Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo. Riverhead Books. 269 pp., $15.00.
What if black Africans had enslaved white Europeans during the slave trade, instead of the other way around? Bernadine Evaristo’s novel, Blonde Roots, explores this clever premise. Numerous texts have been devoted to accurately depicting the brutality of the Middle Passage and plantation slavery, but few have sought to explore how, if roles were reversed, African racism against “primitive” Europeans would alter our conceptions of race and the world. Given such a tantalizing concept, it’s hard not to be curious about Blonde Roots, but the novel unfortunately shies away from probing the deeper implications of its central idea. It’s more a satirical tale of role reversal than a complicated exploration of racism, and the downside to satire is that it can only do so much.
A comedy, Blonde Roots emphasizes the fact that its characters are living out a tragedy, and in this respect it performs quite well. The novel tells the story of Doris Scagglethorpe (rechristened “Omorenomwara” by her African slavemasters), an enslaved, white European, “house wigger” who attempts to escape from bondage only to become captured again. Yet rather than highlight the disturbing or tragic aspects of this scenario, Evaristo plays it mostly for laughs. For example, take this passage, in which Doris describes her position as a slave:
The terms of my engagement stipulated that it was a job for life, that my hours should run from Monday to Sunday, 12 a.m. to 11:55 p.m. daily, although I needed to be available to do overtime when required. I would receive an annual wage of nothing with an added bonus of nothing for good behavior but to expect forfeits in the form of beatings for any insolence, tardiness or absences.
Luckily, I was only knocked about a bit in the early days as part of my in-service training when my work report read: Attendance 100%, Punctuality 100%. Motivation 10%. Could work harder . . .
Funny? Yes. Thought-provoking? No, because in many respects, the novel never rises above the level of facile role reversal and simple word games (e.g., using Africanized names such as “Londolo” and “Green Wi Che” for London and Greenwich, England, respectively) to reveal what would be unique, or better still, interesting about an African-based system of slavery. And while there is nothing inherently or essentially wrong about the cleverness on display in this book, in a literary landscape dominated by the likes of Percival Everett, Ishmael Reed, and Zadie Smith—all authors who address the complexities of race while simultaneously including pathos, comedy, and philosophy—to simply tell pun after pun in hopes that jokes alone will induce deep reflection is to sell one’s audience, as well as one’s comedic talents, extremely short.
In those moments when Evaristo focuses less on tongue-in-cheek witticisms, her work becomes intellectually and theoretically alive. There is an interesting paradox to the anti-racist message here: Evaristo seems to require distance in order to really get her point across. Her depiction of how racialization works is most adept when she recasts herself as the devil’s advocate and argues against the very epistemological points she wants to make.
Evaristo gets a chance to play devil’s advocate in Book Two, which is narrated by Doris’ slavemaster, Chief Kaga Konata Katamba (KKK—get it?), with Books One and Three narrated by Doris the slave. By shifting from Doris’ perspective to that of Katamba’s, Evaristo illustrates how racism is more than the simple hatred of others because of the color of their skin. Racism is also a complex ideology, a belief system that revolves around a superior/inferior axis wherein the color of your skin marks you as either culturally superior or inferior, no matter what. In other words, Evaristo’s attempts to provide a rationale for Katamba’s racist views unearths something important: slavery, and the racism which grew along with the transatlantic slave trade, requires a system of beliefs and practices, a way of looking at the world that institutionalizes and reifies the idea of intrinsic, fundamental, and permanent difference.
A good example of this is when Katanga describes the European coast. While some of the countries he mentions are easier to recognize than others, the real takeaway here is that in our own world there are African countries that were named by Europeans who, rather than follow their common tradition of denoting a region according to tribal affiliation (take Denmark, England, France, Poland, or Serbia, for example), named regions according to the commodities found there. Furthermore, because the quote describes Europe according to its commercial aspects instead of its historical, cultural, or socio-political ones, it’s exactly as an entrepreneurial racist would think of the continent:
Slavers had just arrived or were getting ready to set sail for the various coasts of Europa: the Coal Coast, the Cabbage Coast, the Tin Coast, the Corn Coast, the Olive Coast, the Tulip Coast, the Wheat Coast, the Grape Coast, the Influenza Coast and the Cape of Bad Luck.
In scenes such as this, Blonde Roots manages to pack some complexity, highlighting the injuries that centuries of race-based thought have left us. In fact, the book is at its most interesting when it attempts to portray the racist views of certain characters. But aside from these moments, the novel does little to add anything new to our now inter-generational conversation on race, and because it doesn’t, it’s ultimately a disappointing read. There is something to be gained from reading Blonde Roots—the lesson that slavery is dehumanizing and horrific, and no people or culture should have to endure it. But sadly enough, this is one lesson also we all already know.
Rone Shavers is coeditor of Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System. His fiction has appeared in ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, keepgoing.org, Milk magazine, and Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas. His nonfiction has appeared in BOMB magazine, the Los Angeles Reader, and Mosaic literary magazine, among others.
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