Graphic novel raises questions about the making of history

A graphic novel by Professor of History Trevor Getz features an unlikely heroine. Abina Mansah is an enslaved girl who lived in 19th century West Africa, the kind of person whose story is often missing from history. But her fight for freedom takes center stage in "Abina and the Important Men."

A sample page showing illustrations from the graphic novel

A page from the graphic novel "Abina and the Important Men" by professor of history Trevor Getz with illustrator Liz Clarke.

Getz collaborated with South African illustrator Liz Clarke to produce the book, a mix of graphic novel and tool for teaching history. Powerful illustrations depict the life of a young woman living in colonial West Africa who was enslaved, but escaped and took her former master to court.

The story behind this unusual publication began almost a decade ago. Getz was poring through legal archives in Ghana, researching his first book about the social history of slavery in West Africa.

"I must have looked through 130 court transcripts, but when I read Abina's case it was like she was shouting out of the pages to me," Getz said. "Her petition in the courts was so personal. It was about making her voice heard. I owed it to Abina to let her voice be heard."

The experience challenged Getz to focus on the history of an individual rather than on the experiences of a larger social group. He decided to produce what he calls a "graphic history" based on the court transcript in which Abina Mansah appeared.

Book jacket for the graphic novel

In addition to telling a story, the book raises questions about the process by which history is made. "The book is about silences and voices," Getz said. "Historians not only investigate the past; they interpret the past and make judgments, and there are silences in terms of what gets left out of history."

Following the graphic interpretation of Abina's life, the book includes the court transcript and a study guide inviting readers to consider the way historians interpret the past.
"If we really believe in the value of critical thinking, we have to change the way we teach history," said Getz. He designed the book as a tool to teach students, from K-12 to graduate level, how to interpret the past, move beyond their assumptions and to see issues from all angles. "If we teach these skills in history, it will equip students to be citizens."

"Abina and the Important Men" was published today (Sept. 2) by Oxford University Press. A book launch event will be held at Fantastic Comics in Berkeley on Sept. 18 at 4 p.m. For more information about the book, including classroom resources for teachers, visit

-- Elaine Bible