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

April 26, 2012

Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History by Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke. Oxford University Press, USA (2011), Paperback, 208 pages.

An innovative graphic history telling the story of a young west African woman who went to court in the 1876 to challenge her enslavement and explaining contemporary historical methodology and concepts.

Oxford University Press has a prestigious reputation and the fact that they have just published this, their first graphic history is noteworthy. So is the additional material included in the book providing historical context and the tools for explaining and evaluating how the history was written.

Abina’s story is an intriguing one. A young Asante, she was enslaved and taken into an area of west Africa, now in Ghana, in which the British had recently taken control. The British had outlawed slavery throughout their empire, but they were unwilling to challenge the “important men” who continued to own slaves in colonies like the Gold Coast. With the help of an Asante translator, Abina challenges her enslavement in court. Recorded discussion ensues about rights and freedom, but eventually she is not freed from her enslavement.

The graphics in the book were impressive, but I found little reason for their use in telling this particular story. Talking heads predominated. There was nothing compelling in the images as there were in Persepolis. At times the shifting angles and shapes pulled me away from the story. I was distracted by how Abina’s clothes stayed in place and where I supposed to read next. I know I am not the targeted audience, but the basic question remains. Was the use of graphics merely a stunt to attract readers and purchasers for the book?

Gertz and Clark also present materials designed to inform readers of how and why they recreated Abina’s story as they did. They reprint a copy of the document which contained the testimony of Abina and others in court, and discuss how this primary document was made into the graphic interpretation. They provide a brief history of the African region and of British colonization there. As someone who knows almost nothing about African history I found this section very helpful. Bibliographic notes are especially helpful in directing readers to specific aspects of Abina’s story such as slavery and gender in Africa.

More innovatively, Gertz and Clark explain in detail the processes and decisions that they made in interpreting Abina’s story. In doing so, they present a valuable, up-to-dated account of the concepts and methods in wide use by social and cultural historians today. They explain how and why their approach has expanded our understanding beyond the elites of the past to include those who have been silenced. Some of the question are the type that should be debated without assuming that they can be definitively answered. By raising such questions they help readers learn to move beyond simplistic questions of whether a historical account is objectively true or false.

Abina and the Important Men is deliberately designed for use in classrooms of various levels and subjects. Because it deals with basic issues of colonization, slavery, and gender, it would be relevant not only in courses about African history but also in world history classes. Its methodological and conceptual focus would be ideal for introductory courses in historical practices. Although there is an attempt to suggest its use from high school through grad school, I suspect advanced placement and beginning college students would be most ready to make full use of it. This book, however, could find appreciative general readers as well.

Having taught history, I see the need for a book like this. Students and general readers need this kind of explanation of how today’s historians think and work and new tools for evaluating historical writing. I am less impressed with the graphics and am unsure of how readers at different levels would respond to the book overall.

I recommend Abina widely to general readers and to teachers. I don’t, however, view it as the all-purpose panacea that those who created it would like to claim. And I am not convinced that graphics are the direction that the history profession needs to go in the future. The fact I was more impressed by the text of the book than the graphics is relevant.

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