USA 2023-2024 Common Read Book Announced

Posted on August 29, 2023
Joy Washington

“From 1801 to 1866, an estimated 3,873,600 Africans were exchanged for gold, guns and other European and American merchandise. Of that number, approximately 444,700 were deported from the Bight of Benin, Africa. During the period from 1851 to 1860, approximately 22,500 Africans were exported. And of that number, 110 were taken aboard the Clotilda at Quidah.”

“Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’” by Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, folklorist and anthropologist.

The book selected for the 2023-2024 Common Read/Common World program at the University of South Alabama is “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo.’” Barracoon, authored by Zora Neale Hurston, was published eight decades after it was written. It offers a first-hand account of the journey of the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States.

Barracoon, originally completed in 1931, was finally published by Amistad an imprint of HarperCollins in 2018. This book is based on Hurston’s 1927 interviews with West African-born Cudjo Lewis, whose original name is Oluale Kossola. At the time, he was believed to be the last survivor of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In Barracoon, Lewis’ story is shared in his own words and voice. Lewis resided in the Africatown community of Mobile, Ala., until his death in 1935. 

The work by Hurston is now a New York Times Bestseller. It tells of the essential account of one man’s total life of being born free, enslaved, and free again. 

“By selecting Zora Neale Hurston’s powerful work ‘Barracoon’ as the Common Read at USA, the University is connecting our students to the history and culture of this area, opening up conversations about slavery and freedom, and inviting students to consider the ways that folklore and the stories from our community help make us who we are,” said Dr. Ellen Harrington, chair of the English Department and co-chair of the Common Read Committee at South Alabama. “ Students will gain valuable skills around reading and interpretation as they become informed listeners and are able to conduct their own interviews as part of this project.”

Hurston, also the author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” is a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist. She traveled to Africatown to interview Lewis several times. Hurston gets a first-hand account of the Middle Passage journey that brought an estimated 110 enslaved people to Mobile Bay on a schooner named the Clotilda. Lewis and the other Africans were enslaved 50 years after the slave trade was outlawed.

“Each year, we select a book for the Common Read/Common World program, said Dr. Robert Coleman, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and co-chair of the Common World program. We are pleased to have selected Zora Neale Hurston’s book “Barracoon.”  

The participants reading the book will see how as an author, Hurston was the listener, companion and scribe, building a relationship to tell Lewis’s story in his own words.

“Hurston works to build a special rapport with Lewis. She travels many times to visit and interview him, sometimes receiving the information she needed and other times, specific information that Lewis needed to share with Hurston, “said Coleman, “Many times Hurston brought Georgia peaches and Virginia hams to help ease Cudjo into telling his story. Readers and participants will find the details of this story fascinating and powerful.”

“Barracoon” fits the parameters established for USA’s Common Read program to include the following:


  • Potential to engage students and spark discussion
  • Appeal to a wide range of students
  • Possibilities for classroom use including the first-year experience classes
  • Inclusion of cross-cultural education, awareness, knowledge and sensitivity
  • Relevance for student life

The Common Read Committee reviewed numerous books before selecting “Barracoon.” Students in the First-Year-Experience class will be assigned to read the book as part of their first-year studies. The entire South Alabama campus of students, faculty, faculty, staff and the greater community are invited to participate in the Common Read experience and attend the upcoming events that are being planned. All events will be free and open to the public.

“I am super excited about this book and the amazing story Hurston was able to share with us,” said Desmond Dunklin, interim associate director of University Programs and Campus Activities for South Alabama and Common Read co–chair. “We are building community through literature, and programming as we are hosting several events highlighting this year’s amazing book, “Barracoon.” It’s my hope to also foster community by incorporating different  programs that highlight this amazing story and help students make connections  by reading this book and engaging in interactive programs and events this fall and spring semesters.”

One of the events for the fall semester is the screening of the film, “Descendant,” co-written and co-produced by South Alabama and English Associate Professor and Director of African American Studies Dr. Kern Jackson.  The film showcases the story told in “Barracoon.” Jackson is also a member of the Common Read Committee.

“This film is resonating with many communities, especially young people. They are joining several efforts to support Africatown,” Jackson said. “I am grateful this film will now be included in the Common Read event lineup for this year to accompany this great piece of literature written by Zora Neale Hurston. We will continue to use this film as a tool to amplify the story and issues affecting the Africatown community.” 

“Descendant” won the U.S.  Documentary Special Jury Award: Creative Vision at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix purchased its worldwide rights; Higher  Ground, the 44th President Barack Obama, and Michelle Obama’s production company, is presenting the film alongside Netflix.

Common Read/Common World is a University-wide program and partnership between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs

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