"In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to visit eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis, a survivor of the Clotilda, the last slaver known to have made the transatlantic journey. illegally brought to the United States, Cudjo was enslaved fifty years after the slave trade was outlawed".~Deborah Plant, Editor
Reading Cudjo's story was like the bringing together so many stories: constantly trying to find and ground yourself through any hint of familiarity. His story and his journey to America really are all his own though--even when you do recognize universal elements and try to insert personal reference points-- Cudjo himself makes sure to throw you asunder...at several points even pushing Hurston away. Cudjo, perhaps hesitant to share his story for fear of not being recognized--not being seen fully--not being understood. Yet, on another level he constantly asserts his story, his remembrance of things by trying to connect with Hurston and inevitably connect to anyone reading his words through Hurston (for instance the benefactress Charlotte Osgood Mason through whom Hurston secured funding for this social excavation, and who directly aided Kossola's finances).
Cudjo continuously, nay almost compulsively asks Hurston if she understands what he is saying, "you unnerstand me". Over and over I came back to his words-- an emphasis to some extent-- on a similar level to the way people might say "nah mean?" at the end of every sentence. It's like a tick. It struck me that so many black men-- in particular--default to this saying in casual conversation. On the surface, it's just about getting your point across in return for a nod of agreement. But it can also be read as really trying to connect through conversation: Do you understand me? Do you see me? Do you get me?
Born Oluale Kossola, Cudjo recounts for Hurston in thorough detail his life in "Affica"( more specifically, Bante a town in Nigeria), through to his capture, Atlantic crossing, sale, and manumission. With more hesitation, Cudjo speaks to his role as one of the founding members of Africatown (Plateau) Alabama, (home to most of the Africans brought over illegally on the Clotilde) and how his own small family joyously grew and painfully dwindled. In just ninety pages, it is the persistence of the Man in the face of all these odds certainly sticks with you. Because after Africatown is settled things don't come-up-roses for Kossola and his family as they constantly battle personal demons and institutional racism. If anything, his resolve to make a life for himself in America is thrown into stark contrast against his desire to be back on an "Affica soil" a reality that given some sixty-seven years of displacement he had all but reconciled himself too.
Poignant too is the idea that if Cudjo didn’t have the power for remembering things or who didn't take kindly to recounting these harrowing details— rather insisting on forgetting in order to move forward— then this particular story would have been lost. Certainly, there are a handful of first-person (primary source) materials from which we can choose, but so much of this history gets mistaken for fiction. The written word outweighing the spoken traditions of the griot. But there-in again lies the beauty of Cudjo's insistent repetition. Even if you don't understand what he's been through, you won't ever forget what he's been through.