Blonde Roots (Bernardine Evaristo)

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No, this book isn’t about hair.  This is the other kind of Roots (note the italics)…except Evaristo has flipped the script.  What if, in some alternate reality, blacks had enslaved whites?  What – if anything – would be different?  And before you ask, this isn’t some alt-right “reverse racism” fantasy.  Rather, Evaristo shows that while certain details may differ, swapping skin colors really doesn’t change much.  Oppression is still oppression, and looks essentially the same – i.e., brutal and violent.

Evaristo’s alternative world is not quite ours;  she has tweaked the geography somewhat to make her story work.  But the cultures referenced are broadly similar.  First there is the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa (or the “UK”), which is a world power and clearly England – but located at the Equator and what we would call culturally African (“blak”).  Europa, roughly the same shape as real-world Europe, is south of Great Ambossa, much poorer and less technologically advanced, and provides “whytes” for the slave trade.  Whytes are enslaved in both Great Ambossa and West Japan (representing the Caribbean), where there are vast sugar cane plantations.  The sugar cane, of course, is used to make rum.  I.e., the “Triangle Trade,” just like in the real world.

(Evaristo even has a parallel for Columbus believing he had reached India when he landed in the New World.  “West Japan” is not really Japan, of course.  But the Ambossan explorer who discovered the islands thought he was in Japan.  Thus, West Japan.  Thus, the “Indians.”)

The main character is Doris Scagglethorpe – slave name, Omorenomwara – an English woman who was taken from her family as a child by a slaver.  When the story opens, Doris is enslaved to Chief Kaga Konata Kotamba (KKK…hmmm) – or as she has to call him, Bwana, Ambossan for “master” – in Londolo, the capital of Great Ambossa.  Doris has a plan to escape on the Underground Railroad (which, in this world, is actually an abandoned subway system under the city).  This ultimately fails, and she’s sent away to one of Kotamba’s plantations in West Japan as punishment.  Along the way, her history, and what happened to the rest of her family, is told in flashbacks.

Despite the name, this is not a satire of Roots per se.  For one thing, it’s only about Doris, not multiple generations of people.  And at least nowadays, we generally expect satire to be funny, albeit sometimes darkly funny.  There are certainly moments of dark humor in Blonde Roots.  (One definite reference to Roots is when Doris’ father holds her up to the night sky and names her at her birth.)  But like any slave narrative, it’s more often horrific and violent.  And I mean really violent (in stark contrast with the lighthearted cover art).

Not just the violence, but all the other familiar features of slavery are here too, even if Evaristo’s slaves are white.  In fact it was so familiar, it was sometimes difficult to remember the characters were white.  (An American mind – well, really a white Western mind – so associates slave narratives with black skin, it will fill in the blank incorrectly left to itself.)  Let me give you a rundown.  Believe me, you’ll recognize everything.

Doris had three children by her lover Frank.  They were all sold away.  As was Frank.  Whytes are forced to take Ambossan names and never use their Europane ones.  They’re told that their natural characteristics, like straight hair, are ugly and unnatural.  Thus, in the city, free whytes who want to fit in can get nose-flattening jobs and curl their hair.

Ambossans justify the slave trade by convincing themselves they are really helping the whytes by lifting them out of savagery.  They’re also terrified of slave revolts, and mulattos are everywhere, because the blak masters can’t keep their hands off the whyte women.

Whytes, especially in West Japan on the plantations, have created a new culture of their own – a fusion of Ambossan culture and their own cultures from the “old country.”  Their specific ethnic backgrounds – English, Belgian, etc. – fade with every new generation born in slavery, and of course the Ambossans just see them as “whyte.”

You get the idea.

Probably the best example of the fusion of the two cultures is the whyte slaves’ religion, which is a mixture of Ambossan polytheism with Christianity.  Doris attends a service, much of which is loud rhythmic drumming – so loud they can hear it up at the plantation, which is precisely the point – and speaking in tongues.  When it comes time for communion, however, they close the doors and have the intimate, silent moment to themselves.  Doris, unlike the whytes born in slavery, dislikes the loud, rhythmic music and finds the tongues to be phony, preferring instead the staid organ music of her home country.  Because, well duh.  Anytime you force your culture on someone, they are going to resent it.  (And speaking from personal experience as a musician, forcing music on someone will do this even more, because music is so directly emotional.  Want to ensure someone will despise some kind of music for the rest of their lives?  Force it down their throat and insist the music they love is shit.  Which is one reason I just cannot stomach contemporary Christian music.  It’s a long story.)

Evaristo’s parodies of traditional stereotypes are clever and sometimes lighten the mood slightly.  For instance, Ambossans call Europa the “gray continent” because it rains so much (punning, of course, the “dark continent” line about Africa).  They put on “whiteface” shows with stupid, lazy whyte characters and horrible imitations of…wait for it…morris dancing.  And Ambossans, who wear loincloths, etc., think Europanes are stupid to wear so much clothing, and assume Europane clothes are cut to fit the human form because otherwise the whytes wouldn’t remember what article of clothing goes where.

Because in the end, why would we expect this to be any different?  People are people;  oppression is oppression.  Despite the fantasies of white supremacists, it wasn’t biological or racial destiny that put white Europeans in a position of power and privilege.  It’s easy to imagine things playing out differently.  And if they did, human nature being what it is, why wouldn’t Africans (or any other group of people) with power and privilege have the exact same failings?  Humans with power will abuse it.  Humans with unrestrained power will abuse it even more.  And they tend to do it in predictable ways.  (Speaking of privilege, Doris’ master Kotamba is a hilarious example of it.  Evaristo plays the poor put-upon rich boy perfectly.)

I don’t know if Evaristo’s goal writing this book was to explore this facet of human nature – oppression will inevitably flow from absolute power, no matter the color of the oppressor’s skin – or to point out to white readers how dumb traditional stereotypes of blacks and slavery are by applying them to whites (where, one assumes, white readers would more easily recognize them as ridiculous).  Probably a little of both.  In either case, Blonde Roots ably, and cleverly, does its job.

A side note:  it is obvious to me that Evaristo is British, and I believe an American would have written this book very differently.  Americans seem to forget that there was slavery in Britain too, and conceive of it only in terms of slave ships going from Africa to America.  So I suspect an American would have left out the arm of the triangle going to Great Ambossa and focused the entire book on the plantations.  There’s also no hint of revolution in the colonies, which I think would have been irresistible to an American.  Our colon(ies) rebelled, right?  So of course that’s what colonies must eventually do.  Except, you know, for all the ones that didn’t.

Something I found to be a little odd, but not ultimately bothersome once I thought through it, was the mismatch in technology from place to place.  At times, mostly in Londolo, it seemed to be almost modern (remember the Underground Railroad is an actual subway).  At other times, though, it seemed to be more primitive – as an extreme example, Europa is literally feudal.  That, though, I think was meant to parody the stereotypical image of Africa as primitive.  So I think the “mismatch” was actually just meant to signal the relative prosperity of each area – and of course Londolo, as the capital, would have all the best stuff.

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