Zora Neale Hurston’s late 1920s conversations with a man brought from Africa to America as a slave finally became a book last year

The Skirball hosts a dramatic reading of “Barracoon”

For anyone with blood or mercy in their veins, it’s all but impossible not to cringe over Oluale Kossula’s eyewitness account of the massacre of his community in 1860, when he was 19, in what is now Benin, West Africa. The burning of decapitated heads; the bloodthirstiness of women warriors; the cutthroat king of the rival tribe who sold him to American slave traders: these horrors remained vivid when Kossula shared them with Harlem Renaissance novelist and cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston in 1927. By then he’d survived five years of slavery, lived decades as Cudjo Lewis (the name given him by the captain of slave ship Clotilda), and co-founded Africatown in Plateau, Alabama, where he died in 1935.

“Tears of joy welled up” in his eyes when Hurston hailed him by his African name: “Nobody don’t callee me my name from cross de water but you. You always callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!” She collected his searing memories in “Barracoon,” titled after the stockades where kidnapped villagers were imprisoned. It’s vital historical testimony, yet for several reasons problematic as a book. Lewis’ native dialect, replicated on the page, can be challenging for readers; Hurston resisted publishers’ demands that she modernize his words, a key reason why “Barracoon” remained unpublished until 2018.

But Hurston’s stubbornness was a gift to history. As she noted in her introduction, reams of “words from the seller” had been written about slavery, “but not one word from the sold” — and fewer still about pre-slavery life in Africa. Moreover, the musicality of Lewis’ speech emerges when the text is spoken aloud, which bodes well for Sunday’s staged reading at The Skirball Cultural Center. It’s akin to raw blues, its grooves sculpted by the tortured rhythms of a man who’s buried his wife and children. To hear his words animated by widely respected actors L. Scott Caldwell and Bill Cobbs — dignified veterans who’ve been secret weapons in many a theatrical cast — will be to experience history as it was endured and lived.

— Bliss Bowen

“Barracoon: A Tribute to Zora Neale Hurston” is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Tickets are $20. Call (310) 440-4500 or visit skirball.org.

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