A Different Backstory for Zora Neale Hurston’s “Barracoon”

By Rebecca PanovkaJuly 7, 2018

A Different Backstory for Zora Neale Hurston’s “Barracoon”
ON JUNE 11, 1931, Alain Locke received a parcel in Penn Station. Locke, then a philosophy professor at Howard University, was passing through New York on his way to Europe for the summer. He’d been planning to drop in on the managing editor at Viking as part of an effort to fast-track a book deal for a manuscript he’d sent over in advance, and without the permission of its author — Zora Neale Hurston.

But when Locke called from the station to confirm the meeting, he discovered he’d been “short-circuited.” Hurston’s literary agent had beaten him to Viking, where she had yanked the manuscript off the editor’s desk. The work was unfinished, she had explained, and “the author wished to hold the manuscript back for extensive revision.” The editor told Locke he “was quite interested in the manuscript,” but that he could not publish it against its author’s wishes.

Whether Hurston ever intended to return to the manuscript is an open question, but the fact is, she never did. The parcel Viking sent back to Locke that day in Penn Station contained the final draft of Barracoon, which, after 87 years in various archives and safe deposit boxes, has now been published by HarperCollins.

Barracoon is Hurston’s account of the life of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the Atlantic slave trade. It narrates a series of encounters in which Hurston, plying her subject with Georgia peaches and Virginia hams, convinces him to recount the story of his life: his childhood in present-day Benin, his capture and journey across the Atlantic on the Clotilda, and his life in the United States both during slavery and afterward, when he helped to found the all-black Africatown a few miles north of Mobile, Alabama.

HarperCollins’s press release heralded the publication of Barracoon as a “major literary event,” and both the announcement and the book’s publication have been met with waves of celebratory articles and tweets. Much of the press around Barracoon has zeroed in on its backstory — why it wasn’t published in the 1930s, and why it’s being published now — and a standard explanation, advanced by HarperCollins and accepted by all the major publications, has emerged. According to The New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, and NPR, the text’s heavy use of dialect presented a problem for publishers, who worried that the extended passages rendered in Cudjo Lewis’s voice would prove too alienating for a white audience.

That may be true, but it’s an incomplete version of events. The pressures and preferences of the publishing world do not on their own explain why Hurston chose to withdraw Barracoon from the consideration of an interested editor. That incident, as far as I’m aware, is not mentioned in any of the critical or biographical literature about Hurston. It is recorded in hour-by-hour detail, though, in Locke’s archive at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Library (the same collection, incidentally, that houses both copies of the Barracoon manuscript). Locke documented the whole publication process for Barracoon in a series of letters, as well as a formal memorandum, all addressed to a single recipient — a woman named Charlotte Osgood Mason.

Charlotte Osgood Mason, Alain Locke Papers, Box 210, Folder 8 Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

Even the long-form pieces on Barracoon largely gloss over the fact that when the text was being researched and written, both Hurston and Lewis were engaged in a strange, coercive relationship with Mason, a wealthy white patron who wanted to use the book to fulfill her “mystical vision of a great bridge reaching from Harlem to the heart of Africa.” Mason paid both Hurston and Lewis stipends for years. She imagined Barracoon as an object with supernatural powers and laid the material groundwork for its creation. It was due to Mason’s intervention that Hurston’s manuscript made its way to Viking in the first place — her support of Hurston was contingent, in part, on Barracoon’s publication.


Charlotte Osgood Mason was the widow of Dr. Rufus Osgood Mason, a noted surgeon and a pioneer in the field of parapsychology — psychology of the paranormal — which, at that time, placed him squarely within the realm of respectable scientific inquiry. Publishing titles like Telepathy and the Subliminal Self, Dr. Mason believed that the phenomena he studied (telepathy, clairvoyance, thought transference, and even artistic genius) resulted from the as-yet-unstudied “subliminal self,” which allowed individuals to tap into the “all-pervading Divine mind.” By overvaluing the rational, he argued, Western civilization had silenced the subliminal and therefore become “abnormal, unsymmetrical, deformed, and tending to disintegration.” Helping patients tap into their subliminal selves, Dr. Mason wrote, was the “most important work now being done in the world.”

Even before her marriage, Charlotte Mason had dreamt of a “flaming pathway” to Africa, which, she believed, would serve as a “cure” for American society by unleashing “the creative impulse throbbing in the African race.” There was never a time, she said, “when I was not interested in primitive peoples.” In her youth, she had conducted amateur ethnographic fieldwork among the Native American tribes of the Southwest and, once married, she wedded her longstanding “interest” with her husband’s anti-rationalist philosophy to produce a bizarre, occultist ideology all her own.

