How Zora Neale Hurston captured the poetry of African-American folklife

In 1931, the last surviving captive of an American slave ship was interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston. It was not the only time Hurston would preserve a vital, endangered piece of American culture.

Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis multiple times from his home in Plateau, Alabama, where he recounted his abduction from Benin at age 19. Lewis was transported aboard the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring slaves to the U.S.

Her manuscript of Lewis’ life, called “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” was recently brought out of obscurity from the archives at Howard University and will be published on May 8, decades after her attempts to find a publisher failed.

Zora Hurston beating the hountar, or mama drum, 1937. Photo courtesy of the Library of…

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