Monday, November 10, 2014

Graphic history

Getz and Clarke. Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History. Oxford 2012. 

How to introduce undergraduates to new perspectives on the world? How to present 'minor' and distinctly subaltern lives in all their human texture, in a way that is historically accurate, inviting, and perhaps also suggestive--especially to students today (whatever that means). Using "a graphic history" to do so is a good and interesting idea.  

Abina and the Important Men tries to do this. It tells, in "graphic" form, about Abina Mansah, a young woman who lived in Cape Coast, what became British West Africa, during the later 19th century. She appears in a single archival document, a court case dated 10 November 1876, in which she brought suit against a man who, she said, had held her as a slave. It is possible to tell the story of this person who has *almost* avoided leaving archival traces not only through general contextualization, but also because a number of the "important men" involved in her case--the local man who spoke for her, the British agent who heard the case, and others--have left more substantial archival records. Abina's suit was not successful, but she seems to have remained as a free person in British territory. So, in fact, it becomes an important and interesting question why she--one assumes--would have wanted to bring the suit in the first place. And it is the answer that the text presents to this question that makes me most uncomfortable with the project. 

In addition to the visual narrative, 80 pages broken into six chapters, we get the transcript itself, a chapter of historical context, a reading guide ("Whose story is this?" "Is this a 'true' story?" "Is this an 'authentic' history?"), a section on classroom uses (probably of interest mainly for the teacher), reading questions, a timeline, and a bibliography. And of course there is a website.

A word on my own perspective. I have not been trained as an Africanist. I am a Europeanist who has, rather circuitously, ended up interested in and teaching Atlantic world material. I am interested in this project (and am happy to have gotten a review copy from Oxford) because I am unsatisfied with the material that I currently have for classroom use about unfree labor, and the larger question of post-emancipation societies on the Atlantic littoral. From this perspective, Abina seems to me excellent. It dramatizes in a striking way the ambiguities of the imperial encounter, of abolition and slavery, of law especially in an imperial context. The problem of freedom--or at least a version of it--would appear, I suspect, squarely before any classroom discussing this text. This is all to the good. 

I won't try to discuss in any critical way the contextual material. The methodological reflections are not at all to my taste, but I think this may have more to do with an uncertainty in the target audience. If this course is for undergraduates, especially in an introductory world history course, I don't know why they really need to hear from Michel-Rolph Trouillot (119)--nor, for that matter, Said and Spivak (121). In these pages, and elsewhere, we frequently hear the names important-sounding people who are important professors at important-sounding institutions. This feels to me like an odd translation from more conventional academic writing--it tastes too much like a monograph and not enough like a textbook. Nor do I think it's useful to call the archival operation here performed "deconstruction" (126). Graduate students should certainly be able to use this term with all appropriate latitude, and should be able to talk about reading against and with the grain of the archive. But although this book seems to me like something graduate students ought to think about, it is certainly not where they ought to be learning about Trouillot, Said, Spivak, deconstruction, and all of this apparatus. All of these names and terms are in there because the authors want to present to students not only this story about Abina Mansah, but also the basic tools and perspectives of the field of World History. I will claim no familiarity with the norms of this field.  

But I wonder if these norms are what explain my main difficulty with the narrative of this book, which is that it presents its own act of historical reconstruction as one of redemption. This returns us to the subject matter. I hope I am not unfairly reconstructing the argument, but I think it goes like this: Abina was not in danger of being re-enslaved, she therefore did not bring suit (and enter the imperial archive) in order to defend herself. Rather, as the character (for that is what we have here) of Abina says at the end: 

"You don't understand. It was never just about being safe, it was about being heard. I went to court so that I could say what needed to be said. So that they would hear how my life was. But now I know that nobody heard me. Now I know that I might as well have kept silent..." (74).

The act of historical reconstruction--in all its contingency--is then represented as more than mere recovery. The authors clearly want to bring forward, to defend in their narrative, the full moral charge of historical work on peoples supposedly without history. The society in which Abina lived has "silenced" her, but as a result of archival discovery and historiographical creation, she is "redeemed." So the chapter title, anyway, tells us. I cannot really accept the historian-as-redeemer, nor do I wish to stand in front of a classroom and claim that is what we historians do. 

So I am left with a few questions. I am attracted to this form of story telling. While I am not competent to judge the historical verisimilitude of the drawings, I can say that they and the narrative worked on me. That's not nothing. But I imagine assigning this book to undergraduates. Would they read more than the graphic narrative? How long would we spend on this book? Then I imagine assigning it, say, to MA students. Is this really a better density than, say, something like Mark Smith's volume Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt? That book gives students actual historiography, developing over a generation, as well as plenty of source material. I can't help but think that for the undergraduates, good historical fiction would do everything that was really required. Although perhaps this is because I feel no allegiance to world history as a field. And graduate students, at whatever level, I think would be better served by Smith's Stono or in different ways--as would undergraduates in many contexts.
I hope it is clear that my judgement of this project is by no means negative. The central problems I see are those familiar from most textbooks--who really will use this? How to make something that will be useful for multiple audiences? And of course, as I saw after I'd requested the book from Oxford, but before receiving it, Abina won the James Harvey Robinson prize from the AHA. So my reservations are clearly not shared too widely. 

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