The first of its kind, Abina and the Important Men is a compelling and powerfully illustrated “graphic history” based on an 1876 court transcript of a West African woman named Abina, who was wrongfully enslaved and took her case to court. The book is a microhistory that does much more than simply depict an event in the past; it uses the power of illustration to convey important themes in world history and to reveal the processes by which history is made.
The story of Abina Mansah—a woman “without history” who was wrongfully enslaved, escaped to British- controlled territory, and then took her former master to court—takes place in the complex world of the Gold Coast at the onset of late nineteenth-century colonialism. Slavery becomes a contested ground, as cultural practices collide with an emerging wage economy and British officials turn a blind eye to the presence of underpaid domestic workers in the households of African merchants. The main scenes of the story take place in the courtroom, where Abina strives to convince a series of “important men”—a British judge, two Euro-African attorneys, a wealthy African country “gentleman,” and a jury of local leaders— that her rights matter. “Am I free?” Abina inquires. Throughout both the court case and the flashbacks that dramatically depict her life in servitude, these men strive to “silence” Abina and to impose their own understandings and meanings upon her. The story seems to conclude with the short-term success of the “important men,” as Abina loses her case. But it doesn’t end there: Abina is eventually redeemed. Her testimony is uncovered in the dusty archives and becomes a graphic history read by people around the world. In this way, the reader takes an active part in the story along with the illustrator, the author, and Abina herself.
Following the graphic history in Part I, Parts II-V provide detailed historical context for the story, a reading guide that reconstructs and deconstructs the methods used to interpret the story, and strategies for using Abina in various classroom settings.
The new, second edition of Abina and the Important Men features a new gender-rich section, Part V: Engaging Abina, which explores Abina’s life and narrative as a woman. Focusing on such important themes as the relationship between slavery and gender in pre-colonial Akan society, the role of marriage in Abina’s experience, colonial paternalism, and the meaning of cloth and beads in her story, this section also includes a debate on whether or not Abina was a slave, with contributions by three award-winning scholars—Antoinette Burton, Sandra Greene, and Kwasi Konadu—each working from a different perspective. The second edition also includes new, additional testimony that was rediscovered in the National Archives of Ghana, which is reflected in the graphic history section.
Reviews and testimonials
Paul Lovejoy, York University
Abina and the Important Men is an excellent introduction to history and society through an innovative mix of primary text, annotated transcription and highlighted in cartoon form that captures the imagination of new students. It is a must for adoption in first year courses.
Jeremy Rich, Middle Tennessee State University
This is a very strong and original work. All three sections (the inclusion of the primary source, the historical context section and the reading guide) allow for a broad range of discussion topics. Students can compare the graphic novel section to the court transcript and discuss how historians develop historical narratives.
Sharlene Sayegh, California State University, Long Beach
Abina and the Important Men addresses an important gap in the teaching of history, one that recognizes that there are a variety of learning styles
Jonathan T. Reynolds, Northern Kentucky University
Trevor Getz has pushed the envelope of Africanist Scholarship. With Abina and the Important Men he offers unique insight into such contentious topics as personhood, gender, slavery, and colonialism. Along the way, he provides teachers and readers with a powerful tool for investigating the process of giving meaning to historical documents and narratives. This is exactly the sort of work that will help African history escape the dark and dusty halls of academia and help make it relevant to a wider audience. This is GENIUS.
Jason Ripper, Everett Community College
Academia has finally woken up to the interests of students and Oxford University Press is a willing partner in this awakening. Bravo! This book takes college-level course material in a fresh and invigorating direction. The story – images included – is engrossing, addresses themes regularly featured in our courses, and provides needed insight into a people who still get too little treatment even in world history courses. Also, the author’s added commentary on the source material and the general historical context ensure that when students have the book with them at home, they will still recognize the academic qualities of the volume.
Erin O’Connor, Bridgewater State University
This is an innovative approach to teaching social history and colonialism in Africa. The graphic history contains beautiful and compelling artwork, and the text closely follows historical documentation. Furthermore, the inclusion of the actual document transcription and historical context make it possible to teach this book on many different levels, getting students to think deeply about and probe the process of how history is made (both in the past and by historians). It would work well in courses on either African history or world history.
Tiffany F. Jones, Cal State-San Bernardino
This is a pioneering work in the narration and representation of African History and will appeal to students of all levels. The book engages in the actual historical process and makes it very evident for students the processes historians go through when compiling such a document. The fact that Abina and the Important Men highlights the difference between primary and secondary documents, and talks in detail about representation and translation, makes it particularly valid for all history classes.
Alicia D. Decker, Purdue University
This is an excellent project! It is fresh, engaging, and historically sound. I would definitely use this text in my Modern Africa and African Women’s History classes. I really like the way that the author and illustrator have divided the book into sections for different levels of analysis. Beginning students can focus on the graphic novel, while more advanced students can also discuss the production of historical knowledge and the larger historiography.
Paul S. Landau, University of Maryland
This is an important departure for Oxford University Press and an excellent combination of research and pedagogy. It is a fine work and I will use it in my teaching…. Students today do not easily grasp the difference between a primary and secondary source. This text merges that appreciation — for how historians work — into the fabric of the book.
Maxim Matusevich, Seton Hall University
The project’s originality is its main strength; it certainly stands out among other texts on slavery. It also makes the experience of enslavement more immediate, more visual, in other words, it brings it to life.