Thursday, December 12, 2013

Re-Post: Hidden Things and Old Books

Originally posted at Da Tech Guy blog on December 3, 2013.

Last week, I was talking with some friends and one of them brought up the Washington Redskins mascot controversy. When I suggested that the team's name be changed to the 'Washington Negroes,' it brought the house down.

From there, someone brought up the old Roots miniseries and we got to talking about Alex Haley (1921-1992) the author of the book on which the miniseries was based. In 1978, Haley was sued for plagiarism by Harold_Courlander and the plaintiff won. One of my companions wondered why he hadn't just published the book as a work of fiction in the first place.

It was then that I was reminded of the historical novel The Dahomean, written by Frank Yerby (1916-1991) and published in 1971. Set in nineteenth-century Virginia, the initial scenario has two white farmers deciding what to name their newly-purchased slave. The slave tells them his African name when asked and speaks only rudimentary English--obviously fresh from his seaborne transport.

The rest of the novel consists of the slave's memories of his life as a free man in Africa--in the Kingdom of Dahomey. It is fantastic--a great work. (At my first reading of the book I was about twelve years old. I didn't read it again until I was in my forties, curious to see if my fledgling judgment of the book's quality held up against my adult reading sensibilities. It did and remains my favorite novel.)

Undoubtedly, Haley was aware of Yerby--an accomplished writer at the time of the publication of The Dahomean--and was also aware of how little commercial success The Dahomean had garnered. (In Yerby's "A Note to the Reader," he acknowledges basing his fiction on Melville J. Herskovits' Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom.) Whether the contemporaneous public showed little interest in such a topic or whether Yerby's publishers did little to promote Yerby's novel is unknown. But I suspect that Haley didn't want a similar obscurity for Roots--published in 1976--and, to that end, decided to pawn it off as an autobiography. No one would find out, he thought. He was correct...for a while. But the truth came out, as it always does.

As for The Dahomean, I've always thought it would make a decent movie. In this climate of political correctness, however, the production would certainly have to be independently financed because Yerby's Dahomeans are, indeed, not politically correct.

As for the present-day climate of racial division and blame for the sins of dead ancestors, Mr. Yerby addresses these things for his own time and I'll let him speak for himself.
The thoughtful reader will observe that the writer has not attempted to make the Dahomeans either more or less than what they were. He is aware that truth is an uncomfortable quality; that neither the racist, the liberal, nor the advocates of Black Power and/or Pride will find much support for their dearly held and perhaps, to them, emotionally and psychologically necessary myths herein. 
So be it. Myths solve nothing, arrange nothing. But then, as the protagonist of this novel is driven in the end to put it, perhaps there are no viable solutions or arrangements in life for any of the desperate problems facing humanity in an all too hostile world.

Post a Comment