In general, readers should be suspicious when a long-unpublished work by a famous author comes to light. More often than not, these mostly seem to be cash grabs by the publisher (see, for instance, Go Set a Watchman). Barracoon has some interesting content (and at least it isn't just an early draft of a classic!), but it’s also much less than its publishers suggest. Zora Neale Hurston – as a folklorist, before she became a well-known novelist – conducted a series of interviews with Cudjo Lewis, aka Kossola Oluale, an African native kidnapped and brought to the United States illegally on the last slave ship, in 1859. About half of this short book reproduces those interviews. The other half or more consists of fairly repetitive supplementary material, providing historical background, discussing Hurston’s plagiarism of the first article she wrote about Kossola, etc.
The interviews are definitely interesting, and tell a sad story. Kossola was kidnapped as a young man by soldiers from the nearby kingdom of Dahomey, which seems to have been operating practically as a pirate state, attacking other groups in the area on a pretext, kidnapping the young people to sell as slaves and murdering all the rest. This wiped out entire nations, including apparently Kossola’s. He, along with more than 100 others, was then taken to the Mississippi, where he was forced to work on cargo boats until being freed at the end of the Civil War several years later. Along with the other African natives, he soon realized he would never be able to afford passage back home, and they founded their own town in Alabama. Unfortunately, Kossola outlived his wife and all six of their children; the book focuses largely on this and on the initial massacre and kidnapping, and less so on the Middle Passage and slavery, which seem to have been difficult but less memorable times for him by comparison.
While there’s something to be said for reading someone’s own words, the way they actually spoke, I would have appreciated the book more if Hurston had used her interviews with Kossola as the starting point for a more complete and well-researched biography or history. I’m not sure she ever intended this to be a book, though – she did a little bit of fact-checking, but it’s mostly just a reproduction of the interview, which doesn’t go into any great depth on any of the eras in Kossola’s life upon which it briefly touches. I was left with questions even about major aspects of his life, like: was his wife from the same village? Did they meet in Africa or in the U.S.? It’s worth reading – it’s very short and you can skim much of the supplementary material – but turning it into a full-length book is a stretch, so that I can’t help feeling it was a bit of a cash grab.