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September 05, 2003

The Dahomean

On my Favorite Novels list, there’s a book called The Dahomean, penned by the late Frank Yerby and published in 1971. I first read this novel as a teenager, picking it up in after both of my parents had finished with it. (They learned to watch the quality of reading material that they brought into the house, because, sooner or later, I would get around to reading it, whatever it was.)

The novel, set in the early 19th century, starts out with two white Maryland farmers heading home after they have purchased an African slave, whom they dub Wesley Parks--a corruption of his given name, Nyasanu Hwesu. The rest of the novel is set in the kingdom of Dahomey and is a chronicle of the life of the former free man.

It is simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It’s honest, forthright, unflinching, exciting, romantic and, ultimately, of course, tragic.

Yerby doesn’t sugarcoat the Dahomeans. They are products of their time and their rigid, ritualistic culture; they are believers in vudun (voodoo), polygamy, wife-inheritance, ritual slaughter and are frighteningly war-like. They are greedy, craven, lustful, stupid and vengeful. Dahomey’s rulers are particularly brutal.

They are also brilliant, kind, generous, tender, heroic and filled with love. Some also find particularly ingenious ways of circumventing the bounds of their inflexible culture and society.

In addition, it is made quite clear that Africans sold their brethren into the slavery that we now all deplore; to each other, to the Arabs, to the Europeans and to the Americans.

One of the main reasons that this novel has remained in my consciousness—besides its high quality--was that, outside of the short first chapter, it is the only novel that I know of that features indigenous Africans alone. I have no problems with such works as The Covenant, Out of Africa, I Dreamed of Africa or The Poisonwood Bible. I simply find it curious, that, since the publication of The Dahomean, there have been no major Western works, either in print or on screen, that portray a given African tribe/kingdom/nation in and of itself. (The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a contrasting example of this.)

Over the years, I have often thought that this novel should be made into a movie, but I wonder what the reaction would be. In this politically correct era, I doubt whether such a book could have been published by a major publishing house, much less adapted for the screen. (I suspect that, unless such a film were perfectly made, the fit would hit the shan; not only because of the Dahomeans' cultural practices, but also because of their unyielding scorn of homosexuality and homosexuals.) These Africans are depicted warts and all. In other words, they’re depicted as human.

The great Mr. Yerby put things much more eloquently than I, in his “Notes to the Reader,” at the front of his masterpiece:

The thoughtful reader will observe that the writer has not attempted to make the Dahomeans either more or less than what they were. He is aware that truth is an uncomfortable quality; that neither the racist, the liberal, nor the advocates of Black Power and/or Pride will find much support for their dearly held and perhaps, to them, emotionally and psychologically necessary myths herein.
So be it. Myths solve nothing, arrange nothing. But then, as the protagonist of this novel is driven in the end to put it, perhaps there are no viable solutions or arrangements in life for any of the desperate problems facing humanity in an all too hostile world.

If you can find it, buy it.

UPDATE: It appears that I have sent Mr. Yerby a posthumous birthday gift. He was born on September 5, 1916 in Augusta, GA. He died on November 29, 1991 in Madrid, Spain.

Posted by at September 5, 2003 10:02 PM

I thought I was the only African-American "Boomer" who was a Frank Yerby fan.It was great to read your comments on this site.

I haven't read the Dahomean in years but I am going to again.

Peace, dynahhh

Posted by: dynahhh at August 18, 2004 01:22 AM
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