Sunday, January 22, 2006

Found it: Commentary on Steven Barnes' "Lion's Blood"

This was the last commentary essay I wrote on black science fiction in college. I posted the others up earlier but couldn't find a copy of this one.

Luckily one of the advantages of liking to play around with linux distros as a hobby is the fact that I change and reinstall operating systems a lot. Which also means I try to keep backups of all my important stuff. Of course, I have to find them first, which was the cause of the original delay.

anyway, without further ado, here it is

With “Lion's Blood”, Steven Barnes attempted to write an alternate history of alternate history of America that raises a lot of incredibly interesting questions. In his alternate world, Africans conquer Rome and are the ones who find America. Since they have all that land and require manpower to farm it, they begin to capture slaves from various parts of Europe. The central characters in this story are Kai, the son of a plantation owner and Aidan, a celtic slave who becomes Kai's best friend. Using both of their perspectives. We are shown a view of slavery as it would have looked had it happened to white people. That premise alone makes this book worth reading. The way Barnes chooses to handle that premise only serves to make the book a more interesting read. It is definitely very disturbing in parts and there are creative decisions he took in constructing his history that I am not necessarily a huge fan of. I am also not especially happy with some of his decisions regarding Kai's character. All of that aside, this is still a good read and a book which should be recommended to any white person claiming slavery was benign or a good thing for black people since Barnes pulls very few punches, especially in the earlier sections of the book.

It is going to be hard for me to discuss themes in this book, not because it isn't full of them but because my reaction to it left me with more than enough questions and issues with the book that, in this case, I thought taking a closer look at the reaction it caused in me might be more interesting. There are several things about the book I find worthy of comment. First is Barnes' description of the middle passage and slavery through Aidan's eyes, a section of the book I think a lot people need to read. Second is his choice of Islam as the religion most of the Africans adopted and some of the interesting turns he takes in exploring religion. There is also his portrayal of Kai and his father as almost benign slave masters in certain places, which I find myself not entirely comfortable with.

The book opens up with a look at Aidan's life in a little village learning how to be a fisherman from his father. We are shown enough of his life and his community for us to realize that he has a good life here. Immediately we grasp that picture, his world is torn apart by vikings with guns who kill his father and several other members of the village before the rest of them, including his mother and sister, are carried off to a larger ship, bound in chains and stacked next to each other like sardines. During the trip, we watch through Aidan's eyes as his friends die and are thrown overboard, his mother is raped and miscarries and the survivors begin to form into a larger family in order to keep each other alive. After arriving in America, his family is split up and sold. He ends up with his mother and his sister ends up by herself. The language in which all of this is described is chosen to be as disturbing as possible, perhaps so white readers of the book, who will already empathize with Aidan's family, gain a clearer understanding of the pain that comes with being in his position.

Religiously, Barnes makes some very interesting decisions and asks some interesting questions. He chooses to have almost all of the Africans be Muslim, except for the Zulus, who are regarded as bloodthirsty savages for the most part. I fail to understand his choice of Islam as opposed to a more traditionally African religious system, even that of the Egyptians. It makes very little sense to create a grand African civilization and then make its religious base an imported religion. However, it is worth noting that the book critiques certain Islamic practices by choosing to make Kai become a sufi an then having him question several Islamic beliefs. Another interesting set of questions is raised by Aidan's view of slaves who leave behind their religions and convert to Islam. In his eyes, it is almost unpardonable that slaves choose to adopt the religion of their oppressors, even though in a lot of cases, it is done to gain extra freedoms for them and their family. Still, it does raise very interesting questions. Since Barnes' beliefs seem to be more in line with eastern religions than christianity, it is easy to see this also as a question about the large numbers of black people all over the world who adopted christianity from slavers and colonizers.

As I mentioned earlier, I have issues with the way Barnes writes about Kai and his father, Ali because he turns them into benevolent slave masters. Ali seemingly believes that his slaves are human beings. He treats them with respect and allows them to practice their beliefs and retain their names. However, they are still his property and several members of the house do seriously maltreat them so his benevolence is highly suspect. I suspect Barnes may have written him in to show the impossibility of the concept of a benevolent slave master who respects the people he considers his property. Kai is probably a lot closer to what a person would truly have to be like in order to be maintain his principles and treat his slaves like real people. In the beginnings if his friendship with Aidan, he sees him as less of a person, almost a pet or plaything. However, as they get older and wiser, he begins to realize that he owns fellow human beings. This leads him to free his slaves at the cost of his social standing. I felt that part of Barnes' point with him was to show that a really benevolent man couldn't own other people even at the cost of most of what he held dear. Although, technically, Kai doesn't lose everything but he is willing to kill his uncle in order to save Aidan and his family. In doing so, he gives of himself a lot more than most people would in his situation and gains very little in return.

“Lion's Blood” is a very interesting and intricate book. Barnes' future history is incredibly well researched and his characters ask questions that I have a hard time answering. It is definitely something I would recommend to anyone interested in taking a look at slavery from a totally different perspective to open up their minds.


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