Black Bodies, Radical Politics, and Rebellious Robots

Reading Zora Neale Hurston's study of the life of the last "black cargo" and watching Westworld


Cudjo Lewis outside his home in Alabama in the 1930s. Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.

"Cudjo meetee de people at de gate and tellee dem, 'You see de rattlesnake in de woods?' Dey say 'Yeah.' I say 'If you bother wid him, he bite you. If you know de snake killee you why you bother wid him? Same way with my boys, you unnerstand me.'"

With these words, Cudjo Lewis—né Oluale Kossula—explains his child-rearing philosophy to an upstart anthropologist named Zora Neale Hurston in 1927. Captured by a neighboring tribe as a young adult in Africa, purchased by whites, and smuggled to U.S. soil 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed, Lewis was freed just five years later in the wake of the Civil War and went on to have a family, found a town, and grow old in the Jim Crow era.

And at the end of his long, eventful life, a young Hurston showed up at his door hoping to glean his story. She courted him with peaches and delousing powder. He was poor and alone. She was not yet the author of that high school lit class staple, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" is Hurston's remarkable rendition of Lewis' oral history, which she gathered over several months of visits. It is all the more remarkable for having been buried for nearly a century after its completion; the gatekeepers of the Harlem Renaissance deemed both its political and its artistic choices unacceptably heterodox. Hurston's focus on conflict between blacks as well as her anti-government espousal of black self-sufficiency sat badly with the intelligentsia of the time. It is a conflict that, tragically, is still being echoed in today's headlines and popular culture.

The phrase black bodies has recently gained currency as a way to evoke how black people have been (and still are) too often reduced to little more than their physical selves. Hurston writes that we know so little of the experience of the enslaved because "the thoughts of 'black ivory' had no market value"—a mistake she went looking to remedy before it was too late.

In Barracoon, Lewis' sense of himself as a body is palpable and modern. His heart and mind always seem to be somewhere outside of his beleaguered physical self. But he is haunted by his inability, even as a free man, to protect the bodies of his family—both his slaughtered relations in Africa and his sons in America, targeted not only for their blackness by whites but for their Africanness by other blacks. Teaching his sons to be rattlesnakes is his only choice, as far as Lewis is concerned. But it is also a fatal one. A sheriff's deputy shoots Cudjo Jr. in the throat, taking aim from behind a butcher's cart where he is cowering in response to the family's reputation as fighters.

A second son is killed by a train, but the family doesn't seek remuneration for the accident—they have already been baffled by the legal system and stiffed by a corrupt lawyer after Lewis himself was injured. Other children are imprisoned, fall victim to deadly illnesses, disappear on a fishing trip. And sorrow takes his wife, or so it seems to Lewis.

While whites play pivotal roles (none of them good, with the exception of Hurston's benefactor, who makes an awkward cameo in the tale), the violence done to Lewis and his family is most often at the hands of other blacks—the Africans who enslaved him, the American blacks who taunt his children as savages, and finally the sheriff's deputy who kills his son and namesake. Lewis muses "he say he da law, but he doan come 'rest him. If my boy done something wrong, it his place to come 'rest him lak a man." But it's an idle thought; he has long since abandoned the illusion that institutions he didn't build with his own hands will do right by him.

Hurston was raised in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida; her early life and education were the product of a radical experiment in black autonomy. Her politics were iconoclastic, combining individualism, anti-interventionism (she famously called Harry Truman "the Butcher of Asia" for his use of the atom bomb), and vehement opposition to not just the New Deal but Brown v. Board of Education, on the grounds that government intervention in the lives of blacks was dangerous and dependency-creating.

In Barracoon, Lewis' story is both a primitivist cliché and a moving, highly idiosyncratic personal tale with a mostly unhappy ending. That combination troubled Hurston's more progressive peers, such as Langston Hughes. Lewis' speech is captured in dialect as part of Hurston's anthropological mandate to record a vanishing form of speech and way of life, but the transcription is not obscured by jargon or technical notation—it's rendered in a readable phonetic form. Lewis is pious in the simplest manner, apparently buying into the idea that a major upside of his enslavement was the soul-saving and civilizing influence of the church in his life. Hurston brings him watermelon, which he loves, as a bribe to keep him talking.

