| Next Article >

Readings — From the June 2018 issue

Family History

Download Pdf
Read Online

By Zora Neale Hurston, from Barracoon, a previously unpublished ethnography based on interviews that she conducted with eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis in Alabama in 1927 and 1928. Lewis was then the last known surviving man to have been brought to the United States from Africa as a slave. Hurston (1891–1960) was a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist. The book was published last month by Amistad.

Cudjo’s friends down the bay caught us a marvelous mess of blue crabs. We left these people late in the afternoon with many lingering exchanges of good wishes. 

On the way home we saw some excellent late melons in front of a store and bought two of them. I left one melon on his porch and took the other with me. 

At the gate he called after me, “You come tomorrow and eatee de crab wid me. I lak you come keep me comp’ny!” 

So the next day about noon, I was sitting on his steps between the rain barrels, eating crabs. When the crabs were gone, we talked. 

“Let Cudjo tellee you ’bout our boy David. He such a good boy. Cudjo doan fugit dat day. It Easter Saturday. He come home, you unnerstand me, and find me sweepin’ de church. I been de sexton long time den. So he astee me, ‘Papa, where mama?’ 

“I tell him, ‘She in de house.’ 

“Derefo’ he go in de house, you unnerstand me, and astee his mama what she goin’ have for dinner. She tellee him she got de baked fish. He say, ‘Oh, I so glad we got baked fish. Gimme my dinner quick.’ His mama astee him, ‘When did you ever see me give you anything to eat befo’ your Pa?’ He say, ‘Never.’ She say, ‘You takee yo’ bath den maybe dat time yo’ Pa here to eatee his dinner.’ 

De boy runee back out to me and tell me make haste so he git something to eat. He hongry. I choppee de wood so he take de axe and choppee de wood hisself. I say, ‘Go on, son, I ain’ weak yet. I kin chop dis wood!’ He say, ‘No, I doan want you chop wood and I right here and strong.’ Derefo’ he choppee de wood and keer it in de house where his ma kin reachee it. 

“Den we eat our dinner and David washee hisself and his mama put out de clean clothes for him to put on. He got on de unnershirt but he ain’ got on de top shirt. He ain’ got no button on de unnershirt so me and his ma see de flesh. So I say, ‘Son, fasten yo’ clothes so yo’ mama doan see de skin.’ He lookee at hisself, den he astee me, ‘Who first saw me naked? My ma.’ Den he laugh and put on de rest of de clothes. He say, ‘Papa, Mama, I go in de Mobile and gittee de laundry. Den I have clean shirts.’ 

“I astee him, ‘How long befo’ you come from town?’ He say, ‘Not long. Maybe I ketchee de same car back.’ 

“So he go leave de house. 

“After while we hear somebody dey come laughing and talking. My wife, Seely, say, ‘David got a friend wid him.’ I lookee to see who David got wid him, but it ain’ David. 

“Two men come tell me, ‘Uncle Cudjo, yo’ boy dead in Plateau.’

“I say, ‘My boy not in Plateau. He in de Mobile.’ Dey say, ‘No, de train kill yo’ boy in Plateau.’

“I tell dem, ‘How kin de train kill my David in Plateau when he not dere? He gone in de Mobile to git his laundry. He be back after while.’ 

“Seely say, ‘Go see, Cudjo. Maybe it not our boy. Go see who git killed.’ 

“Den I astee de men, ‘Where dat man git killed you tellee me about?’ 

“Dey say, ‘On de railroad track in Plateau.’ 

“Derefo’, you unnerstand me, I go follow de people. Then I gittee to de place wid de big crowd stand ’round lookee. 

“I go through de crowd and lookee. I see de body of a man by de telegraph pole. It ain’ got no head. Somebody tell me, ‘Dass yo’ boy, Uncle Cudjo.’ I say, ‘No, it not my David.’ He lay dere by de cross ties. One woman she face me and astee, ‘Cudjo, which son of yours is dis?’ and she pointee at de body. I tell her, ‘Dis none of my son. My boy go in town and y’all tell me my boy dead.’ 

One Afficky man come and say, ‘Cudjo, dass yo’ boy.’ 

“I astee him, ‘Is it? If dat my boy, where his head?’ He show me de head. It on de other side de track. Den he lead me home. 

“Somebody astee me, ‘Cudjo, yo’ boy dead. Must I toll de bell for you? You de sexton. You toll de bell for everybody else, you want me toll it for David?’ 

“I astee him, ‘Why you want to toll de bell for David? He ain’ dead.’ 

“De Afficky man told de people pick up de body and keer it home. So dey took de window shutter and lay de body on it and fetch it to Cudjo’s gate. De gate, it too small, so dey lift it over de gate and place it on de porch. I so worried. I wishee so bad my David come back from town so de people stop sayin’ dat my son on de shutter. 

“When dey place de shutter on de porch, my wife she scream. De Afficky man say again, ‘Cudjo, thass yo’ boy.’ I say, ‘If thass my son, tell me where de head.’ Dey brung it in a box and I lookee down in David face. Den I say to de crowd, ‘Git off my porch! Git out my yard!’ Dey went. Den I fall down and open de shirt and pushee my hand in de bosom and feel de marks. And I know it my son. I tell dem, toll de bell. 

