The Garveyite Origins of Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’: A Review

Today is January 7th, the birthday of Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). My 2007 master’s thesis chair is Dr. Deborah G. Plant, the editor of Barracoon the posthumously published book written by Zora Neale Hurston that Amistad Books released last May.

Here I am with Dr. Plant on July 31st in Philadelphia.

Historian Tony Martin writes in his book Literary Garveyism that “people like Hurston…reflected the price that the artists of the Harlem Renaissance too often had to pay for entry into the mainstream of white acceptance. They had, as it were, to ritualistically renounce their Garveyite connections as a sort of condition precedent to acceptance into the respectable world of major publishing houses” (76). Martin writes that Hurston “accused Garvey of fraud and poked fun of his very reasonable campaign to have African peoples portray God in their own color” (76).

I think one of the most important themes of Barracoon is that despite Hurston’s renouncing of Garveyism, her interview with Kossola Lewis, the then (in 1927) 86 year old survivor of what Marimba Ani and Kobi K.K. Kambon have called “the Ma-afa” reveals, more than anything fundamental beliefs in principles of Garveyism promoted in The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey published only four years prior to Hurston’s interview of Lewis. Barracoon reveals four principles in particular. One, it places cultural value on the use of dialect which was celebrated in Garvey’s Negro World newspaper but at the time denigrated by mainstream newspapers.

Two, Barracoon shows Kossola Lewis’s ambition to return to Africa which was a principle promoted by the Universal Negro Improvement Association in The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, specifically on on page 52 of the first volume.

Three, Barracoon shows Kossola Lewis’s ambition to establish AfricaTown which was a principle promoted by the U.N.I.A. Four, when Kossola tells Hurston “dey callee my chillun ignant savage” Barracoon shows Kossola’s ambition to mitigate the effects of Western propaganda in the 1920s U.S. South, at diametric odds with the principles in the Negro World newspaper, on the socialization of his Black children, which is a principle promoted in the first volume of The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, specifically on page 15.

Although Hurston tried to renounce her Garveyite connections, which were the same connections that allowed her poetry to be published before any white owned newspapers considered it “high art,” principles of Garveyism are all over Barracoon.  Similar to the 1930s anti-Black censorship that prevented the publication of Claude McKay’s Amiable With Big Teeth by Claude McKay who, like Hurston, renounced his Garveyite connections especially after Garvey was arrested on a trumped up charge of mail fraud, Hurston’s Barracoon was censored by the mainstream because of the promotion of Garveyism within it. This is Hurston’s very first book, completed by 1928 that was not published and it speaks to her upbringing that taught the Black Nationalist principles she was exposed to, growing up in a majority Black town in Eatonville, Florida.

Dr. Deborah Plant’s scholarship of Zora Neale Hurston describes these principles influenced by Booker T. Washington in her books Every Tub Must Sit On Its Own Bottom (1995) and Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit (2007). One of the principles that is most significant is the principle working against the socialization of Black children. Dr. Plant’s description of how Hurston survived the harmful allegation of Richard Rochester in her 2007 book on Hurston is akin to how Lewis and his children in Barracoon survived these harmful epithets. I quote Dr. Plant’s 2007 book in my latest work on the danger of allegations in the Western world on Black parenting in Toni Morrison’s latest novel God Help The Child. My point in each speaks to the necessity of building and maintaining “a conscious African-centered family” in the West, which is all that has really allowed the West to continue.

One of the writers who worked to remove the stigma of African identity in the West is Dr. Kobi Kambon who expounded upon the term “Ma-afa” who passed since this book was published on December 31, 2018. Rest in Power, Dr. Kambon. -RF.

Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.