Mason thought of herself as a “psychologist of the times.” White civilization “is already in the throes of death,” she wrote. Its “spiritual life is choked.” The solution, she believed, was to be found in primitive art, which could teach a white audience the value of the subliminal. According to Mason, primitive art “shows a great genius stream flowing slowly + surely through a race […] because the stream isn’t lost by egotism.” (Mason used “egotism” as a stand-in for what her husband described as the rational mind.)

Rufus Osgood Mason died in 1903, leaving his 49-year-old widow a fortune and a “precious burden” — his legacy. By making “primitive” art available to a white, upper-class audience, Charlotte Mason resolved, she would use her inheritance to cure the spiritual disintegration her husband had diagnosed. Mason began by returning to the Southwest with the ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis. Together, the two women collected tales and songs for what became The Indians’ Book, which Mason considered “an eternal glory” for the rest of her life.

Mason was in her 70s when she met Alain Locke at a 1927 showing of African art, and she reported in her journal a “tremendous rapport” with the young professor. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, where he had studied as the first black Rhodes Scholar, Locke was perhaps the central intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance. By the time he encountered Mason, he had already edited The New Negro, the anthology that announced the movement.

In Harlem, as in the Southwest, Mason saw “the primitive element still flaming [that] opposing whites, in order to live at all, will yet have to receive.” And by supporting the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Mason hoped to orchestrate that reception. She became the single largest sponsor of the movement — counting, at one time or another, Locke, Hurston, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Arthur Fauset, Miguel Covarrubias, and Hall Johnson among her “Godchildren.”

Mason had difficult relationships with the artists and writers she supported, and fell out, at some point, with all but Locke. Many, like Langston Hughes, came to resent Mason’s assumption that they could “be primitive and know and feel the intuitions of the primitive.” Hurston, too, felt under pressure to play along with Mason’s fantasies. In letters, she signed off as “Godmother’s pickaninny” and addressed Mason as “Dearest, little mother of the primitive world” and “Darling Godmother, the Guard-Mother who sits in the Twelfth Heaven and shapes the destinies of the primitives.” The degree to which Hurston bought into her patron’s primitivist ideology is difficult to ascertain. (After Mason had terminated their relationship, Hurston wrote to a friend: “I have kicked loose from the Park Avenue dragon,” but later, in her memoir, fondly recalled their “psychic bond.”)

For a time, Mason had considered Hurston her most important protégé. “Zora is the only person I think among the Negroes who can receive the flash,” she wrote. And her faith in Hurston — as well as its eventual dissipation — had everything to do with Barracoon.


By the time she met Mason in September 1927, Hurston had already interviewed Cudjo Lewis under the joint aegis of the Columbia Anthropology Department and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Franz Boas, widely considered the “father of American anthropology,” had mentored Hurston during her time as Barnard’s first black student and had helped her secure funding for six months of postgraduate fieldwork. It was Boas who had first recommended she visit Lewis. Also known as Kossula (a shortened version of his African name), Lewis was reputed to be the last surviving victim of the African slave trade, and he was something of a holy grail for anthropologists. His memories had been recorded several times, and some of his folktales had even appeared in Locke’s New Negro anthology.

Hurston’s first stab at interviewing Lewis had not gone well. It’s possible that he had trouble remembering details (he was in his late 80s), that he was tired of repeating his story to anthropologists, or that he simply did not want to repeat it to Hurston. For whatever reason, she seems to have had so much trouble getting material from Lewis that she plagiarized much of her report on the encounter — as her first biographer Robert Hemenway discovered in the 1970s — from Emma Langdon Roche’s 1914 proslavery account, Historic Sketches of the South. At the time, though, Hurston’s account passed for original. It was published as “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver” in the October 1927 issue of The Journal of Negro History, where Mason, who’d received a copy from Locke, read it.

Hurston had only been back in New York for a few weeks when she visited Mason’s lavish Park Avenue apartment for the first time. She was collaborating on a folk opera with Langston Hughes, and she wanted to pitch Mason on the idea of financing it. “I went to see Mrs. Mason and I think that we got on famously. God, I hope so!” she wrote to Hughes. “She likes the idea of the opera.” Mason, however, had other ideas. She was looking for someone who could help her “see the same thing done by the Negroes as I did with the Indians” — a folklorist who could assemble something like The Indians’ Book — and Hurston fit the bill.

In December 1927, Mason decided to formalize the arrangement. According to the contract she drew up, Hurston agreed to return to the South as Mason’s proxy. In exchange for a monthly stipend, she was to seek out the “music, folklore, poetry, voodoo, conjure, manifestations of art, and kindred matters existing among American Negroes.” Hurston was legally obligated to “lay before” Mason whatever material she collected. She was forbidden from publishing or sharing her material, or even from disclosing its subject matter without prior approval from Mason.

