Book Review: Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History – by Eleni Birhane. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History. Trevor Getz and Liz Clarke. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 9780199844395
[image of book cover from Oxford University Press, see: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/abina-and-the-important-men-9780190238742?cc=us&lang=en& ]
An unfortunate consequence of the “age of information” we live in is that people’s attention spans and tolerance for long readings has shortened significantly. Graphic histories such as Abina and the Important Men might be a new trend in the academic world as an answer to this phenomena.
Abina and the Important Men is a relatively short graphic history that depicts a brief period of time in 1876, Gold Coast of West Africa (present day southern Ghana). It is non-fictional historical study based on an interpretation of a court case transcript found in the historical archives of the country. The book was written by Trevor Getz, a historian and author and Liz Clarke, a graphic artist and illustrator. There are five parts to the book; in the first part, with the help of graphic illustrations we are taken through the story of how Abina Mansah charged Quamina Eddoo, an important and wealthy man in the Gold Coast, with the crime of having kept her as a slave. At the time the Gold Coast was under the British colony and was subject to British laws, which prohibited slavery. Although Abina was unsuccessful in the end, the story brings to light issues such as the balance between justice and “keeping the peace” and the conception of slavery and rights at the time.
The authors did a good job in providing context and illustrating the validity of the story of Abina. The second part of the book provides the actual words written in their primary evidence (the transcript). This allows the reader to make interpretations his/her own and decide if the authors presented a legitimate one. The third part gives a thorough context to the story by providing information about the early history of the Gold Coast, including its inhabitants and various leaders. It familiarises the reader on the practice of slavery both in the Gold Coast and in the broader world at the time and gives further descriptions of the specific people in the story (from what is found in other historical documents and oral histories). Finally in the fourth part, the authors engage in explaining the process through which they came to their interpretation of the text. They do this by providing philosophical, ethical and methodological answers to the questions “Whose story is this? Is it a true story? Is it an authentic story?” in three levels of complexity.
Multiple times within the book the authors mention the reason behind their efforts towards this project; they wanted to bring to light a part of history that had been forgotten and ignored by historians and use it to bring more insight towards the lives of the people. The book did just that. It created a way in which the reader could really understand that period in time. It allowed the reader to connect with Abina and understand her struggles in the context of where and when she lived. Unlike most history books that simply state names, dates and events this one encourages the reader to look beyond and explore the real lives of people we study.
The fifth part of the book deals specifically with how to utilize the book in a classroom setting. It explores different facets of the story and how it might apply to different studies like Africa, gender and slavery. It even has a list of reading questions designed for students at different levels (high school, college and advanced undergraduate and graduate students). Depending on how deeply and focused (towards a certain topic) one is when reading the book, it can be used to examine a multitude of issues in a historical context. It is, of course based on primary material that covers a very short amount of time and a limited area in history so the text might not be as useful for studies with a broader scope.
Abina and the Important Men is the first of its kind and shows a promising future for similar texts. It utilizes real historical evidence and comes up with a way to convey history in a more approachable and relatable manner. Its breakdown simplifies the process of understanding history and its ramifications.
Eleni serves as an editor for The North Star Reports.
Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu
See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports
The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy (http://NorthStarReports.org) is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our abiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In three years we have published over 250 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our student editors and writers come from all parts of the campus, from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors (http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports). This is done by an all volunteer staff. We have a frugal cash budget, and we donate much of our time and talent to this project. The North Star Reports is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at: http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm
Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports. Eleni Birhane and Matthew Breeze, Assistant Managing Editors, The North Star Reports.
(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacyhttp://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, with generous support from The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu
The most popular slave narratives share climactic journeys from slavery to freedom. Frederick Douglass caught a northbound train, disguised as a sailor. Henry "Box" Brown stowed away in a wooden crate bound for Philadelphia. Harriet Jacobs hid for seven years in a crawl space above a storeroom. These narratives are important because they provide firsthand accounts of the lived experience of slavery. However, students rarely encounter narratives that place America's peculiar institution in a global context, and still rarer do they read accounts of the legal morass that enabled the perpetuation of the slave trade.
A welcome corrective is the story of Abina Mansah, a young West African slave who escaped to British-controlled territory and took her case to court. But how do you not only capture the stakes of an 1876 court transcript but make that drama relevant to today's teenagers?
