Tag Archives: Slave trade

Healing with humour: Bernadine Evaristo lampoons the slave trade in Blonde Roots

Standard

Penguin books

Published 2008

pp 261

Psychology experts advise that when we lose someone or something valuable, rather than clam up and nurse resentments till their bulk bears down and suffocates, that we talk about it; to, in effect, purge emotions by talking the life out of our dearly departed.

Not many Black British, Black American or African people seem to have taken that line in coping with the historical and present consequences of slavery, or in coming to terms with the injustices of the era and the lives and dignity lost to the transatlantic slave trade. Not, perhaps, until 2008 and Bernadine Evaristo‘s first fully prose book Blonde Roots. True, there’ve been pointed fingers and diatribes marking every slavery abolition anniversary since William Wilberforce‘s succesful anti-slavery campaign, but these are akin to the usual lamentations of “why me?” by the bereaved.

Evaristo airs out this half-millenium long shame, with the kind of neutrality one supposes only she – biracial as she is -could have mustered. She moves us gently from ‘What the hell is she playing at?’ to fascination with the skewed history she has enacted and finally to the realisation that it feels no better (as a black person) to have the shoe on the other foot. Just as I despair silently, eons after my African ancestors have been corralled, coffled and chained, and taken on a seemingly endless journey to servitude, so do tears well in my eyes when I read of young, frail whyte Dafyyd: “our procession ground to a halt. Daffyd wasn’t moving… Garanwyn tried to tell the gurads he would carry his little brothers on his shoulder but they ignored him… (Daffyd) was released from the coffle and swung by his arms and legs into some bushes.

This episode lets us readers come to the realisation of perhaps something we have known all along but sacrificed for our racial prejudices – past injustices, whether it’s whyte enslaving blacks, Jews persecuting Christian Germans, or the hostility of a plutocratic government against its proletariat, are not caused by race or creed but of our human capacity – subdued in most of us, and dominant in a few others- to be inexplicably cruel to kind. Perhaps slavery was always bound to be one way or another (even the religious books support it). This, I think. is what Evaristo very capably demonstrates in this role reversal classic.

And it isn’t all grim, a light, pacey plot helps us laugh at the caricature Evaristo has drawn of us, in the present day, with our continued neo-colonialist mentality: “The hairdressers used kinky Aphrikan hair on the (whyte) women, who had their own fine hair chopped off and these bushy pieces sewn onto them so that the effect was (un)naturally Aphrican. It took up to ten hours… and you could get a nose flattening job done quite cheaply…the very thought of a mallet smashing down on my nose was just too scary for words.” This, one realises, is what happens when a people’s identity is cruelly discarded by a “superior race”. Colour has nothing to do with it.

But beyond creating distorted mirror images, Evaristo leaves us with humorous landmarks. Bakalo, Mayfah, Wool Wi Che, Coasta Coffee, Paddinto – all transplanted from Great Britain to Great Ambrosia, just so we do not lose ourselves in her previously uncharted waters. She further pulls us back from her fancies with language relevant to our time, garnished with her tongue-in-cheek narrative. Expressions like “My terms of engagement stipulated that it was a job for life, that my hours should run from Sunday to Monday 12 a.m. to 11.55 p.m. daily, although i needed to be available to do overtime when required. I would receive an annual wage of nothing with an added bonus of nothing for good behaviour… i was only knocked about a it in the early days as part of my in-service training when my work report read: Attendance 100%, punctuality 100%, motivation 10%”, “It made great business sense for the Europanes. They received luxury items such as battered old hats and knives and in return sold off healthy specimens of the human race” miraculously lift the gloom particularly favoured by any previous fictional and factual accounts of slavery accounts.

Blonde Roots, with its feisty, smart-mouthed heroine/narrator Omorenomwara (formerly Doris Scagglethorpe) has us shuffling between Great Ambrosia and the West Japanese Islands in Africa to the Cabbage Coast in the Grey Continent of Europa. Evasristo’s plot (especially earlier on) is like a shuffled deck of cards where the past segue seamlessly into the present. I must confess that I was taken aback when in Book Two Evaristo introduces “The reflections, thoughts, experiences and sentiments of the venerable Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I (Omorenomwara’s master) on the slave trade. She had me ten pages in when she explores the lies coated in the scientific that the slave-holders peddled among themselves to justify the trade. It does enrage!

I will quote loosely the chapter titled ‘Some are more human than others’: The caucasonoid, native to the hell-hole Europa is proven by Craniofaecia Antropometry as being biologically inferior to the negroid (indegenous to Aphrika) and is in fact a neo-primate. The skull contains a far smaller brain because it is limited by its cranial structure, while its orthognathous jaw denotes weakness of character, limited imagination and restricted intellect. these together produce traits of cowardice, laziness, moral degradation, and a nonsensical, unintelligible language known as mumble jumble. the caucasonoid are further incapable of acute emotionality or pain – be not deceived into thinking that the blood shed and torn skin during a beating is a crime against humanity.

In what might be the only false step of the novel, Evaristo goes overboard with her replication and introduces ebonics much later in the novel. because the language, which is specific to descendants of West-African slaves is so closely imitated in expressions and flow, it takes away the alternate representation that she had worked so hard to achieve in the first part of the novel. The characters simply sounded so black that the images in my head soon corrected themselves – Doris became black and Katamba a white slavemaster; and even frequent mental notes to correct the characterisation failed. Why ever did Evaristo take away their English language?

Plot wise, the “scorned first son” story lost its flavour the second time over. Why would Bwana do to his son what had been unfairly done to him? And Nonso was a bit too revealing and familiar in his confrontation with Omorenomwa in the final part of the book. In that one instance less would have been much more.

Evaristo’s imagination (creating a model counter-universe) and light-heartened (employing humour in the darkest of situations) can only be compared with JK Rowling’s in this satirical novel, in which she delivers the sorrow of the loss of family, a passage in-extremis, many tearful partings, two attempted escapes, and the horrors of a life of servitude with jocosity “Massa Rotimi once nailed a repeat offender’s ear to a tree… he forced a runway to lie down and another to shit in her mouth… I had seen limbs removed, skin scalded, cheeks branded… once a man was roasted over a spit, alive… another was suspended under a spit of pork so that the scalding fat removed his skin.” The era of slavery was a indeed cruel, miserable time, and in spite of Evaristo’s unrelenting humour, or maybe because of it, its iniquitous nature is acute in Blonde Roots. Evaristo’s

Evaristo’s 260 page novel strips away both the lingering racial outrage about – and the growing forgetfulness – of the 500 year period . It is no wonder it that it enjoys descriptions such as “brilliant”, “audacious” and “astonishing” by The Telegraph, The Independent and The Times.

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