Book Review of Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo
Riverhead Books, 2009
Paperback, 269 pp., $15
When I (first) read this: January-March 2016
My rating: 5/5 stars
My (spoiler-free) review:
In her provocative 2009 satire Blonde Roots, Bernardine Evaristo turns the transatlantic slave trade on its head and creates an imaginary world of reverse racism where “Aphrikans,” or “blaks,” enslave “Europanes,” or “whytes.” Her role reversals are meticulous and historically accurate to a fault; she uses the voices of a whyte female slave (Doris, renamed Omorenomwara) and the blak slaveholder who dominates her life (Bwana, or Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I) to underscore the absurdity of the race, gender, and class hierarchies that the capitalist institution of slavery violently enforced from the 15th to the 19th century. But the novel does more than simply ridicule these ideologies. Evaristo also frames the surviving social and cultural structures of white supremacy within her subverted racial hierarchy, showing how the arbitrary power dynamics of slavery and colonialism live on today not just as inequalities but also as dehumanizing Eurocentric conventions and stereotypes.
At first glance, the most obvious element of Evaristo’s satire is her reversal of slavery’s racial hierarchy. This is perhaps clearest in Bwana’s pro-slavery pamphlet The Flame. Whereas Doris states that slavery is what divides “the human race” (76), in Bwana’s eyes “The Negro” is “Mankind” while all other races are “Neo-Primate” (124–125). Like 19th-century white supremacist writers, particularly George Fitzhugh and Thornton Stringfellow, Bwana claims that his supposed supremacy is supported by logic. For example, he declares that “Craniofaecia Anthropometry,” the Blonde Roots counterpart to phrenology, proves the inferiority of the whyte race through “systematic” skull measurements (126, emphasis Bwana’s). Similarly, Bwana can define the word “genocide” because he has the power to commit genocide: he declares that Haitian slave rebellions are “genocide” and that slavers thus plan to nobly “eradicate the pesky critturs once and for all” (229). Evaristo’s implication here is not just that racial hierarchies are wrong, but that they are so arbitrary as to have the same authority when applied in the opposite direction, so long as the “superior” group has power. Power, Evaristo asserts, is all anyone needs to present distorted views of the world as facts. (Remind you of anyone?)
My favorite parts of the book are when Evaristo draws attention to the countless racist cultural attitudes that are portrayed as facts by the group in power. Aphrikan names are easiest to pronounce (98); calendars, forks, and handshakes are unnecessary (143, 145, 196); monogamy is “selfish” and privacy is “foreign” (20, 70); funerals should have “official mourners” (139); Ndebele artists are sought after (225); clothing should not be “cut…into the shapes of the human body” (131); “kinky Aphrikan hair” and dark eyes are normal and desirable (30, 132); and the list goes on. One of the most glaringly ironic examples is Bwana’s description of “normal speech” as requiring “c!icks, c!ucks, c!acks and !tsks” (130): this statement is written in English, which Bwana calls “nonsensical” and “dreary” (130), because in reality English is considered to be “normal speech” by much of the world. In this way Evaristo ingeniously uses the very language of her novel to prove her point.
Evaristo also uses dialect writing as an interesting form of cultural critique. This is most apparent in the two versions of Doris’ “Lavender blue” song, the first sung by her in her youth and the second by Sharon years later, when they are enslaved. The former version is written in “proper” English (“Lavender blue, diddle daddle / Lavender green, / When is he king, diddle daddle / You shan’t be queen” (48)), while the latter appears in dialect writing, looking very different on the page (“Lavanda bloo, diddy diddy, Lavanda green, When he is king, diddy diddy, Yu won’t be kween” (247)). But Evaristo cleverly designs her dialect writing so that it sounds like British English when spoken aloud (e.g. “kween” has the same pronunciation as “queen”). This is her way of showing that when the so-called “proper” language shifts from Europane to Aphrikan, its “non-normative” counterpart—here, English—becomes stylized to indicate its difference.
Although Evaristo tackles many heavy issues in Blonde Roots, I think that the most important takeaway from the book is her focus on these small details. She highlights dozens of little seemingly “trivial” remnants of colonialism and reverses them. In doing so, Evaristo demonstrates to her readers that being white is only as “normal” as any society dictates it to be. Her satiric reversal is a brilliant device to make white people (myself included) think more deeply about our own whiteness and what it means in today’s society. Our lives would be vastly different without all those little things–without “small stuff” like beauty standards and arbitrary racist binaries that construct people of color as “other.” It follows, then, that issues like microaggressions and cultural appropriation are nowhere nearly as trivial as many people have made them out to be.
If you’ve already read this book and none of this was news to you, or if you haven’t read it and want to know more, I’d encourage you to check out Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and Aamer Rahman’s Reverse Racism standup routine.