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Publication of first Hurston book is significant on many levels, KU scholar says

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

LAWRENCE — After 87 years, the publication of Zora Neale Hurston's first book, "Barracoon," will be a valuable teaching tool and add to her foundational work in contemporary African and African-American studies, according to a University of Kansas scholar of social movements of the 20th century.

Randal Jelks, professor of African and African-American studies and American studies, is available to discuss the developments regarding Hurston's first manuscript. He studies social movements of the 20th century, including the U.S. Civil Rights Era. In late 2017, Jelks, with Ayesha Hardison, associate professor of English and women, gender & sexuality studies, led "Black Love: A Symposium," which explored themes that sprung from Hurston's classic Harlem Renaissance work, "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Jelks is also part of an interdisciplinary group of KU faculty and alumni working to create a two-part documentary on Langston Hughes, who spent much of his childhood in Lawrence, home to KU's main campus.

HarperCollins announced this week that it will publish "Barracoon: The Story of the Last 'Black Cargo," a manuscript that Hurston wrote in 1931 — her first — that at least two publishing houses refused to release at the time because of the heavily accented dialect in the book was seen as too difficult to read. It has been tucked away in the archives at Howard University for several decades, according to media reports.

For the manuscript, Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, a man in his 80s, who was widely believed to be the last African man alive who had been kidnapped from his village, shackled as cargo onto a ship and forced into slavery in America.

"Contemporary African and African-American studies really has its foundational work on the foundation of 1930s scholarship and writings of Langston Hughes, Hurston and lesser-known writers and scholars," Jelks said. "This publication of Hurston’s is important. First, for the story itself and her willingness to find Cudjo Lewis."

The other important piece of the story is the challenges in getting her manuscript published, he said.

"It was difficult for her to tell his story as a story of American slavery and what Lewis' West African culture meant to him on his own terms," Jelks said. "Franz Boas, her Columbia University academic mentor, had preconceived notions about Lewis' Africanism, and her benefactor Charlotte Mason desired a primitivism tale as depicted in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.' In many ways, inside the academy and outside of it there was an 'othering' of this man's experiences that Hurston had to navigate along with the publishing industry who dictated what kind of 'black story' could be marketed to an American readership. The book has come into being, and I am grateful for it as a teaching tool."

Hurston died in 1960, and by 1980, Hurston's significance was further enhanced with the publication of Robert Hemenway's "Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography." Today, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is a fixture of American arts and letters. Her book is frequently read in classrooms, engaged in scholarship and cited as an inspiring influence for other creative works. Hemenway, who died in 2015, served as KU chancellor from 1995 to 2009.

To arrange an interview with Jelks, contact George Diepenbrock at 785-864-8853 or gdiepenbrock@ku.edu.