"Ama": Exploring Identity in a Comprehensive Neo-Slave Narrative
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Manu Herbstein’s neo-slave narrative Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade provides readers with a comprehensive look at the life of an enslaved person, ranging from the enslavement process, the Middle Passage, life as an enslaved person, and the effects of slavery on both the enslaved and enslavers. One of the most important aspects discussed is that of identity, which Herbstein explores throughout the book and which I shall discuss here.
While other neo-slave narratives such as Beloved, Kindred, Cambridge, and Dessa Rose present powerful personal accounts of the horrors of slavery, none come close in capturing the individual and societal effects of slavery including violence, degradation, dehumanization, and post-traumatic stress. Furthermore, Herbstein’s work examines the economic causes and effects of slavery from an individual level to an international one. Incredibly, the author does all this in 387 pages.
Indeed, Ama addresses these factors in often brutal detail, providing one of the most comprehensive depictions of the Atlantic slave trade. Oluyomi Oduwobi’s discussion of Ama’s depiction of rape and Oduwobi’s postcolonial approach to examining the novel shows the narrative’s depth and breadth in examining the Atlantic slave trade. As Oduwobi explains, “Postcolonial literary theory largely refers to the manner in which race, identity, gender, culture and ethnicity are presented in the present epoch” (101). Ama discusses these elements of postcolonial theory with identity serving as one of the book’s focal points. Herbstein details both individual identity and collective identity in Ama, showing slavery’s effect on both.
Ama examines identity through culture, including Ama, her eventual husband Tomba, and the slaves around her. Ama struggles to hold onto her cultural identity throughout the book, appeasing to her ancestors despite her inability to give them proper tribute. Ama finds relief on the plantation when she is able to join some of the other enslaved persons in a religious ceremony, “This was the first time Ama had danced since landing on the soil of Bahia. She relaxed and lost herself in the music” (Herbstein 341). Ama is rejuvenated by her ability to participate in African culture again. Conversely, the Tomba character presents a fascinating examination of someone deprived of culture since Tomba is raised in solitude and has at best, a limited cultural identity. Slavery’s impact on collective identity and the danger of losing one’s cultural identity is emphasized when Ama is told, “But above all, we must preserve ourselves, our own beliefs and customs” (Herbstein 326). As discussed in class, enslaved persons did lose their cultural identity and Herbstein identifies the importance of retaining cultural identity.
Gender identity plays a role throughout the novel as Ama defies societal norms concerning gender roles in order to survive. Ama is subject to oppression on many levels including oppression due to being a woman. This is seen early on in the novel when Ama laments her upcoming marriage to the much-older Satila. Forced into an arranged marriage, she nonetheless takes on Itsho as her lover. Thus, gender identity is linked with sexual identity as men and women have clear-cut roles in the bedroom. Ama again defies societal norms when she takes on the young king Kwame Panin as her lover, seducing him and defying traditional female gender roles of women as passive participants in sexual encounters. Ama’s defiance of societal norms concerning gender leads to her revelation that women are capable as men. When Ama is “complimented” for “…the quality of your mind. It is unusual in a woman” (Herbstein 343), she replies, “Women can think as well as men if you would only give us half a chance” (Herbstein 343). Ama recognizes the limitations imposed on women, but she defies these whenever possible, whether it is her role in the bedroom or her others perceive her in terms of intellect.
Racial identity is a complex topic and Herbstein shows that there is not only bias between whites and blacks, but bias between blacks from different geographical regions. Herbstein presents the idea that blacks’ differences with one another are superficial, but that whites are able to exploit them, allowing them to manipulate and control them. Whites’ biases amongst one another as Herbstein details animosities between the English, the Irish, and the Portuguese. Ama and her fellow enslaved persons eventually realize why they are “so easy to control” (Herbstein 342), “…because we are divided amongst ourselves. We are suspicious of one another, Akan of Angolan, Yoruba of Hausa” (342). Nonetheless, Ama and her colleagues also realize, “…there are some things that unite us all. That we are Africans that we are black” (342). The complexity of racial identity plays an important part in the slave trade and Oduwobi examines it masterfully.
Herbstein’s exploration of individual identity is best explained late in the book when Ama is asked who she is and explains, “…I am a human being, I am a woman; I am a black woman; I am an African. Once I was free; then I was captured and became a slave, but inside me, I have never been a slave, even today, inside here, and here, I am still a free woman” (Herbstein 314). Ama clearly notes her identity in terms of her humanity, her gender, her culture, her race, and her geographic identity. It is important to note she does not identify as a slave. I argue this classifies her as a survivor rather than a victim of the various personal violence imposed on her.
Identity is explored thoroughly in Ama, just one of many elements of Herbstein narrative concerning the Atlantic slave trade. Herbstein’s rich analysis of identity is just one of slavery’s many elements he explores in depth, making Ama an extraordinary neo-slave narrative.
Herbstein, Manu. Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Manu Herbstein; PublishDrive edition, 2018.
Oduwobi, Oluyomi. “Rape victims and victimisers in Herbstein's Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade.” Tydskrif vir Letterkunde; 2017, Vol. 54 Issue 2, p100-121. EBSCO Host. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.proxy.buffalostate.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=c1511ba5-810f-4e29-9db3-06b4b28ce46b%40pdc-v-sessmgr06. Accessed 23 Oct. 2018.