November 11, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Trevor R. Getz's Abina and the Important Men is a graphic novel that tells the true story of Abinah Mansah, a 19th century woman in Ghana who escaped slavery and took her former master to court. Based on the actual court transcript and powerfully told, this book brings her story vividly to life. Interestingly, a study guide is also included that explores how historians interpret the past.
Abina and the Important Men is the true story of a young woman in nineteenth century West Africa who escaped enslavement and then took her former master to court. Through her testimony, presented in graphic format, this book explores the realities of life for a woman whose voice would not normally have been preserved for future generations. My objective in this book, together with artist Liz Clarke, was to share with the world Abina's testimony in its original form together with a graphic interpretation accessible to everyone, especially young people. These are then set in a rich tapestry of historical contextualization and ethical and philosophical questions about the way some people are silenced by the writing of history and how we can hear their voices again. This is a document from the past shared through the medium of comics and in the genre of narrative history.
It is my hope that this book helps to reverse the silencing of the young, the poor, the enslaved, and downtrodden groups like African girls who are otherwise excluded from history books or treated just as subjects rather than people with their own voices. Abina was the least powerful conceivable person in the British Gold Coast Colony (Ghana), and yet she managed to take a powerful slave-owner to court and to force a group of lawyers and administrators to hear her testimony. As presented in her testimony, Abina's life story and her arguments are important for us today, not just in urging us to fight for basic human rights but also to value everyone’s voices in an open, inclusive society.
"Big Man" by Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra
This New York band's anthem for the common folk is a starting point for understanding both how I got to Abina's story and the system against which she fought. "Big Man" is a song about everyday oppression and the ways in which the profits of the labor of the "small man" are stolen by the rich and powerful. It is a song about people like Yaw Awoah --the man who sold Abina -- and about Quamina Eddoo – the man who enslaved her in his household. It is a song about James Hutton Brew, the lawyer who defended Eddoo. When I first found Abina's testimony in the National Archives of Ghana almost fifteen years ago, I could scarcely hear her voice because of the presence of these big men who sought to silence her both before the case and in the courtroom.
"Small Axe" by Bob Marley
The wonderful, incredible thing about Abina Mansah is that she didn't let Awoah, Eddoo, and Brew silence her. Her insistence to be heard, and that of men and women like her, is the only thing that stops the "big men" from achieving their dominance in this world. Continuing the theme of the struggle of the small against the great is Bob Marley’s "Small Axe", which reminds the "evil men, playing smart and not being clever" that no matter how big a tree they are, "we are the small axe, ready to cut you down (well sharp)". Marley exhorts us to struggle, telling us that "no weak heart shall prosper". Moreover, there is a connection between Marley's Jamaica and Abina's Ghana. Although we cannot identify the African origin points of Bob Marley's ancestors, much of the population of Jamaica were West Africans from the same region as Abina. Indeed, the language she spoke –Twi- forms the largest component of Jamaican creole even today.
"Esclave" by Papa Wemba
"Esclave" is a song that describes Abina's condition, if not her heart. It is hard to think of a more moving account of enslavement than this song by the great "Congolaise" singer. Papa Wemba's mother was a professional mourner, a ritual position in Congolese society, and he adopts this role in singing about the "whips and… fears of strangers".
"African Woman" by Becca
This is the song I choose for Abina herself. It's from the soulful edge of Highlife/Hiplife, the Ghanaian genre that traces its roots back to the dance party scene of the 1930s and 1940s but has evolved dramatically both within Ghana and across the diaspora. Not only are the lyrics of African Woman apt to Abina's life, and the video evocative of the everyday heroism of mothers and sisters across the continent, but it's sung in Twi as well as English, which means that Abina would have understood it. Moreover, it's a song full of power and fire, just like Abina. I'll never forget the day I read her testimony in the dim light of the reading room at the National Archives of Ghana. I could almost see her defiance to her master and slinging angry retorts at his lawyer. It made me realize that our world needs voices like hers.
"A Luta Continua" by Bongi Makeba (performed by Miriam Makeba)
Writing about Abina and her fight to have her voice heard always makes me think of that African chanteuse, Miriam Makeba. She may have come from entirely the other side of the continent, but she too suffered oppression -- in her case the everyday humiilations and grand discriminations of apartheid in South Africa. Makeba also refused to be silenced, as her great song for the Mozambican liberation movement demonstrates. “A luta continua” (the struggle continues),written by her daughter Bongi, was performed by Makeba around the world, and has since been taken up as a rallying cry by freedom fighters and activists around the world.
"The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti" by Joan Baez
This Joan Baez ballad is about the Italian immigrants Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were framed for a murder they did not commit and executed in 1927. It was written for a movie treatment of their lives. What I appreciate most about this song is that Baez' lyrics are entirely composed of text from letters written by Vanzetti to his father. Woody Guthrie did something similar with "Vanzetti’s Letter", which covers his appeal to the judge in the case. Baez and Guthrie made a commitment to letting their audiences hear their subjects own voices. I made a similar commentment when I included the entirety of Abina's testimony in Abina and the Important Men, immediately following the graphic history interpretation that forms the heart of the book.
"The Chimes of Freedom" by Bob Dylan (as performed by Youssou N'dour)
The last struggle song I'm including is "Chimes of Freedom", written by Bob Dylan and powerfully performed by the Senegalese griot/historian/singer Youssou N'Dour. In N'Dour’s hands, the powerful lyrics expressing the unity of the poor and downtrodden around the world are situated in an African melody. As in many of his performances, Youssou here blends French, Wolof, and English into a cosmopolitan delight, adding talking drums, guitar, and everything in between to remind us that Abina's struggles and ours are all connected.
"Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon (as performed by They Might Be Giants)
I'm including this song of my youth just because it's a favorite of many historians. As John Flansburgh and company tell us with great exuberance, things change: Istanbul was once Constantinople and New York was once New Amsterdam. That’s one of the great lessons of history. This song also teaches us another lesson: that human societies are messy and complex, and that any simplified accounts of the past are necessarily incorrect or irrelevance.
Trevor R. Getz and Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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