The opera project was put on indefinite hold, and by the end of the month, Hurston was en route to Mobile to interview Lewis again. This time, Lewis had incentive to comply: it’s unclear when or why Mason started paying him, but her letters indicate that she was already in the habit of sending him monthly checks as early as February 1928. And when Hurston told Lewis about the “nice white lady from New York,” she explains in Barracoon, he became willing to divulge some of his most upsetting memories. “I tellee you mo’ ’bout Cudjo when he was in de Dahomey,” he says, referring to his time in captivity. “I tellee you right. She good to me. You tell her Cudjo lak please her.”

Mason used her sway with Lewis not only to guarantee Hurston contact, but also to withhold that contact from others. Over a period of months, she and Locke conspired to prevent Paul Radin, a prominent anthropologist who had read Hurston’s article, from interviewing Lewis. “Zora must contrive to seal Cudjo’s lips, and not let her material get loose,” Locke wrote. Mason told Hurston to “use the fact that the lady in the North who sends him the money to buy his fruit and tobacco every month would feel badly to have him give any of his African things to any person but a Negro.” When their plan to “blocade [sic]” Radin proved successful, Locke sent Mason a cryptic telegram: “HAWK SLIDES TO MOBILE TOMORROW CHICKENS SAFE.”

It is impossible to overestimate the value Mason assigned to Cudjo Lewis’s story. The book, she believed, would “burn to ashes the white blood that tramps leadening the Negro race in America.” She wrote, “[W]e must have that human story in letters of fire that enclose and at the same time set aflame the memories of the whole African race.”

There is no evidence that Hurston shared Mason’s obsession with Cudjo Lewis’s material. Hurston’s letters from the field convey her excitement about much of the folklore she was finding, and the various ways she could later stage it or write it up — but only one of those letters so much as mentions Lewis, and it is to contrast him unfavorably with another survivor of the slave trade. “She is a better talker than Cudjoe,” Hurston wrote to Hughes, “no one will ever know about her but us.” As she did with several people and stories over the course of her Southern fieldwork, Hurston decided to withhold the new subject from Mason. Siphoning off some of her best material, Hurston appears to have seen the work she did for Mason (including her interviews with Cudjo Lewis) as distinct from the work she did for herself. She later confessed to Hughes when she found a new project, “I am wary of mentioning it to Godmother for fear she will think I am shirking.”

When Hurston returned from the field, she was eager to get back to her theatrical projects, but she found herself under constant pressure to produce deliverables. “I am urged to do things as quickly as possible,” she wrote Boas. She divided up the content she had collected into three separate book projects — one on folklore, another on conjure, and a third strictly on what Mason called her “Kossula material” — but Hurston’s progress was too slow for her patron. Mason was “in mortal terror” that the Cudjo Lewis material would somehow leak before Hurston could write it up.

Yet it wasn’t until late in the fall of 1930, almost three years after she’d interviewed Lewis, that Hurston began drafting the manuscript. Mason’s notes for a January 1931 meeting with Hurston alternate between concern about the “Kossula material” — “Is it in its last form? Did she bring it?” — and racist barbs about Hurston’s lack of dedication to the project: “This is the reason the whole white world says ‘You can’t do anything with Negroes. They are unreliable.’” In letters, Hurston tried to buy more time. “Do not despair of me, Godmother,” she wrote, “I shall come thru this time.” And on April 18, Hurston announced, “At last ‘Barracoon’ is ready for your eyes.”

The spring of 1931 was the middle of the Great Depression — hardly a good time to sell any manuscript, let alone an experimental text intended for a popular audience, and rendered mostly in a dialect to which that audience was unaccustomed. Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins) was Mason’s first choice, and the legendary Knopf editor Harry Block, who had already given Hurston feedback on a draft of her conjure book, was also eager to take a look. Block had found the conjure manuscript too anthropological for a “general audience,” and he thought the same of Barracoon. He advised Hurston and Mason that “only anthropologists have any interest in dialect.” Harpers, likewise, decided “they can not publish it unless she takes it out of dialect,” Mason explained to Locke.

Dialect was a hallmark of anthropological writing — especially the school of anthropology headed up by Boas, who brought an emphasis on scientific objectivity to the discipline — but it was also a priority for the decidedly unscientific Mason. If black writers were to bring white America into contact with the “primitive,” she believed, they could hardly do so with works in “the white man’s tongue.” For Mason, revising Barracoon into standard English was a non-starter.