“My wife lookee at my face and she scream and scream and fall on de floor and cain raise herself up. I runnee out de place and fell on my face in de pine grove. Oh, Lor’! I stay dere. I hurtee so. It hurtee me so to hear Seely cry. Those who had come cross de water come to me. They say, ‘Uncle Cudjo, come home. Yo’ wife want you.’ I say, ‘Tell Seely doan holler no mo’. I cain stand it.’ 

“She promise me she won’t holler if I come home. So I got back to de house. I astee de friend, ‘Where de head?’ He say, ‘Dere yonder in de cracker box.’ I tellee him, ‘I want you to put it dere on de neck and fasten it so dat when people come in de mornin’, dey won’t know.’ 

“My friend he fasten de head so it doan look lak it cut off. Derefo’ nexy day, when people come lookee in his face, he look jes lak
he sleep. 

“De bell toll again.” 

 “Our house it very sad. Lookee lak all de family hurry to leave and go sleep on de hill. 

“Poe-lee very mad ’cause de railroad kill his brother. He want me to sue de company. I astee him, ‘Whut for? We doan know de white folks’ law. Dey sey dey doan pay you when dey hurtee you. De court say dey got to pay you de money. But dey ain’ done it.’ I very sad. Poe-lee very mad. De deputy kill his baby brother. Den de train kill David. He want to do something. But I ain’ hold no malice. De Bible say not. Poe-lee say in Afficky soil it ain’ lak in de Americky. He ain’ been in de Afficky, you unnerstand me, but he hear what we tellee him and he think dat better dan where he at. Me and his mama try to talk to him and make him satisfy, but he doan want hear nothin. He say when he a boy, the children fight him and say he a savage. When he gittee a man dey cheat him. De train hurtee his papa and doan pay him. His brothers gittee kill. He doan laugh no mo’. 

“Well, after while, you unnerstand me, one day he say he go ketchee some fish. Somebody see him go t’wards de Twelve Mile Creek. Lor’ Lor’! He never come back.” 

There was a muted mournful pause, in which I could do nothing but wait with my eyes in the chinaberry tree lest I appear indecently intrusive. Finally he came back to me. 

“Excuse me I cain help it I cry. I lonesome for my boy. Cudjo know dey doan do in de Americky soil lak dey do cross de water, but I cain help dat. My boy gone. He ain’ in de house and he ain’ on de hill wid his mama. We both missee him. I doan know. Maybe dey kill my boy. It a hidden mystery. So many de folks dey hate my boy ’cause he lak his brothers. Dey doan let nobody ’buse dem lak dey dogs. Maybe he in de Afficky soil lak somebody say. Po’ Cudjo lonesome for him, but Cudjo doan know. 

“I try be very nice to Seely. She de mama, you unnerstand me, and derefo’, you know she grieve so hard ’bout her chillun. I always try please her, you unnerstand me, but when we ain’ got but two our chillun wid us, I cain stand see her look so lak she want cry all de time. We ain’ got but one chile in de house wid us, cause Aleck, dat de oldest one, you unnerstand me, he married and live wid his wife. We buildee him a house right in de yard, jes lak in de Afficky soil. 

“Look lak we ain’ cry enough. We ain’ through cryin’. In de November our Jimmy come home and set round lak he doan feel good so I astee him, ‘Son, you gittee sick? I doan want you runnin’ to work when you doan feel good.’ He say, ‘Papa, tain nothin’ wrong wid me. I doan feel so good.’ But de nexy day, he come home sick and we putee him in de bed. I do all I kin and his mama stay up wid him all night long. We gittee de doctor and do whut he say, but our boy die. Oh Lor’! I good to my chillun! I want dey comp’ny, but looky lak dey lonesome for one ’nother. So dey hurry go sleep together in de graveyard. He die holdin’ my hand. 

“When we gittee back from de funeral, tain nobody in de house but me and Seely. De house was full but now it empty. We old folks now and we know we ain’ going have no mo’ chillun. We so lonesome, but we know we cain gittee back de dead. When de spit goes from de mouf, it doan come back. When de earth eats, it doan give back. So we try to keep one ’nother comp’ny and be happy. 

“I still sexton of de church. It growing to be a big church now. We call it de Old Landmark Baptis’ Church, ’cause it de first one in Afficky Town. Dey done build mo’ Baptis’ churches now, but ours, it de first. 

“My wife she help me all she kin. She doan lemme strain myself. 

“One day we plant, de nexy we reap
so we go on.” 

Before I left I had Cudjo’s permission to photograph him. But he forbade my coming back within three days. A cow had broken in his fence and was eating his potato vines. 

It was on a hot Saturday afternoon that I came to photograph him. 

“I’m glad you takee my picture. I want see how I look. Once long time ago somebody come take my picture but they never give me one. You give me one.” 

I agreed. He went inside to dress for the picture. When he came out I saw that he had put on his best suit but removed his shoes. “I want to look lak I in Affica, cause dat where I want to be,” he explained. 

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
Share

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2018

The Last Best Place

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Sound of Madness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Looking for Calley

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Comforting Myths

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Wizard of Q

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Punching the Clock

view Table Content
Close

Sign up to receive The Weekly Review, Harper’s Magazine’s singular take on the past seven days of madness. It’s free!*

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.