Trevor Getz, professor at San Francisco State University, began with a graphic novel (now in its second edition) and now has a digital education app (iOS, Android). Both emerged from his original research. While that research found a home in customary academic venues—including his first book, Slavery and Reform in West Africa—Getz wanted to bring Abina's story directly to students by producing a serious historical work using a graphic form. Abina and the Important Men emerged from his collaboration with South African artist Liz Clarke. Five years later, the text has been adopted by some 300 colleges and universities. Today, a complementary digital app is helping high school students and teachers discover Abina's story.
Getz's success in elevating an otherwise marginalized historical figure is the product of academic rigor and his eagerness to use academic institutions to traverse the boundaries of format (print and digital), genre (the graphic novel and scholarly critical edition), and audience (secondary and higher education students).
From Graphic Novel to App
When scholars make discoveries they typically share those findings through academic journal articles that circulate inside universities. Eventually, those discoveries may disseminate into classrooms and perhaps popular media, but their route to the public can be circuitous.
As a graphic history, Abina is a different form of scholarship, one designed to speak simultaneously to educators and students. On one hand, it looks like the kinds of texts many students read for pleasure (e.g., manga). But even visualizing a 140-year-old court case requires research. Getz explained that he and Clarke had to consult images from the period to answer simple questions, such as what did people wear and how close did they stand together. The graphic history also includes contexts that help situate the text: transcripts of testimonies; the histories of British colonization, the Gold Coast, and the Atlantic slave trade; various reading guides and complementary essays; and prompting questions for students. Some of those supporting materials are dense. A reading guide on historical silences includes theory from Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Another, on representation and translation, synthesizes Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. It's not everyday you encounter a graphic novel that theorizes silence in history, the production of history, and the relationship of knowledge and power.
In this sense, Abina is a Trojan horse, a creative work designed to convey a historian's methodologies. Meanwhile, the digital app aspires to move that horse behind the walls of secondary education.
Divided into "episodes," the app provides various pathways into Abina's story, each of which serves as a lesson guide. For example, if an educator wants to teach a unit on Abina, they might use Biography Pathway, whereas if they wanted to think about her story in relation to the history of colonialism, they might use the Colonialism Pathway. Perhaps more importantly, where the book is visual, the app is both visual and aural. Thanks to voice actors, Abina literally addresses students. "With this app, Abina does not just have a voice," explained Getz, "she comes alive." That's significant because Abina is exactly the kind of individual who was previously absent from histories of colonialism.
The Students Behind the App
The digital app was created by and for students. Drawing upon SF State resources, Getz assembled a cast and crew of nearly three dozen students, faculty, and staff. History students developed content. Music and theater students voiced characters. Graphic design and animation students produced clips. Some grant funding enabled the team to purchase equipment and to compensate faculty and some students; other students earned academic credit.
I corresponded with one such student, Paula Guidugli, a design and industry major. Guidugli helped lay out the chapters of the digital book and to design its logo. While the experience has helped her professionally—a local company has since offered her freelance design work— Guidugli spoke to her desire to design a better book. "I was very excited to be part of this project because one it is a very important story been told and two because I'm constantly dealing with online textbooks that aren't done very well and I thought it would be an opportunity to address design issues I've seen on those books," she said.
Bridging Secondary and Higher Education
While students played an outsized role in developing the app, teachers helped to shape its design. Getz consulted high-school teachers to get a sense of how they would use the text and how it might map onto the World History AP exam and Common Core standards. He worked with educators to produce the lesson guides which later transformed into the "pathways."
One of his most active interlocutors was David Sherrin, social studies teacher and department chair at Harvest Collegiate High School. For a course on colonialism and anti-colonialism, Sherrin assigns Abina as a central case study. A couple of years ago he asked students to write Trevor with responses to the text; the students were delighted when Trevor wrote back, responding to them not as kids but fellow scholars. Sherrin has since asked students to create their own visual histories and to role-play in mock-trials. (Sherrin is something of an expert in using mock-trials in the classroom.)
Last month, Sherrin began using the app. His students love it. After spending one week with the graphic history and a second with the app and court transcript, students welcomed the movement and the immediacy the app brought to the text. Sherrin also found the limitations of the app supported class discussions. For example, whereas the visual history includes multiple images on each page, the app pares away information, enabling students to focus on one task at a time. Students also found it easier to concentrate on the text included in the app, which tends to be more concise.
Certainly, this might be a product of familiarity—students are used to using apps. Another possibility is that students design well for their peers. The app was, after all, designed by students just a few years older than those seated in Sherrin's class. Those students don't just approach the text with similar questions; they also approach instructional design with an intuition that educators may not be able to learn and should not take for granted.