The Paris Review

Contraband Flesh: On Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

Zora Neale Hurston’s previously unpublished anthropological text Barracoon will be released on May 8, 2018. 

Zora Neale Hurston, Kossula: Last of the Takoi Slaves, stills from a black-and-white film in 16mm, 5 minutes. © The Margaret Mead Collection. Arrangement by Josh Begley.

On May 10, 1928, Zora Neale Hurston wrote a letter to Alain Locke, the self-professed dean of the Harlem Renaissance and Hurston’s longtime collaborator, frequent pen pal, and sometimes mentor. She reports the arrival of her diploma from Barnard College, where she studied anthropology; commiserates with Locke about the drudgery of teaching; and begs for a visit—Hurston includes a detailed description of the “sea animal graveyards” that she’s discovered in the phosphate mines at Mulberry, Florida. Hurston enclosed within the envelope a few objects: “two vertebrae of pre-historic sea animals” excavated from the “deep depressions” of the seafloor and a small piece of wood. “The bit of wood,” she writes, “is from the ship in Mobile Bay. (Cudjoe Lewis).”

In May 1859, Cudjoe Lewis, along with 116 other Africans, was captured from Dahomey, in what is today Benin, and sold to Captain Foster. Foster was traveling at the behest of the Mehear brothers, three American slave traders who were originally from Maine but had relocated to Alabama where they operated a shipyard.  Three months later, the slave ship docked in Mobile Bay, where the newly enslaved were sold. Because the transatlantic slave trade was abolished some fifty years earlier, once the Mehears landed on U.S. soil, the ship was “scuttled and fired.” Its remains were left to sink to the

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