The subtle sophistication of the presentation, especially the self-awareness in the choice to offer the story as a seemingly unpolished oral history set within a matryoshka doll of scholarship, elevates it from the caricatured to the profound. Barracoon is an anthropological study nestled inside the author's own notes and speculations, which in turn is wrapped in a modern-day editor's layer of prefaces and addenda, surrounded by a poetic miasma created by Alice Walker. It was Walker who revived Hurston's reputation with a 1975 Ms. magazine article, published after she discovered Hurston too had died alone and impoverished, reduced to working as a maid, and was buried in a pauper's grave.

After I finished reading Barracoon—which is short enough to be consumed in a single session—I caught up on Westworld, the new prestige HBO drama set in a playground for the rich staffed by humanoid robotic "hosts." Over and over, the viewer is shown heaps of decommissioned robots that have been raped, shot, run over, or otherwise broken for the amusement of humans who feel free to let loose their darker impulses on the grounds that the victims aren't "real." They're just bodies, after all. Infinitely replaceable, totally biddable bodies.

But a sophisticated humanoid robot is the 21st century equivalent of Chekhov's gun—as soon as one appears on the scene, we must prepare for the moment when it becomes sentient and then vociferously objects to its previous treatment at the hands of its careless owners.

In Westworld, we're tempted to root for the robots, many of whom have an appealing messianic zeal about their own individuality and autonomy—especially one robot with a rattlesnake tattoo and an itchy trigger finger. "These violent delights have violent ends," the bots repeat as a vengeful mantra, as they fight their way out of bondage and toward a dream of freedom.

Any comparison between real black history and robot science fiction is fraught, but the Westworld robots' rebellion is clearly modeled after the many rights revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. The tale of the righteous robot uprising feels comfortably familiar, even inevitable. But Westworld is still unfinished and looks to be heading for an unsatisfying conclusion, not unlike its real-world source material.

What makes Barracoon so striking is that Lewis sits at a perfect intersection between the slave trade and Jim Crow, between Africa and America, between life and death. He is precisely the sort of character who, in fiction, would act as an agent of social change. But his arc doesn't follow such narrative demands, and his story ends in a murky twilight.

A century and a half after slavery was abolished, it's still infuriatingly hard to reconcile the obvious truth of black humanity with the messy reality of political and cultural change. The difficulty of navigating that tricky path ultimately felled Cudjo Lewis, his sons—and Hurston herself. Whether their successors can do better remains to be seen.

NEXT: Brickbat: By the Numbers

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  1. Do you think Cudjo Lewis had a rough life? He is fortunate that he is not alive today, when he’d be forced to attend college and face brutal oppression every minute from the white supremacist power structure using hate speech! Slavery and Jim Crow were picnics in the park compared to the unconscionable oppression and invalidation as humans that persons of color endure today!

    1. People knew where they stood back then. If you were black you knew that some racist Democrats would want to control you or worse.

      Now lefty leaders like Harvey Weinstein get attacked from their own side and taken down. What is a lefty to do?

  2. Even though those Democrats lost the Civil War they were determined to make sure those pesky blacks had a jack boot on their necks forever.

    Fast forward 100 years and those Democrats were determined to make sure those pesky blacks had a jack boot on their necks forever. Welfare, affirmative action, SJWs, the Nanny-State, the Police-State, bad education system, etc would make sure.

    1. In a weird way, they legalized slavery in every state by the heroin of welfare and preying on the uneducated. The democrats have managed to make the plantations much larger.

    2. Speaking of the poorly educated, you could be the dumbest person I’ve encountered on the internet.

      1. Well good morning PB!

        1. This one’s so salty, thus I shall call him

        2. “you could be the dumbest person I’ve encountered on the internet.”

          BREAKING: Salmonsnail has never read his own remarks online!

          1. Good one, Just. LMFAO….

      2. Oh new sockpuppet troll, in one sentence you have shown us how much of a dumb dumb you are.

  3. “A century and a half after slavery was abolished, it’s still infuriatingly hard to reconcile the obvious truth of black humanity with the messy reality of political and cultural change. The difficulty of navigating that tricky path ultimately felled Cudjo Lewis, his sons?and Hurston herself. Whether their successors can do better remains to be seen.”

