AiW Guest: Tamara Moellenberg
The second edition of Trevor R. Getz’s and Liz Clarke’s Abina and the Important Men (OUP, 2016) creates a scholarly ‘forum’ around Abina, a nineteenth-century Ghanaian woman who sought her freedom from slavery through the British colonial courts. (Britain abolished slavery in its protectorate of the Gold Coast in 1874.) Divided into five parts, Abina offers an innovative model of how to engage and entertain readers while, at the same time, introducing them to key historiographical methods and debates.
Part I of Abina and the Important Men represents Abina’s struggle to prove her status as a ‘slave’–and to convict her former owner, Quamina Eddoo–as a graphic history. Vividly illustrated, fast-paced and organized as a compelling narrative, the pictures and text provide an accessible entry point into a complicated court decision for young scholars (the authors identify their primary audience as undergraduate and graduate students). Following this, later sections of the textbook add context and nuance to Abina’s story, pulling up the veil on the researchers’ methods and inviting readers to craft their own interpretations of the 1876 case. Hence, Part II of Abina and The Important Men, ‘The Transcript’, encourages readers to compare the complete, reprinted transcript of Regina vs. Quamina Eddoo with Getz’s and Clarke’s own graphic representation, acknowledging the latter as only one way of reading Abina’s story. Part III, ‘Historical Context’, surveys some of the salient political, economic, social and cultural events that had an impact on the court’s decision, while Part IV, the ‘Reading Guide’, unpacks fundamental historiographical discussions relevant to Abina’s case. Part V, ‘Engaging Abina’, probes criticisms of the first edition of Abina and the Important Men, published in 2012.
A central question explored throughout all of these sections is ‘Was Abina indeed a “slave” as she claimed?’ Further, what did it mean to be a ‘slave’ in nineteenth-century Ghana, where local customs allowed girls from poor families to be ‘bound’ in relationships of obligation to family friends and elders? How were certain forms of slavery tacitly tolerated by the colonial government, and what was their significance within the economy and social structures of the Gold Coast? Embracing this uncertainty, in ‘The Reading Guide’ the authors encourage students to look at Abina’s story as a ‘staircase of voices’. First, we have Abina and her experiences; next, a series of mediators such as Getz and Clarke who interpret Abina’s story and present it in heterogeneous ways; and, finally, the readers of Getz’s and Clarke’s text, who are asked to form their own opinions about Abina and her plight. Modeling rigorous historiography, the authors investigate the extent to which it is possible to strip back these layers–beginning with their own representation of Abina in the graphic history–and ‘move down through the stairs like an archaeologist […]’, eventually arriving, as far as is possible, at the original event (136). Fortunately, Getz and Clarke are not essentialists; their goal is not to create a ‘temple’ of history, ‘where people of a particular group can celebrate or commemorate their “authentic” story’ (156). Rather, in ‘The Reading Guide’, the authors foreground the interpretive process that separates all researchers from complete knowledge of historical events. Using circumspect, qualified language, Getz and Clarke make clear that they seek ‘some message, metaphor or “truth”’ about the past (150; italics mine)–not the truth of the events–which then might be judged ‘recognizable and useful by Ghanaians today’ (153; italics the authors’), a grounded, pragmatic aim.
I would have liked to see more direct engagement with Ghanaian readers and their responses, however, as a way of developing this point about the usefulness of the work for Ghanaians, not only for students in North America, where Getz teaches. Have Getz and Clarke presented their textbook in Ghanaian schools and universities? What about bookstores and academic conferences? The authors cite in passing Sue Gonzalez, a US-based educator who has taken Abina and the Important Men into Ghanaian classrooms: notably, many of Gonzalez’s students, particularly girls, see elements of their own experiences reflected in Abina’s struggle (163). Yet Getz and Clarke largely eschew such local interactions, thereby detracting from the otherwise laudable attention they give to Ghanaian actors, events and regionally specific concepts. To be sure, by incorporating more insights from contemporary Ghanaians, the authors would have added yet another fascinating layer to ‘the staircase of voices’ explored in their work, while also advancing significantly towards their stated end.
Admittedly, in ‘Part V: Engaging Abina,’ the authors do incorporate diverse perspectives, particularly belonging to scholars. A definite strength of the second edition is its attempt to grapple in sensitive, self-critical ways with critiques made of the first edition. The most notable of these is Laura Mitchell’s assertion that, in the earlier edition, Getz and Clarke insufficiently examine what Abina’s gender, sexuality and sexual availability as a woman in colonial Ghana might have meant for her court case. Getz’s and Clarke’s subsequent willingness to embrace Mitchell’s insight, and to make her critique their own, points to the authors’ commitment to represent Abina’s story faithfully. In Part V, they take Mitchell’s comment further, staring boldly at the gaps in their own analysis and using these to elucidate historiographical methods, querying what it might mean to ‘gender’ Abina’s story. The authors go on to examine, for instance, how gender constructions constrain Abina’s interactions with the ‘important men’ of 1870s Ghana, including her lawyer, judge, ex-husband and former master. The final section of Abina and the Important Men, which precedes substantial appendices, also explores how gender shades the various meanings of ‘slave,’ ‘marriage’ and ‘woman’ that ultimately decide Abina’s fate.
Thoughtfully conceptualized and skillfully executed, Abina and the Important Men is an engaging example of how to teach–and do–history today. With a passion I found immediately endearing, Getz and Clarke show how it is possible to extract a wealth of information from a single primary source: in this case, the transcript of Abina’s court case discovered by Getz in an archive. Getz’s infectious love of historical methods–and Clarke’s remarkable ability to illustrate nineteenth-century Ghana despite the dearth of visual evidence from this period–make this a standout textbook. Reading it, I often found myself wishing I could take Getz’s courses at San Francisco State University, though, in a way, I feel I already have, having learnt so much from Abina. Want to write, draw, teach or tell African history? Abina and the Important Men should prove a valuable resource.
Tamara Moellenberg completed her DPhil in English at the University of Oxford in 2016. She is a former AiW Reviews Editor.
Trevor R. Getz is Professor of History at San Francisco State University; Liz Clarke is a freelance illustrator based in Cape Town.