But Mason was intent on overcoming the “egotism of the publishing world,” and she enlisted Locke’s help. “Break the stone heads of these publishers,” she implored him, “then into the debris heap!” Locke had already advocated for the book with both Block and Harpers, and he’d also managed to pique the interest of the managing editor at Viking. Forewarned about the book’s heavy use of dialect, the Viking editor was still “particularly anxious to see her manuscript,” Locke told Mason. But Hurston had ignored Viking’s request for the manuscript and sent her copy to Locke instead, telling him she “was depressed and was going away for a short while in the country.” When Locke received Mason’s call to arms, he decided not to wait for Hurston to return to the city: he sent the copy directly to the editor at Viking, where Hurston’s literary agent tracked it down.

What followed was a protracted disillusionment. Over the next year, Mason slowly came to the realization that Hurston had no intention of making the “extensive revision” her agent had promised. “The Viking press again asks for the Life of Kossula, but in language rather than dialect,” Hurston wrote Mason in the fall of 1931. “It lies here and I know your mind about that and so I did not answer them except with your tongue.” Despite the discouragement, Mason assumed Hurston was working on her new draft. “I hope Zora has been able to get the Kossula manuscript to you,” she wrote Locke in December. “Remember I would like to succeed in my ideal in this matter, depressed times or no.”

But in March 1932, Locke reported to Mason that Hurston had not revised the Kossula material — she was working on stories and theatrical projects instead. “You do not seem to realize that I made a contract with you,” Mason wrote in a draft of a letter to Hurston. “All of 1930 you were supposed to be getting your books ready.” She had paid Hurston a monthly allowance “with nothing to show for it.” By the fall, unhappy with Hurston’s continued focus on her theatrical work, Mason had cut her off entirely. (She was still sending Cudjo Lewis his monthly checks.)

When Hurston did return to her Cudjo Lewis material in the 1940s, it was briefly: first in a passage in her memoir, and then in a short article for American Mercury. But even after she had published multiple works celebrating black dialect, she never again tried her hand at Barracoon.


In 1973, when Alice Walker tracked down Hurston’s unmarked grave, all of her books were out of print. After returning to Florida to find work as a maid, Hurston had died in obscurity — one of many residents of a welfare home in St. Lucie County who hadn’t left behind funds to cover the cost of a funeral. Walker bought her a tombstone and inscribed it with the words “Zora Neale Hurston, ‘A Genius of the South,’ Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist.” Then she set about making sure Hurston was remembered that way.

It is due to Walker’s campaign, beginning with an article for Ms. Magazine, that Hurston is now recognized as one of the most significant writers of the 20th century. Today, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a mainstay of high school English curricula. The excitement about Barracoon is a testament not only to Hurston’s enduring power to touch readers, but also to the success of Walker’s efforts.

The publication of Barracoon, in fact, represents the latest stage in the project Walker inaugurated — the project of resurrecting Hurston’s works. Until now, Cudjo Lewis’s full story (and Hurston’s first book-length work) was withheld from the public; Barracoon was all but erased from the historical record. But it’s worth wondering if the price of rectifying that erasure has to be erasing the more difficult parts of Barracoon’s context. It’s worth asking why almost everyone who has written about Barracoon’s publication has felt compelled to sanitize its backstory — what in the zeitgeist has led them to believe that a complicated history would be somehow disqualifying, and that they’d be better off ignoring it.

Yet like it or not, Barracoon bears Mason’s indelible mark. It was written on her schedule, under her pressure, and with her money. The 2018 edition of the text even opens with the bizarre dedication that Hurston, respecting her patron’s insistence on privacy, never included in her typed manuscript: “To Charlotte Mason, My Godmother, and the one Mother of all the primitives, who with the Gods in Space is concerned about the hearts of the untaught.” Mason's role in the creation of Barracoon is uncomfortable, but discomfort is a bad reason not to acknowledge the material conditions under which any work, no matter how significant or revered, was shaped. And that’s especially true given the discomfort Hurston herself felt about Barracoon — the discomfort that, for whatever reasons and with whatever intentions, led her to walk away from the text and never return.


This piece refers to a variety of sources in the Alain Locke Papers at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. See Box 68, Folders 19, 20, 21, 22, 30; Box 69, Folders 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 11, 14; Box 70, Folder 6; Box 99, Folders 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 15, 19, 20, 21; Box 100, Folders 6, 7, 8, 9; Box 139, Folder 8; Box 185, Folders 32, 33; Box 186, Folders 1, 2; Box 199, Folder 5; Box 200, Folders 3, 4; and Box 210, Folder 8.


Rebecca Panovka is a Marshall Scholar studying history and film.

LARB Contributor

Rebecca Panovka is a Marshall Scholar studying history and film.


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