More than anything, this is a book about authorship. How do we define who is an author or the author of a book? In this book, we have a contemporary editor, a collection of different other writers writing forewords and afterwords, we have Hurston acting in capacity as ethnographer, and we have Cudjo Lewis himself telling his story. But all these different voices have a varying impact on the final artifact of the book itself. What is the book here? Is it the text of Lewis telling the story of growing up in Africa, being sold into slavery, being liberated after the Civil War, being cheated and maligned as a freeman, and now as a storyteller in his 9th decade? Is it Hurston and her attempts to retell that story as honestly, earnestly, and accurately as possible? Is it Hurston describing the process of bringing the book to print and getting funding and work as the ethnographer? Is it the editor of the text?
The story then unfolds along some prevailing themes. We have that idea: who has the right to represent us? Lewis is born a free man and dies a freedman, after decades of slavery, but also, he’s freed into the Jim Crow South and can’t even have the safety and security of legal representation when he’s hit by a train. We have Hurston, who struggles to get paid, but also goes back and forth on the question of what language should she use to record the voice of Lewis. And we have the editor, who has successfully brought to print this text, which has been known and been around for decades.