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The story of the slave trade’s last survivor

“You have seen how a man was made a slave,” Frederick Douglass wrote in his 1845 autobiography, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. “You shall see how a slave was made a man.” These words herald the moment when Douglass masters his master, the sadistic overseer and “negro-breaker,” Edward Covey, seizing him by the throat. More remarkable than Douglass’s physical prowess was the fact that he lived to write about this at all: In addition to the beatings and other miseries, Douglass endured severe cold that left gashes in his feet pronounced enough to cradle his pen. “Written by himself” is Douglass’s subtitle, a phrase that resounds throughout early African American autobiographical writing. Douglass’s books, along with photographs of the author, portrayed a man who was fully self-composed. The story was the self.

“This is the life story of Cudjo Lewis, as told by himself.” Zora Neale Hurston similarly begins her preface to Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”Barracoonis not a slave narrative in the traditional sense, and its subject, Cudjo Lewis, never mastered the written word. But the story he had to tell filled an important gap in the grand narrative of the African American experience. Born Oluale Kossola in the 1840s, Lewis was believed to be the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. He was, Hurston writes, “the only man on earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home; the horrors of a slave raid; the barracoon; the Lenten tones of slavery; and who has sixty-seven years of freedom in a foreign land behind him.” Like Douglass, Lewis was himself a story; his survival was proof of a people’s vitality.

Read entire article at New Republic