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  • West African Narratives of Slavery: Texts from Late Nineteenth-and Early Twentieth Century Ghana
  • Benjamin N. Lawrance (bio)
Sandra E. Greene . West African Narratives of Slavery: Texts from Late Nineteenth-and Early Twentieth Century Ghana. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2011. 226 pp. + notes. ISBN 978-0253222947, $28.00.

West African Narratives of Slavery is an unusual mix of heretofore unpublished primary sources embedded within a creative and richly rewarding conceptual [End Page 519] framework. Written in the mold of Marcia Wright's influential Strategies of Women and Slaves—but vastly superior in analytical rigor—Greene uses five very different written and oral texts, which emerged in close geographical and chronological proximity, to narrate the experience of enslavement from the perspective of those who were not transported long distances. Greene is curious to expose how Africans enslaved and liberated in the context of war and strife at the dawn of formal colonial rule navigated their protean statuses. In bringing written and oral data about similar themes and communities into conversation, she provides a unique perspective on the legacy of slavery for the Ewe-speaking people of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and far beyond.

The diversity of texts and the nature of the texts themselves establish the innovation of the approach. Greene explains that the selection of the texts was driven by a desire to give voice to how individuals "thought about, remembered, and were prepared to discuss their lives in both slavery and freedom" (1-2). This explanation sets the tone for the reader in several aspects. First, these are intentional texts of remembrance conveyed to others, and not narratives produced in the immediate milieu of enslavement. Second, the texts encompass slavery and liberation, and in this way they were selected to theorize the impact of the "liberatory" gaze. And third, although they are very different texts, they are all, in one way or another, life histories, in which slavery appears as almost simply another part. These three considerations intermingle to inform Greene's efforts to recreate the circumstances of enslavement and liberation. And they also foreground her intention to highlight the "discursive" (6) context of production, informed by literary theories about the relationship between informant and informed.

The book consists of four analytical essays anchored by illustrative texts from individuals, with introductory prefaces. The first section is a "life history" of Aaron Kuku, a former slave, which was written down by an Ewe minister in Togo in 1929. It is preceded by a discussion of a number of elements in the narrative, including family, conversion, suicide, and the role of the amanuensis in shaping the text. The essay introducing part two examines decision-making, the intersection of the personal and political, and the role of family as motivation for choices. Part two comprises two biographies, of a woman, Lydia Yawo, and man, Mr. Famfantor, as conveyed to a Bremen missionary and an Ewe minister respectively. Part three begins with a discussion of secrecy and shame tied to a family's association with slavery, and considers what different generations know and do not know about their family's past. The focus text is the diary of Paul Sands, and the section reprints a selection of extracts that represent the "essential character" of the journal (158). And part four consists of passages from a set of oral historical interviews conducted by Greene herself in 1988 with Togbui Awusu II, Chief of Atakor, [End Page 520] complemented by other texts about Atakor. It is introduced with an essay on memory and trauma associated with the kidnapping of family members.

Greene argues that Kuku shared details of his former life with a missionary to "give voice to an approach" (28) to Christianity held by other pre-literate or sub-literate communities. Kuku narrated his memories as a leader, and envisioned his text as a mechanism to aid conversion. While deeply committed to his family, Kuku doesn't idealize family life and family relationships. Greene uses the stories of Yawo and Famfantor to probe these aspects further by exploring the motivations behind an individual's choices and movements. Mobility in the context of slave wars and wider conflict provides the framework for analyzing not only...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 519-522
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-03
Open Access
No
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