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My daughter Julia, who always finds the coolest stuff online, sent me a link to a story from the History Channel website which Becka Little posted May 3 about a new book by Zora Neale Hurston being published this month. Hurston died in 1960, and had been forgotten for decades when she died. But in the 1920’s and 30’s she was the most important woman writer of the Harlem renaissance. In the 1980’s she was rediscovered, largely due to the efforts of Alice Walker. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God became a best seller (I prefer Jonah’s Gourd Vine, myself). Hurston was a writer by talent and inclination, but an anthropologist by training. Her book Mules and Men is a landmark study of African-American folklore and history. The new book, Baracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, is also a work of anthropology.
In Baracoon Hurston interviews the last living survivor of the Middle Passage. Although slavery was not ended in this country until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1864 (England, the country we said all those nasty things about in the Declaration of Independence, abolished slavery in 1807) the international slave trade was abolished here in 1807. Slave ships still smuggled newly acquired slaves from Africa to this country as late as 1860. Hurston found a man, Cudjo Lewis, living near Mobile, who was delivered to the Gulf Coast of Alabama from his home in Benin on the slave ship Clotilda – the last slave ship to bring human cargo to the United States from Africa.
Her book, based upon interviews with Cudjo Lewis was never published. Black publishers would not publish it because Hurston, the scientist, recorded Cudjo’s voice in his own patois. Black intellectuals at the time felt that this dialect fed racist stereotypes. White publishers were simply not interested. And so this important work has not been published till now.
I am anxious to read it for several reasons. Zoral Neal Hurston is a story teller of rare talent. The experience of the Middle Passage and navigating a wholly new world has not been given such a thorough, first-person voice before. The book will further illuminate the sin of slavery – and we only benefit from such knowledge. Most of all, I want to read the book because it is the personal account of a man who was free, then enslaved, then emancipated – which is the story of every Christian.
Jesus himself makes this clear. When he tells the Jews that the truth will set them free, they angrily reply, We are Abraham’s offspring and have never been enslaved to anyone! (John8.32-33). My impulse would be to say to them, “Uh…guys, I have three words for you: Egypt, Babylon, Rome.” Jesus’ reply is far-reaching, gathering in all of humanity:
Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever, the Son does remain forever. If, therefore, the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. John 8.34-36.
Paul describes the same, universal state of humanity in Romans 6.16-18. In this passage he reminds us we were all “slaves to sin,” but some have responded to a gospel which makes us “free from sin, and slaves to righteousness.”
This is the state of humanity. But our sense of self mirrors that of those Jews opposing Jesus – “We have never been slaves to anyone.” The freedoms we enjoy through the blessings God provides, and the sacrifice so many have made would certainly cultivate such a reply.
Which is why understanding what it is to be a slave is so important. It is a tool by which we may better understand ourselves as Christians. How will we know the Truth has set us free – how can we appreciate our emancipation - if we have no comprehension of our own slavery?