Toni Cade Bambara, a well-known teacher, writer, and social activist, was born on March 25, 1939, in New York. Bambara's mother was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and fostered creativity in her daughter. After graduating from Queens College in 1959, Bambara worked as a social investigator for the New York Department of Welfare. This experience influenced her writing and reflected her interest in the welfare of the black community. Bambara returned to school, receiving her MA from City College of New York in 1965, where she taught until 1969. It was in the 1970s that Bambara wrote her most important works, including Black Woman, Southern Black Utterances Today, and Gorilla My Love. Bambara's works are frequently written in black street dialect and are set in the rural South and the urban North. She is interested in the identities and experiences of the black community and writes about their effects as a society. She has also authored several film and television scripts. Bambara is a frequent guest lecturer, visiting professor, and community leader. She received an American Book Award in 1981 Her novel The Salt Eaters (1980) is centered around a healing event that coincides with a community festival in the fictional city of Claybourne, Georgia. The novel Those Bones Are Not My Child or If Blessings Come (title of the manuscript), was published posthumously in 1999. It deals with the disappearance and murder of forty black children in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981. It was called her masterpiece by Toni Morrison, who edited it and also gathered some of Bambara's short stories, essays, and interviews in the volume Deep Sightings & Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays & Conversations. (Vintage, 1996). Toni Cade Bambara was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1993 and died of it in 1995, at age 56.
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.
In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past—memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.
Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.