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The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It Just Surfaced

 // MAY 3, 2018

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Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving captive of the last slave ship to bring Africans to the U.S. (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

Roughly 60 years after the abolition of slavery, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurstonmade an incredible connection: She located the last surviving captive of the last slave ship to bring Africans to the United States.

Hurston, a known figure of the Harlem Renaissance who would later write the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, conducted interviews with the survivor but struggled to publish them as a book in the early 1930s. In fact, they are only now being released to the public in a book called Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” that comes out on May 8, 2018.

Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960) studied anthropology under scholar Franz Boas. She wrote several novels, drawing heavily on her knowledge of human development and the African American experience in America. She is best known for Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960) studied anthropology under scholar Franz Boas. She wrote several novels, drawing heavily on her knowledge of human development and the African American experience in America. She is best known for Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Hurston’s book tells the story of Cudjo Lewis, who was born in what is now the West African country of Benin. Originally named Kossula, he was only 19 years old when members of the neighboring Dahomian tribe captured him and took him to the coast. There, he and about 120 others were sold into slavery and crammed onto the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the continental United States.

The Clotilda brought its captives to Alabama in 1860, just a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. Even though slavery was legal at that time in the U.S., the international slave trade was not, and hadn’t been for over 50 years. Along with many European nations, the U.S. had outlawed the practice in 1807, but Lewis’ journey is an example of how slave traders went around the law to continue bringing over human cargo.

To avoid detection, Lewis’ captors snuck him and the other survivors into Alabama at night and made them hide in a swamp for several days. To hide the evidence of their crime, the 86-foot sailboat was then set ablaze on the banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta (its remains may have been uncovered in January 2018).

Most poignantly, Lewis’ narrative provides a first-hand account of the disorienting trauma of slavery. After being abducted from his home, Lewis was forced onto a ship with strangers. The abductees spent several months together during the treacherous passage to the United States, but were then separated in Alabama to go to different plantations.

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A marker to commemorate Cudjo Lewis, considered to be the last surviving victim of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States, in Mobile, Alabama. (Credit: Womump/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

“We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother,” Lewis told Hurston. “We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.”

Lewis also describes what it was like to arrive on a plantation where no one spoke his language, and could explain to him where he was or what was going on. “We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis,” he told Hurston. “Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say.”

As for the Civil War, Lewis said he wasn’t aware of it when it first started. But part-way through, he began to hear that the North had started a war to free enslaved people like him. A few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865, Lewis says that a group of Union soldiers stopped by a boat on which he and other enslaved people were working and told them they were free.

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Cudjo Lewis at home. (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

Lewis expected to receive compensation for being kidnapped and forced into slavery, and was angry to discover that emancipation didn’t come with the promise of “forty acres and a mule,” or any other kind of reparations. Frustrated by the refusal of the government to provide him with land to live on after stealing him away from his homeland, he and a group of 31 other freepeople saved up money to buy land near the state capital of Mobile, which they called Africatown.

Hurston’s use of vernacular dialogue in both her novels and her anthropological interviews was often controversial, as some black American thinkers at the time argued that this played to black caricatures in the minds of white people. Hurston disagreed, and refused to change Lewis’ dialect—which was one of the reasons a publisher turned her manuscript down back in the 1930s.

Many decades later, her principled stance means that modern readers will get to hear Lewis’ story the way that he told it.

Full Story: https://www.history.com/news/zora-neale-hurston-barracoon-slave-clotilda-survivor?utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#link_time=1525373347

[Featured Artist] – Jacqueline Green

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Confidence and grace are the Ailey dancer’s trademarks.

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Changing dynamics: Green has learned from Ailey veterans like Matthew Rushing. 

Photo by Eduardo Patino, Courtesy AAADT.

Last December, Jacqueline Green’s performance as a flirty working girl out on the town in Another Night, Kyle Abraham’s new work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was a lesson in technical strength and stage presence. Fluid but precise, she moved with feline self-possession across the New York City Center stage. Later, in Ailey’s trademark Revelations, her unabashed joy, attention to detail, and regal steadiness carried her through with a maturity rare in a relative newcomer.

 

Robert Battle, Ailey’s artistic director, says all these qualities caught his eye when Green danced in Ailey II. “What struck me about Jacqueline was not only her obvious physical prowess, but her ability to transmit emotion without having to step on the gas fully,” he says. “It seemed natural for her to exude confidence and daring. It’s just her being.”

 

After moving to the main company two years ago, Green, 23, has been increasingly featured. “She’s a hard worker, driven and versatile,” says Battle. “She has the ability to do it all—brilliantly.”

 

Green grew up in Baltimore, and did not begin dancing until she reached her teens. Though she simply had been looking for a high school with good academics, her mother encouraged her to audition for the Baltimore School of the Arts, hoping to see her daughter live out one of her own dreams by discovering dance. Green, 13, was accepted, and fell in love with dance her first week there. “I was introverted as a child,” says Green. “But when we were in dance class, where you had to project and express yourself, it was a release. Somewhere along the way I realized I loved being able to step out of my shell.”

 

At the School of the Arts, she made ballet her focus, creating a strong technical foundation. “I liked how delicate ballet was,” she says. “It felt special and unique.” Applying for college, Green thought dance would be a path to scholarships, although she was not yet sure that it would be her career. But at the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, she became convinced. “My freshman year, I saw Ailey live for the first time,” she remembers. “I returned to see them at least 20 times. I was in awe! I realized I wanted to be a professional dancer—with Ailey.”

 

Though it was difficult to balance academics and dance, a summer at Jacob’s Pillow fast-tracked Green’s career. “While I was there, Milton Myers asked me if I wanted to be in Ailey II. I said yes, of course,” she recalls. Myers spoke with Sylvia Waters, then the second company’s director, and Green was invited to apprentice with the company during her junior year. Soon she joined the second company; the job security made Green’s final year of school considerably less anxiety-ridden.

 

After a year with Ailey II, she auditioned for the main company. When she got through all the cuts and realized she had made it, she remembers, “I just went silent and my mouth dropped.” She soon discovered she had only two weeks to learn the repertoire before her first full-company tour.

 

Among the most fulfilling aspects of her job has been learning from veteran company members. “Renee Robinson has taught me how to be a character onstage, how to research, develop, and commit to a story,” she says. “Matthew Rushing has taught me how to change dynamics—how an artistic choice can transform the same choreography.”

 

Green welcomes the chance to perform new work like Another Night, but she has a special love of Alvin Ailey’s choreography, especially Revelations. “It’s the theater of it, the dynamics,” she says. “It’s perfection structurally and it’s deep in the body, so if you just do the movement you will feel the feeling.” A jazz fan, she also singles out the sassy lead in Ailey’s Pas de Duke, which she danced recently, as one of her dream roles. “It’s like jazz: spontaneous, groovy, and smooth.”

 

While Green wants to take voice lessons and explore musical theater eventually, right now she’s thrilled to dance with Ailey, and hopes to grow there. Battle says Green’s focus and fierce talent should lead to many more opportunities. “In the rehearsal room, she’s quiet and observant, deconstructing the information in her mind,” he says. “There’s never a sense that something is too difficult for her: She will make it work for her body, and do so with grace. She can write her own ticket.”

 

 

Lauren Kay is a NYC-based dancer and writer.

On the Rise: Jacqueline Green

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