and the creation of his own small community after he gained his freedom.

In keeping with Hurston’s preference for authentic dialogue, Lewis’ story is laid out in his own words and voice. For years, she struggled to find a publisher as they pressured her to present his story in “language rather than dialect” (Alter, New York Times). She strongly refused to give in to this demand and as a result, we now have an invaluable document of history. A firsthand account of the horrors of the slave trade and the efforts of African Americans to rebuild their lives in a new land once released from their bonds.

For the reader, this collection of interviews is an important addition to the growing body of work produced by African American artists in all genres. As a group whose voices have been oppressed and silenced throughout our country’s history, it is essential that every effort is made for their stories to be told authentically.

To this end, Barracoon represents an important and positive shift in the publishing industry, as there is now a concentrated effort to rediscover and present the words of those who have suffered in the past—without censorship or alteration.

Photograph of Cudjo Lewis, using his given name Kossula. From the book "Barracoon".
Photograph of Cudjo Lewis, using his given name Kossula.

We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama. (Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo, quoted in The New York Times article of the same name.)

Intern Spotlight: Brooke Caine

Salutations, fellow lovers of language! My name is Brooke Caine, and I am a senior who will be joining the UNG Press as an intern this summer. Until my junior year of high school, I did not ever see myself in an institution of higher learning, as none of my family members have ever obtained a degree, and my grades were modest at best. However, thanks to the urgings of my mother and some well-selected Advanced Placement courses during my junior and senior year, I am proud to say that I graduated from North Forsyth High School in 2011 with a GPA of 3.2 and a letter of admission to UNG for the following fall semester.

My decision to pursue writing and publication as a major was born largely from the fact that I have been almost unnaturally obsessed with literature since before I could even read or speak properly. One of my mother’s favorite stories: At fifteen months old, I would regularly pull down every book from a shelf that was even larger than myself and babble nonsense in an attempt at ‘reading’. Imagine a small and rather chubby child sitting on a mountain of discarded but nevertheless beloved books with an enormous smile on her face—that is me, albeit slightly larger now and fairly literate by this point.

In addition to my passion for the written word, I am also a lover of languages. During my time at UNG, I have studied Chinese and Russian (the first briefly and the second as a minor) both in the classroom and with native speakers who were generous enough to invite me into their culture and share with me their language, food, and friendship. Naturally, I am always delighted to see works by authors whose countries and customs are different from my own. My favorite English course by far was Immigrant Literature as it gave me an intimate perspective on the struggles and joys of those who come to this country as dreamers and the memories of the lands and people that they left behind.

Ever since I was a child, I have been a firm believer that every story deserves to be told as there is always someone who needs to hear it. To that end, my goal is to work in a publishing company that focuses specifically on the voices that have heretofore been pushed aside or even erased in the flow of history. During the course of my internship, I would like to learn the basics of the industry—proofreading, editing, marketing, design, production—in a work environment that promotes a global and open-minded perspective, both in business practices and the works that we produce for our student body and community.