DECEMBER 4, 2018
AT THE START of Book of Addis: Cradled Embers, a porcelain bowl shatters. The narrator tells us, of Dido, “she know it beginning.” The reader, already inside the Great House, intuits that this it is some sort of rebellion. That all before this opening line, there has been covert organizing, and that at this moment, there might be men somewhere armed and ready to advance. Instead, there is just Dido, in the kitchen, preparing her second pot of rabbit stew — this one untampered — for the Burken family. Dido stirring the pot while Master Burken chokes on his own breath, shards of porcelain and remnants of the first stew scattered at his feet. For Dido, seeking to protect her daughter from Burken, this one act does little in her favor, but its consequences ripple for generations.
Written in what the author, Brooke Obie, has described as “18th Century Black Diasporic vernacular,” Book of Addis is set in a mirrored United States. The Great War was waged to free Amerika from status of colony and William Henry Burken Jr. is the first president. In this land of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a woman named Rit Greene operates a network of safe houses called The Tunnel to free Black people (ojis) from slavery. The heroine here, though, is Addis, a 17-year-old girl with a story partly inspired by Oney Judge, a woman who escaped George Washington and lived her life thwarting his attempts to kidnap her. For Addis, though, it won’t be enough to secure her freedom alone. Descendant of Dido and of Taddy, women who strategize to protect themselves and their daughters from plantation masters, and student of Rit, Addis takes on a revolutionary mission toward her own full humanity and the liberation of her people.
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression,” wrote the Combahee River Collective. From Harriet Tubman to Claudia Jones, the Combahee River Collective, and the present moment, Black women have long articulated an intersectional analysis as a way toward liberation. Within this story of insurrection, Book of Addis builds a narrative around what it means for Black women to be free from these systems of oppression (namely, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy). The novel shifts its close third-person point of view among a cast of characters: white men and women who are allies or adversaries, Black men challenged by Black women’s autonomy or leadership, and Black women who care for, protect, and mentor each other.
The key to executing a story that so seriously incorporates scholarship is the interiority Obie affords each character. Haynes, the overseer, is humanized through flashbacks to his childhood. While Burken Jr. enjoys evenings of “reading and propriety” with his father, the impoverished Haynes is trained to set aside his discomfort with violence. His father pushing him to beat those enslaved by the Burkens is for the purpose of his survival: “You think these falootin folks gonna hire you to do anything but overseeing? How you think you’re gonna feed yourself when I aint here?” In humanizing him, Obie isn’t excusing his behavior, but showing how this violent system is sustained, not through exceptional monsters, but in disempowered people trying to survive it. In his adult years, the discomfort doesn’t fully leave Haynes (he self-harms as a way to cope) but he also finds pleasure in the violence, developing creative ways to enact it. Even as Haynes recognizes his relationship with Burken Jr. is no different than that of a “gentleman’s bond with him rabid dog,” he remains loyal to whiteness while other characters make sacrifices to reject it.
Key to Addis’s journey toward freedom is a white French woman, Sabine Duvernay, the niece of Mistress Burken who’s been married off to Scott Hamilton as part of an exchange of political alliance between the North and Burken Jr. (representing the South). Covertly, Sabine supports The Tunnel with money and with space in her home. For Duvernay, rejecting whiteness is a matter of morals. As she explains to Addis, “I love my family. It does not mean I must live as they do. I love my soul too. More, even.” However, Duvernay struggles in her allyship, conflating her own struggle of being in an arranged marriage with the struggle of those she supports. It is a character flaw meant specifically to critique white women who identify as allies. In her final scene, Sabine arrives in Meroë, the community of free Black people where Addis is being hidden. Again, asserting that she is “slaved” to her husband, Sabine begs to join them. Here the narrative loses all subtext, as one of the group leaders ignores this woman in need of help, choosing instead to speak to the larger political realities: “Your money help corrupt it. Maybe your voice help right what never been right. Clean your house fore you come crawl to ours. Work with your own people to end what they done destroyed. That be the way we work together.”
In writing a book about Black resistance during slavery, Obie is writing into a space that has been deliberately neglected and distorted by dominant society. Like other politically conscious writers, an awareness of duty and responsibility motivates the work. How do we destroy this oppressive world and create a newer, freer one? How do we create and maintain the archive as it is being destroyed? How do we honor those who came before us? The challenge, however, is to not overcompensate for the overwhelming white supremacist narratives and depictions through romanticized images.
