History as Art: Getz's ABINA AND THE IMPORTANT MEN
As university history instructors, we have to juggle a number of goals. We want to deliver solid and engaging content. We want to get students to think critically about sources. And, we want to get students to develop a sense of how and why historians produce the sorts of studies we do. Doing all of these things at once is difficult, in no small part because the materials we have to get these ideas across are generally geared towards one of these goals.
But, a year or so ago, something came along that I haven't seen in a while. A book proposal so jaw-droppingly innovative that I had to just had to sit for a while in amazement of how creative and useful such a book could be. This book is Trevor Getz's Abina and the Important Men, and it is now available via Oxford University Press (2012). The book is built around a single brief document, a court transcript wherein a young West African woman brought charges of enslavement against her alleged master in 1876 in the British Protectorate of the Gold Coast. Now, this is the sort of document that most historians would see and say "Hmmmm... I bet I could get an article out of that." Instead, Getz decided to do something different. He decided to produce a graphic history -- one that centered Abina and her life in a history that presents such complex themes as colonialism, slavery, personhood and gender in an accessible yet deceptively complex package. In particular, Getz engages the issue of why we already know so much about the men involved in the court case, but so little about the plaintiff.
To elaborate a bit, Abina and the Important Men is not just a graphic history. Not only do Getz and Illustrator Liz Clarke produce a thoughtful narrative of Abina's life, but Getz provides the readers with a complete copy of the original court transcript, a well-presented survey of the broader historical context of the Gold Coast during the era, and methodological essays addressing how we interpret and write history. Simply put, I have never seen a better tool for getting students to not just read, but actually think about history. The fact that this brilliantly executed and beautifully produced text is available for less than $20 is all the more amazing. Why, for crying out loud, do other books cost so much if one this expensively produced is available at such a no-brainer price?
Anyway, Kudos to Oxford for making such a genre-defying text available. This should knock more than a couple of layers of dust off the press' staid and tweedy image. I can see Abina being used not only in African history courses, but also in classes on Women's and Gender History, Historical Methodology, and World History. At least I hope so, because if it isn't, then our field is doomed to die a slow death of terminal dullness.
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