Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, January 18, 2009
By Bernardine Evaristo
Riverhead. 269 pp. $24.95
My only complaint about Bernardine Evaristo's alternate history of racial slavery is that it's 150 years late. Imagine the outrage this clever novel would have provoked alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe's incendiary story or Frederick Douglass's memoir! But now, amid the warm glow of 21st-century liberalism, with our brilliant black president, what could we possibly learn from a new satire of slavery?
Blonde Roots turns the whole world on its nappy head, and you'll be surprised how different it looks -- and how similar. In the reverse-image past that Evaristo imagines, civilized Africans have built a vibrant culture and economy by capturing primitive Europeans and using them as slaves. This ingenious bit of "what-if" speculation provides the backdrop for a thrilling adventure about a "whyte" woman named Doris Scagglethorpe who works as a "house wigger" for Chief Kaga Konata Katamba. (She's branded with his initials: KKK.)
The story dashes off the first page as Doris makes her escape during the annual celebration of Voodoomass. Recapture could mean death by torture for "the crimes of Ungratefulness and Dishonesty," but she's done waiting for freedom. "Deep down I knew that the slave traders were never going to give up their cash cow," Doris tells us. "It was, after all, one of the most lucrative international businesses ever, involving the large-scale transport of whytes, shipped in our millions from the continent of Europe to the West Japanese Islands, so called because when the 'great' explorer and adventurer Chinua Chikwuemeka was trying to find a new route to Asia, he mistook those islands for the legendary isles of Japan, and the name stuck."
Historical anachronisms along with a weirdly distorted geography contribute to the novel's through-the-looking-glass atmosphere. As a rare literate slave, Doris enjoys a privileged position in her master's house, but she snatches a chance to ride Londolo's Underground Railroad -- the city's abandoned subway system -- out of the glamorous "Chocolate City" and into the seedy "Vanilla Suburbs." As we follow her perilous escape, Doris tells us how she was abducted from a poor English cabbage farm where she lived with her parents. She describes the gruesome Middle Passage, during which half her fellow captives expire or are murdered; the vicissitudes of the slave market, where traumatized family members are sold off in different directions; and the rape and humiliation that keep whyte people laboring on the sugar cane plantations. This is, in other words, a story whose basic elements we already know from Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Stowe, Alex Haley, Toni Morrison and others whom Evaristo alludes to throughout Blonde Roots, but even the most colorblind readers will be unsettled by seeing these horrors with the colors reversed.
As always, the values of the dominant culture reflect its power structure; the black master's body and attitudes are the desired norm, even the ideal. "Privacy was a foreign concept to all Aphrikans," Doris says. "They said that the Europane need for solitude was further proof of our inferior culture." An expert explains that "over millennia, the capacious skull of the Negroid has been able to accommodate the growth of a very large brain within its structure. This has enabled a highly sophisticated intelligence to evolve." Are you listening, James Watson?
Standards of attractiveness are similarly upended. Whyte people try to tan themselves into black beauties, and those who can afford it have surgery to flatten their noses. After giving Doris a proper name -- "Omorenomwara" -- her African owner expects her to look respectable, which means wearing her straight blonde hair in plaited hoops all over her head and going barefoot. And topless. As a "fully paid up member of the most loathed race in the history of the world," Doris admits that she has "image issues." Every morning she secretly repeats affirmations that some whyte Steve Biko must have preached: "I may be fair and flaxen. I may have slim nostrils and slender lips. I may have oil-rich hair and a non-rotund bottom. I may blush easily, go rubicund in the sun and have covert yet mentally alert blue eyes. Yes, I may be whyte. But I am whyte and I am beautiful!"
The daughter of an English mother and a Nigerian father, Evaristo is a poet whose previous three novels were written in verse. This time, although she's writing in the colloquial speech of her narrator, she's still extremely attentive to the function of language, the power of words to shape reality. Blonde Roots is spiked with witty cultural references that detail the pervasiveness of racism. As she flees, Doris passes advertisements for "Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner" and "To Sir With Hate." She describes popular minstrel shows in which performers in whyte-face "sang out of tune in reedy voices, their upper lips stiff as they danced with idiotic, jerky movements . . . singing music hall songs about being lazy, lying, conniving, cowardly, ignorant, sexually repressed buffoons."
Evaristo has even reversed the dialects, forcing us to struggle with the plantation whytes' thick patois the way we have to wade through the Nigger Jim's speech in Huck Finn: "Sundays him carve tings fe folk in de quarter an don't charge nuttin but just aks to join famlees fer dinner." Trying to cheer themselves, the slaves sing the old spirituals of their homeland: "Shud ole akwaintaince be forget/An neva bring to mind/Should ole akwaintance be forget/An ole lang zine."
In the middle of Blonde Roots, Evaristo drops in a 50-page essay written by Doris's owner: a "modest & truthful" defense of "The True Nature of the Slave Trade." It's a masterful bit of satire, with a sarcastic nod to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Breathtaking in its self-pity, self-justification and self-satisfaction, this faux memoir is full of the scientific rationales, cultural insights and moral gymnastics that buttressed 19th-century slavery and remain handy for justifying 21st-century liberations of less civilized nations.
In a moving final section that keeps the excitement pounding till the last page, Doris describes the devastating effects of racism on whyte families: fathers turning violent and oversexed; young men devolving into thugs and ignoring the noble models of their ancestors; women working to death, raising children they know they'll soon lose. The whole story is a riotous, bitter course in the arbitrary nature of our cultural values. Don't be fooled; slavery might have ended 150 years ago, but you've still got time to be enlightened by this bracing novel. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.