Writing and analyzing the history of sub-Saharan Africa — especially the history prior to the decolonization of African countries and their emergence as independent nations — is especially difficult. Part of the reason of course lies with legacy. In the thrall of racism, either conscious or unconscious, historians prior to the early 1960s often imposes blatant biases and prejudices on African experience. Though not as flagrant in their abuses as, say, anthropologists, professional historians were often trapped in a manner of thinking that led them to conclude that Africans lacked their own histories.
If Africans did suffer from a deficit, the deficit was not history, but historical materials of the conventional sort: records, diaries, letters, reports, and the like. Such staples of literate societies were absent for various reasons in the sub-Saharan. And the records which did exist often were generated by colonizers and adventurers, interlopers with an agenda that rarely included fairness to Africans — or the impulse to document their authentic voices.
A new generation of historians of Africa are building into their scholarship innovative and creative ways of giving voice to the African voiceless. One of the most spectacular examples of such scholarship is the new book, Abina and the Important Men, by historian Trevor Getz, of San Francisco State University.
Drawing extensively on the trial transcript of a Ghanaian woman illegally enslaved in the 1870s by another Ghanaian, Getz creates a deeply informed and revelatory work of narrative history and nuanced interpretation. Treating his book as a mosaic of independent elements, he even enlists the help of a talented graphic artist to create a beautifully-drawn 75-page “graphic history” that seems ideal for pre-university students. When the graphic story is paired with the actual trial transcript, which Getz found in Ghana, and with lucid essays by Getz on the historical context of the trial and a “reading guide” that explores the “authenticity” of his own narrative, Abina and the Important Men presents a stunning multi-faceted experience of an African past that remains so foggy as to appear to be irretrievably lost. While prominent gaps in the evidence and his narrative and analysis remain, Getz tries to compensate in an unusually interesting ways. His big-hearted and perceptive “letter to the reader,” which opens Abina and the Important Men is worth quoting at length — for its insights into how creative scholars are trying to address a crisis of relevance, not only of African history but for the field of history in general:
“Abina and the Important Men is one of a number of projects that seeks to find a middle ground between scholarly and popular histories of regular people. [My book] is not a work of historical fiction, but instead a history because it aims for accuracy and authenticity even while recognizing that all historical works are at some level speculative and subjective. It is neither completely celebratory not holly critical; instead it attempts to show how these two impulses can be linked together…. [R]ather than seeking to be the final authorities on this story, we invite the reader to … see this work as a conversation we are having with Abina Mansah.”
Bringing African voices of the past, into the present, is a project of great significance. May Abina and the Important Men inspire more multi-dimensional studies of this sort.