Tuesday, January 10, 2017


Yaa Gyasi has written a book partly based on her own background as an immigrant from Ghana.  She must have speculated at the different ways Africans arrived in America and opted to show two parallel lines that reflected different aspects of both living a colonial existence and a slave experience.

One of the characters, a teacher in the Gold Coast in an elaborate anecdote expresses a perspective of history, I suspect shared by the author.  History is stories told by the powerful.  We, the listeners should wonder and investigate about the missing stories.

Naively taking history as a young boy and watching the odd movie one got the idea that slaves were pulled at random from their natural habitat and shipped to America, a trip many did not survive.  Yaa demonstrates that the British, Dutch and other Europeans had many local accomplices.  One line picks up from local accomplices which required capturing other tribes further from the coast, often losers in tribal fights.  One British officer marries a local woman through her parents.  For him it is a second marriage while away from his native England.   A mulatto son is sent to England and after coming back helps the slavery business.    The author carries on with a series of vignettes illustrating different aspects of the evolving history illustrating to me how precarious any ancestral line really is.

"The Book of Negroes" by Lawrence Hill has a chapter devoted to natives being captured inland and walked several days to the coast.  I can imagine that it made more sense to have a business relationship with coastal tribes.  Hill carries on with a story of one individual who endures history through to the American Revolution and the emigration of British Empire Loyalists to Nova Scotia.

The other line starts out from the same location and involves a captured women who ends up in America.  The generations progress through history from pre Civil War until contemporary times.  One part that struck me was where southerners had forced a law by 1850 that required northerners to return runaway slaves.  Freed Africans (many really escapees) felt some tension after assuming they were safe.  Future generations were depicted under Jim Crow, moving north encountering racial discrimination.

Known as Gold Coast by British colonizers we become aware of different tribes, Fante, Assante, Twi, etc.  Eventually it become  independent as Ghana  As students in a European system (mine happened to be in Canada, but with only minor differences in other European tradition countries) we see a map of Africa with over 50 countries and assume they are homogenous entities.  Our own tribal backgrounds have amalgamated and we forget the literally thousands of years of shaping what we have become.  As the world becomes more globalized, tribalizing ebbs and flows and the shaping continues.

Shades of colour is a role in both parallel stories.  The British officer with his 2nd wife eventually is able to use his mulatto son in the slave trade.  Others are not so fortunate.  When we get to America it turns out mulatto slaves are slightly more privileged and as we move beyond the Civil War we learn some are white enough to try to pass.  One character does succeed, but when whites see him in contact with darker people, turn against him.  There is a fear of getting caught.  Another character wants to be a singer, but is told she is too dark to be accepted in a particular Harlem club, implying that lighter skinned entertainment is accepted.  I once read a science fiction book by Robert J. Sawyer, "Hominids"  where apparently the Neanderthals have integrated to be be one universal colour, but find themselves amongst modern humans with distinct races.

George Will, a noted conservative commentator is noted for saying any group that doesn't take responsibility for births shouldn't expect to succeed in life.  Yaa doesn't shy away from this and has one of her characters participate, generating 3 children with different mothers.  Immaturity and racial prejudice play a role.  She points out drugs are part of the culture and can become a vicious circle with blacks being jailed disproportionately.

"Half the Story Has Never been Told" by Edward E Baptist gives some much needed scholarly account of the role of slavery and the rise of American capitalism.  Read more:  http://www.therealjohndavidson.com/2016/12/the-half-has-never-been-told.html

Nearing the end of the book a couple from Ghana with a young daughter emmigrate to Hunstville, Alabama as the author's family did .  Fictional characters can be manipulated to cross paths for dramatic effect and the author carries forth this tradition which helps to close the circle.  Symbols from both sides, fire and water with deep meaning are confronted at the end.  In my sixty odd years I have been struck how we are all inter-related without being conscious of it.  I like poetic endings and hope the readers aren't put off with coincidences that are really part of life.  This is an enjoyable read, making one aware of how different aspects of our current world fell into place.

Colour shades still play a role in society.  My interest in Bollywood led me to realize that attitudes towards skin colour are still ingrained.  http://www.therealjohndavidson.com/2013/08/bollywood-and-skin-colour.html

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