"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
Friday, April 17, 2020
Kruse's Keys: Read "She Would Be King" to Experience Liberia's Birth (Liberia)
In Philip Hitti's History of the Arabs, he highlights the long-standing Arab appreciation for oral story-telling and poetry which they call sihr halal. He further describes this ingrained love for "the rhythm, the rhyme, the music, [which] produce on them the effect of what they call "lawful magic" (sihr halal). " In her debut novel Wayetu Moore channels this idea of lawful magic as she joins magical realist authors like Couto, Martel, and Marquez in her telling of an alternative origin story of the Pepper Coast lands that would become Liberia.
In her novel, Moore has decided to focus not on Liberia's historical realities and details but rather on highlighting the people and ideas that would become Liberia. This shift allows the reader to more thoughtfully ponder the roles of justice, religion, and slavery against the backdrop of the most unique colonialist setting on the continent.
Envisioned as an alternative to the emancipation of black slaves in the United States, the west coast African colony began through the efforts of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1822. Twenty-five years later it would become an independent nation--Liberia. The entire venture was embroiled in controversy as many freed blacks in the United States viewed this as an affront to their efforts and rights to exist in America. That many members of the ACS were prominent white politicians further served to support this viewpoint.
Like all colonization, Liberia's was rife with bloodshed, betrayal, theft, and violence. The initial land purchase was only successful when the US Navy Lieutenant leading the expedition "encouraged" the local tribe leader King Peter to sell them a tract of land at gunpoint. The colony's further expansion came at the expense of the bordering native villages and tribes over the ensuing century.
That history, however, is not the author's focus--instead she has created the story of three superhumans from three groups who eventually made up the country of Liberia. The first is Norman Aragon, the son of a white colonialist and a free Jamaican woman. He inherits his father's pale skin but his mother's ability to disappear and move invisibly. The second is June Dey, the son of an American slave woman and a ghost. He soon discovers that he has superhuman strength and that bullets and blades have no effect on him. The last is the heroine Gbessa who is outcast from a local Vai tribal village after she is proclaimed a witch as a young girl. She soon finds out that while she can be hurt and feel intense pain she cannot die--she is eternal. Moore weaves the tales of these three lives into an intersection that climaxes as they seek the future of a land and country. This beautiful tapestry will leave a lasting impression on any reader--Africanist or not.
*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
See our 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 Reading Lists.
Library of Congress primary source information on ACS and Liberia origins
Powell's Interview: Wayétu Moore, Author of 'She Would Be King'
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore review – magical visions of Liberia
In Wayétu Moore’s Ambitious Debut Novel, Liberia Is Reborn
A SENSE OF GOD: SHE WOULD BE KING BY WAYÉTU MOORE