Friday, 2 November 2012

Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History by Trevor R Getz and Liz Clarke...

Abina Mansah is a young West African woman living in the British Gold Coast Colony (now Ghana) in 1876. After escaping to the town of Cape Coast, she accuses Quamina Eddoo of purchasing and holding her as a slave. Britain outlawed slavery in the Empire in 1833 and an act of enslavement is in contravention of the "Gold Coast Slave-dealing Abolition Ordinance, 1874" so judicial assessor William Melton feels it his duty to take the case to trial. Abina is in no danger of being returned to slavery but pursues the case because she wants to be heard.

The collaborator's took the transcript of that trial and created a compelling graphic history of Abina's story. Supplementing the trial transcript, Getz (the author) constructed a plausible background for Abina as well as the events that gave her freedom and demand for justice. Clarke (the illustrator) brought the story to life with her well researched and striking illustrations. Look at the cover (right), Abina standing defiant with the "important men" (Melton, Eddoo, defense attorney, advisors called by Melton) with their backs to her. Strong stuff.

The book could have stood with just the graphic history and the actual transcript but it goes much farther and in a direction that will have me returning to it later. Following the transcript Getz points out that he and Clarke have created an historicization or historical narrative placed in the context of the time and place in which it is set. There are questions that need to be asked and he sums up the challenge he and Clarke faced:
Like many others who interpret the past, we have strived to create a representation that is reasonable accurate, authentic to the experiences and perspectives of the individuals represented, and useful to our audience. How did we turn the short primary source into a longer interpretation that tried to meet these criteria? How can we know whether our account of the events surrounding Abina Mansah's day in court is a reasonably accurate and useful interpretation? How can you, the reader, trust the work we have produced? (italics are mine)
 Part III establishes the historical context by describing the area with its peoples, languages, social structures, the effects of European involvement, and importantly, the British approach to its civilizing mission, ie what did Britain see as its responsibility to the inhabitants.

Part IV, Reading Guide is fascinating and is the part I will be rereading several times. Here Getz shows us how a historian works. In the Reading Guide are the
issues of philosophy, ethics, and methods that we faced in turning a document from 1876 into a graphic history in 2011. In the following pages, we grapple with three questions: whose story is this? Is it a true story? Is it an authentic story?
Getz goes into the pitfalls or writing history, the inevitable biases that color the narrative, the problems interpreting past events through modern sensibilities that might ascribe motivations differing from those who lived the events. He gives us a good summary of the philosophy behind the approaches that historians have to consider when writing history.

Part IV has made me think about current events in the U.S., the current political turmoil and the seemingly insurmountable philosophical divide on the intention of the constitution and the responsibilities of government. What will future historians do with the vast amount of print, digital, and media material that survives? I look at this section for insights how historians look at us and write our history.

Abina and the Important Men is a very adaptable book in that it is suitable for a variety of audiences. Obviously it appeals to me and I appreciate the intellectual challenge of understanding how history is recorded. I wouldn't hesitate to give it to a young person interested in history. The graphic history is good hook. It could also be used in high school and college courses. Part V gives suggestions how Abina could be used in the classroom.

The books includes maps that are a great help in visualizing the setting of the story.

I highly recommend Abina and the Important Men. It has an interesting story to tell and is intellectually stimulating. I wish I had a niece or nephew old enough to appreciate it.

Trevor R. Getz is Professor of History at San Francisco State University.
Liz Clarke is a professional artist and graphic designer in Cape Town, South Africa.
Paulina Opoku-Gyimah says: I'm going to find out more about Abena...will keep you posted...

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