While Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a deeply loved masterpiece, many people do not know about her work collecting oral folklore and oral history. It is okay that we have the rediscovery/recovery of this manuscript to add to her important work in such areas.
Hurston visited Cudjo Lewis several times. Lewis was kidnapped from his home in West Africa and taken to the USA; this occurred after the Atlantic slave was outlawed, so he was pirated human cargo, in modern parlance he was a victim of human trafficking.
He never returned home. He was sold into slave, given the name Cudjo Lewis (among others), later freed as a result of the Civil War, married, had children, lost children, and eventually told his story to Hurston.
The book is more of academic entry than a slight forward read. So, if you are not an academic or have little interest in folklore or discussions about the manuscript (including plagiarism issues), you might want to skip part of the introduction and all the appendix. If you are interested in these issues, don’t skip. In fact, despite being published by HarperCollins, the format of the book reminds me strongly of the excellent Norton Critical Editions.
Lewis’ narrative is told largely via his own voice with dialect, with Hurston’s own words functioning more as a framing device. Lewis’s story isn’t just one of human trafficking and forced slavery, but also of trying to make a life in a world that doesn’t think that he should live. The problems that Lewis and his family faced after the Civil War, illustrate issues that the country is still struggling with today.