    Their “successors” are the children of their butchers. They have no intentions of doing better. It would be really interesting to see what “Black America” would look like today if Hurston and those like her had won the day and not Uncle Sam and his cronies.

  4. The Westworld plot is silly.

    There is no way that a bunch of rich and influential people could get killed by robots and the corporation running the place could keep that a secret indefinitely so that it could keep on (ineptly) trying to handle it itself. All those people would be missed and lots of questions asked.

    In the real world, the word would get out and then heavy duty military forces would be sent in to deal with the robots and they would be wiped out – the end.

    1. There would also be multiple layers of kill switches, both software and hardware.

      1. And corporate. As soon as the ED-209 shot up it’s first executive, the Robocop project would be back on the table.

        1. It works in Robocop because it’s a satirical tone.

          When you try to take concepts like that and play them straight, it’s harder to get into the world since the problems would not exist if anyone had higher reasoning skills or rational forethought. It’s understanding that one person might come up with this technology and think of adequately installing safeguard., Actually going in production, it would have to pass through so many filters of other people providing input, and to think that none of them adequately address safety probably requires everyone in the world to be a moron.

          1. “it would have to pass through so many filters of other people providing input”

            Do you mean like the layers of NASA management that decided to filter out the engineers’ warnings about launching the space shuttle Coumbia on a cold day?

        2. I see mad.casual has won the intertubes for today. Bravo Sir.

  5. FAKE NEWS!!!
    They are claiming that blacks were the ones who enslaved other blacks!!
    NO! NO!
    It was evil white men, and evil white men only!
    I mean everyone knows that white men sailed up to disease infested Africa, ran all over the continent outnumbered 100 to 1 and grabbed blacks from the arms of their families. No way did blacks themselves sell captured prisoners of war, unruly sons, and useless daughters on the coast to whites who barely got out of the ship long enough to pay for the already enslaved. And surely there were no Muslims raiding from North Africa to capture ivory and slaves.

    1. Doesn’t play well with others…

  6. One portion of the slavery issue that is often omitted is the supply side. Coastal Africans were eager to profit from the sale of their fellow countrymen and thus maintained/acquired a ready supply. Not an attempt to shift the blame but if we are to have an “honest conversation of slavery” then this should be included. Also the fact that non-whites did and continue to hold slaves.

    Captured by a neighboring tribe as a young adult in Africa, purchased by whites, and smuggled to U.S. soil 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed,

    1. I’ve never understood the epic pass given to the sellers.

      Buying slaves is bad. No argument.

      Selling them, apparently, is not.

      1. People are to only be identified by skin color, so blacks being The Oppressed cannot also be The Oppressor (since we’re grouping all people of similar enough skin tone together).
        Otherwise, people might start being seen as individuals

      2. Did you just judge someone else’s culture?

      3. I’ve never understood the epic pass given to the sellers.

        All savages are inherently noble. Aztecs and Mayans didn’t practice human sacrifice. Native Americans didn’t murder and rape neighboring tribes. Africans didn’t enslave and sell neighboring tribesmen. The world has always lacked sufficient progressiveness but the ancient ones cannot be faulted for their ignorance, it is the wrong people today who are responsible for the inferior culture and morals going forward. QED.

        1. Native Americans didn’t murder and rape neighboring tribes.

          They also definitely never held slaves of their own, so it’s completely 100% accurate to claim that slavery never existed on the American continent until white folks got here.

      4. Consider that taking your enemy as a prisoner rather than killing him was an advance. And if you can defend yourself only by threat of bodily harm to others, what do you do when you force them to surrender? If you just let them go, what incentive do they have not to re-arm & come back for you?

    2. Yup. Slavery has to be racist so it has to be about white men doing it.

      Everyone who took part are to blame in its horrors.

      The Africans who captured. The sailors who sailed the slaves to their destination. The slaver traders who sold the slaves. The slave owners who worked the slaves.

      Luckily, they are all dead and don’t have to deal with the lefty blame games.

