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Out of the Shadows

by Chris Colin | Illustrations by Liz Clarke

 

She shouted to him from the pages of a century-old court transcript. He made sure her voice was heard.

 

Cover of "Abina and the Important Men"To the media outlets, the story was irresistible: Celebrated history professor writes comic book. Professor of History Trevor R. Getz participated gamely in interviews, even landing a spot on the decidedly non-bookish local news. But as flattering as the attention has been, the truth is far more interesting.


In September, Oxford University Press published Getz’s latest book, "Abina and the Important Men" -- a microhistory centered on a trial involving a late 19th century West African slave. Yes, it’s a graphic novel, with illustrations by Capetown artist Liz Clarke. But the book is also something vastly more ambitious: an attempt at examining history itself, from how it’s constructed to who gets to be part of it in the first place. Not bad for a comic book.


The project started nearly a decade and a half ago, in modern-day Ghana. Getz, then working on his dissertation, had been combing through court transcripts in the country’s national archives. His focus was a specific and complex historical moment, when British colonialism and a kind of laissez-faire abolitionism left the Gold Coast in strange straits regarding slavery. Technically, the empire had outlawed the practice in its territories. In practice, however, slavery had a complicated relationship with the local culture, not to mention with the broader economy. Predictably, slaveholders weren’t always prosecuted.


Searching century-old court transcripts in a tropical, under-resourced country is challenging enough on its own -- the years have a way of sucking ink right off the page. When you are seeking information about society’s most disenfranchised figures, however, the his- torian’s quest becomes nearly impossible. Politicians, lawyers and other elites have their significant moments transcribed and dutifully filed away. But scant mentions of the marginalized tend to slip even further off the books over time, any passing reference to their existence vanishing altogether.


Or so Getz thought until he stumbled across Abina Mansah’s court transcript. Immediately, he realized he’d found an unlikely document: the account of a runaway slave taking her former master to court. From the unusually detailed transcript emerged a remarkable character, one who flouted history’s unspoken rule that the powerless shall remain in the shadows. In the years that followed that first discovery in Ghana, Getz learned everything he would need to in order to tell her story.

Page from "Abina and the Important Men"Trevor Getz’s graphic novel tells the true story of a runaway slave who took her former master to court.

 

 


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