Meroë, where Addis is rescued to, is a sort of utopia. Though Addis’s presence (and the bounty on her head) reveals a weakness in the community: “[A] $50,000 reward? That could buy off any weakling itching to curry favor with the state, be a hero to the no-color nation, calm down they fears with a see, all menors aint the same!” Meroë is otherwise remarked upon with idyllic qualities. As it’s described from one character’s point of view:
She love the blacks and browns and tans and creams of the people. Even the ojis like Kosi who been born with all the color drain out they skin and hair, Goliwe find so beautiful, like all of Afrika come to life in Meroë. It were something sweet to her, something she treasure, something that lift her up to see so many glorious people. Good people she live among. It were a easy life, where nets set up in the rivers and fish to feed the whole village just jump right in em. Don’t even take but two folks to watch it during the days and nights. Leave so much time for folks to do what they want in the plentiful season.
In this place where Albinos are safe (a seeming counter to the present-day harassment they experience in some African nations), so too does there exist a sort of gender liberation: “All the peoples do what feel right. Some call theyself mens some call theyself womens some call theyself everything and nothing at all. Don’t matter none to nobody.” It’s a blip of a moment. Hardly do we get any insight or context for how this sort of liberation was achieved or get close to Lotanna, the one named character who is free enough to call herself what feels right. Too easily then, can a reader assume this freedom is a consequence of living in a racially homogenous community — that in freeing themselves from white domination, Meroë was also alleviated of other forms of oppression.
Elsewhere, Obie interrogates this idea of romanticized African pasts. Addis’s given name is Adaeze, an Igbo name meaning daughter of a king, so too, does her grandmother claim royalty. Dido, who was born in Eboeland, reminds her daughter Taddy that she is the daughter of a king. When Taddy, seeking to understand what a king is, asks if the role is similar to Master Burken, Dido closes the conversation with a no. Though Dido has the final word, it’s Taddy’s question that allows consideration for what the status of king means in contrast to the liberation movement Dido will partly inspire. Similarly, when Addis begins to feel a sense of personal freedom, she is ready to discard both the name given to her by Burken and the one bestowed upon her revolutionary act. She is ready to claim Adaeze as a free woman subject to neither the dehumanization of slavery nor her elevation as leader. It’s within these moments, that the book begins to tease out what a revolutionary identity is.
No sort of liberation consciousness is needed to desire personal freedom. We can look to the contradictions of the US quests for independence from Britain while maintaining slavery. We can also look to Africans kidnapped during the transatlantic slave trade. As Saidiya Hartman points out in her memoir, Lose Your Mother:
Clashes between masters and slaves were routine. But don’t imagine the raised fist of disgruntled and exploited workers, or the righteous indignation of the wretched, or the commoner’s bawdy songs of protest and derision, or the collective rage of the downtrodden; be prepared for the complaints of the entitled and the boasts of the superior. […] A young woman, “filled with ideas of her former greatness,” shrugged off the command of her mistress: “I was much greater in Guinea than you are here. I had many more slaves in my service than you have. Now you expect me to be your slave? I would rather die of starvation.” Others jumped from hills, hanged themselves, and drowned in the ocean.
Though Addis’s status as hero and leader is incidental, it’s during her time with Rit that she fully distills this difference between liberation and freedom. Rit tells Addis her story, starting from the moment she married a free man, thinking he would help her attain freedom. But he doesn’t share her dream, so she makes her way to freedom on her own. As she becomes a liberator, expanding her idea of freedom, she holds on to hope that her husband might change his mind. He doesn’t, and so she let’s go of her fantasy of him. Neither Rit nor Addis seeks to be martyrs, but to be loved as human while they struggle for freedom. In Addis’s romantic life, it’s Ekwueme who holds the fantasy: “He knowing when he first see Addis that he were going to love her as long as he were breathing.” But when she tells him she’s no longer following his plan for escape, but instead following her mother to accompany Burken Jr. to Philadelphia, Ekwueme’s jealousy is revealed. “You will be his,” he tells her, to which she reminds him of their shared social position, “I am already his. And so are you.” But he is not moved, and eventually she retorts, “I aint yours. I aint nobodys. You lose skin for me, sure enough, but you aint bought me with it and I aint going from Burken’s slave to yours and calling that freedom.”
It’s the interconnectedness of liberation. To be liberated means to be free in all aspects of life, to maintain this freedom in ways that don’t rely on anyone else’s subjugation. Book of Addis is not about a single act of insurrection, but about the web that revolution is: a web of resistance, from the kitchen to the battlefield, with Black women at its nexus.