      1. Well, if you squint enough, you can call the Romans, Egyptians, and everyone else from the dawn of time white.
        Slavery started, and was continued as an economic institution, not a racial one.
        And it would have ended with the industrial age, minus a few hundred thousand dead soldiers, if time had been granted.

  7. For those interested, Wikipedia says he was born c. 1841. The slave ship owner was indicted but the slaves had been dispersed, the prosecution didn’t try very hard, and the Civil War came along to prevent his prosecution.

  8. The lead in paragraph shows your bias, Reason.

    “Captured by a neighboring tribe as a young adult in Africa, purchased by whites, and smuggled to U.S. soil 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed, Lewis was freed just five years later in the wake of the Civil War and went on to have a family, found a town, and grow old in the Jim Crow era.”

    If it is important to explain that he was “purchased by whites”, then surely it is important to explain that he was captured by a neighboring BLACK tribe and sold by the neighboring BLACK tribe. RIght?

    And this happened 50 years after the trans Atlantic slave trade was ended. Fifty after the evil white devils walked away from slavery, it was still in full swing in Africa. In fact, it still goes on.

    This poor man, Lewis, had to come to America for freedom.

    1. The filthy white devils outlawed the Atlantic slave trade, ie the importation of slaves, not slavery in its entirety, at that point.

    2. Can you even read?

      Captured by a neighboring tribe as a young adult in Africa

      1. Reading is for fags, Scarecrow. The only word he needs to know is #whatabout.

      2. Can you reason?

        Might the neighboring tribe have been white? If they were white, that would that make this story oh so much more evil, wouldn’t it? What was the point of saying “purchased by whites”? If it is important to specify the race of people involved in the purchase, why not say “sold by blacks”? Would that dilute the implication that white people (YPeePo, to borrow a current pejorative) are evil? Wasn’t everybody involved in slavery (buyers and sellers) evil? I am talking about the individuals, not the racial groups.

        Lewis’s story is interesting. Lewis seems to have ultimately benefited by coming to America. I just object to the implied vilification of a category of people. Again, what is the point of saying “purchased by whites”? To me, that just shows how deeply ingrained the “problem of whiteness”, pushed so hard by the left for the last several decades has become. It has become a mantra. Until we stop the group blaming there will be no peace.

        Juice makes a legitimate point about not abolishing slavery entirely. I should have been clearer.

        1. He could have been purchased by Muslims, by Hindus, ( about 10 million black African slaves went to India) or even other neighboring tribes, none of which were white.

    3. When he was traded across the Atlantic, the ship had to evade the Navies of several white nations – including the USA since 1808 – that were attempting to enforce the ban on the slave trade. But sailing ships were a very poor technology when it came to remaining on station to maintain a blockade, and steam power was still too inefficient to be used continuously. Blockade-runners had a large advantage.

  9. I hope right-wing bigots are infuriated by watching their betters improve society against their wishes and paltry efforts.

    Bigots deserve to suffer as our society continues to pass them by.

    Carry on, clingers. So far as your lousy educations, bigoted souls, can’t-keep-up communities, and superstition-laced gullibility can carry anyone, that is.

    1. *yawn*

      That is all your posts warrant. A bored yawn. Good job.

      Your next interesting point will be the first you ever made.

    2. Settle in and get accustomed to Trump as president. There will be another four years of it commencing in 2021.

      There will probably be at least one, maybe two, more SCOTUS justice (beyond the one coming up on July 9) coming as well. You lefties have totally shit in mess kit.

  10. It still pisses me to no end when the phrase “black/brown bodies” is used to make a SJW point. Like “black bodies are being shot at by the cops”,. or “white people are scared of black and brown bodies” . You mean black PEOPLE, right? The racists see the bodies, the non-racists see the humans, right? The racist who commits violence agaist the body of the person, attacks the PERSON, because they hate/fear the PERSON inside the body, right? The body does not scare the racist after it stops moving, right? Or so I was taught and used to believe.

  11. smuggled to U.S. soil 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed

    See? Prohib’n doesn’t work.

  12. she famously called Harry Truman “the Butcher of Asia” for his use of the atom bomb

    So, she was an idiot. Got it.

    1. MacArthur and Lemay both criticized Truman for dropping the bomb, were they idiots too?

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