Duck Duck Book

14 – african voices
03.8.2005, 12:02 am
Filed under: social sciences

African voices of the Atlantic slave trade : beyond the silence and the shame / Anne C. Bailey.
Boston : Beacon Press, c2005.
[MCL call number: 306.362 B154a 2005; three copies, no holds]

Bailey examines African memories and experience of the Atlantic slave trade through stories that are a part of the oral literature tradition of Ghana, which she cross-references to written accounts from African, European, and American sources. African Voices begins with an introduction to Bailey’s methodology and academic perspective, and then considers the five main oral history tales that she uses to structure her discussion. Bailey also examines African, European, and American agency in the slave trade, the social, economic, and religious impact of the slave trade on the people of the coast of Ghana (where millions of Africans were loaded onto ships to be taken to the Americas), and the movement for reparations and redress for the harms of the Atlantic slave trade.

Some mainstream reviews of this book have complained at the “unhistorical” qualities of Bailey’s approach, but I find her methods useful. Compared to many other academic works I’ve read, African Voices is fresh and vibrant — because the stories are part of an oral tradition and exist because people tell them, they seem to provide insight into the culture they are a part of in a way that traditional academic evaluation of written history cannot.

Complaints about Bailey’s “unhistorical” approach can be summed up like this — stories passed down through the generations can have no bearing on an academic history of real events, for their oral medium leads them to be unreliable as sources for facts. But my response to Bailey’s methodology is to recall how important my family stories are to my conception of my own and my family’s identity and U.S. culture. My family’s stories are true (perhaps more in theme than detail, but still true enough), and some relate directly to major historical events and trends — the Great Depression, the influenza pandemic of 1918, the early movie industry in Hollywood — who is to say that these stories could not aid a serious study of historical events? And how much more significant would such stories be in a culture that greatly values oral genealogies and family history?

The first orally reported story Bailey uses, The Incident at Atorkor, is a commonly told story among the Anlo Ewes of Ghana. The Incident at Atorkor reports the kidnapping of a group of well-respected community members (drummers and headmen’s relatives among them) in the coastal town of Atorkor who were lured on to a slave ship as it was about to leave the harbor. Generally slaves sold to white traders were from the interior regions, which likely explains why this story has been remembered by so many people and for so long. Bailey reports several different oral versions of the story, as well as a version written by a white traveler who visited the region shortly after. She then develops a set of conclusions about what happened and what it means for the people of the region around Atorkor. Other stories are treated similarly, and Bailey seems careful not to draw unsupported conclusions about historical fact or about the biases or cultural impact of particular incidents or tales.

African Voices is written for an academic audience, but it is very readable, and would provide a useful starting place for anyone interested in African perspectives on the Atlantic slave trade. Bailey draws upon a wide variety of sources, many of which she cites in her text, and the book has an extensive bibliography. The book also has an index.


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