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Deborah Plant

English department hosts New York Times bestselling author Deborah Plant

TAMPA, Fla. – On Friday, Feb. 15, the Department of English hosted an Archival Connections talk featuring New York Times bestselling author Dr. Deborah Plant, who discussed her work editing and publishing nonfiction book “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ’Black Cargo.’” The book is about the life of Oluale Kossola, also known as Cudjo Lewis, the “last slave in his African vernacular” and was published 91 years after it was written.

At the talk, Plant explained that the “Barracoon” manuscript, written by Zora Neale Hurston after interviewing Lewis in 1927, had never been lost. In 1931, Hurston had even tried to publish it, but no one wanted it. Publishers said they would be interested if Hurston wrote “in language rather than dialect,” but she refused.

Plant’s discussion focused on the journey of researching and editing “Barracoon.” Though she began by saying she did not understand why she was chosen to edit the piece, she said “I consider it a gift from the universe, so I gratefully responded, ‘yes.’”

To gain more research on Lewis, Plant went to Africatown, a historic community outside of Mobile, Alabama, founded by 52 West Africans, including Lewis, in 1860. Walking up to a barbecue party, she asked if someone could point the way to Lewis’s gravesite. “I wanted to be where he was. I wanted to walk where he had walked,” Plant said. The Africatown members responded, adding that Plant could also talk to Lewis’s grandchild. This led Plant to find a typed document of the “Barracoon” manuscript, but not the original document.

Hurston usually wrote several drafts in longhand before typing them. Plant eventually discovered a few pages of the early drafts in longhand, where Hurston had written notes on the back of the pages that never made it into her typed drafts. “I wouldn’t have seen those if I hadn’t gone for myself,” Plant said. Most of her process involved comparing early longhand drafts with multiple typed drafts, adding in the missing longhand notes, and editing accordingly.

On the researching process, Plant emphasized the importance of researching in archives and being kind to the archivists. “Some people love doing archival work. Frankly, I’m not one of them,” Plant said, laughing. She finished the talk with a few words of advice: ask questions, be open to directions and pay attention to everything.

Filed under:English Arts and Sciences    
Author:Amanda Lopez