Few books are pleasantly surprising. Much as we might like to believe that, as readers, we do not prejudge books, all of us do. There are some books that friends or trusted reviewers recommend, which turn out to be as excellent as we’d expected, and others that we just get a feeling for, whether from the cover or the author’s previous work or the book description, and that feeling ends up being justified—neither result is surprising. Still others, however, surprise us unpleasantly by disappointing our expectations. But few novels turn out to be something we hardly expected, and at the same time delight us and make the experience all the more memorable.
Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King was just such a pleasant surprise for me—and a powerful, politically necessary one in the era of #BlackLivesMatter and the continued plundering of Africa’s wealth, when the centuries-long legacy of transatlantic slavery is still viscerally felt in the world’s racial and economic inequalities. Wayétu Moore is a Liberian-born American writer, founder of a non-profit organization promoting literacy in low-literacy nations, and lecturer in Africana Studies at City University of New York’s John Jay College. She Would Be King is her first novel, variously described as historical fiction, neo-slave narrative, and magical realism, but the novel’s brief descriptions available online hide the richness of Moore’s prose style, the beauty of her language, and the resonance of the novel’s fantastic elements with the larger discourse of Afrofuturism.
To call She Would Be King Afrofuturist is likely a stretch in most readers’ eyes, since Moore’s novel is concerned not with futuristic extrapolations of technology in relation to black bodies (the early definition of Afrofuturism promulgated by Mark Dery in the ’90s), but is instead an historical novel about Liberia’s establishment as an independent nation and about the journeys of various Afrodiasporic and African peoples from their indigenous and/or New World communities to the new African nation. Mixed in, is a heavy dose of what seems to be magic—the three main characters each have mystical powers that allow them to survive the tribulations of being black in an era of racial slavery.
She Would Be King is formally unconventional, with early chapters jumping back and forth across the Atlantic, from the indigenous locale of the Vai people in what became Liberia, to antebellum slave plantations in the America South and Jamaica after the Second Maroon War. The novel tells the stories of three strangers whose lives interconnect across the violences of the diaspora: Gbessa, an exiled Vai woman considered a witch by her people; June Dey, the son of a slave and a ghost-woman (Charlotte); and Norman Aragon, a biracial son born from his British father’s rape of a Maroon woman.
The two men escape the Americas and wind up in Liberia, where they meet with Gbessa and discover that they each have special powers; they are separated by attacking French slavers, after which Norman and June travel the Liberian interior protecting villages from the slavers, and Gbessa is brought to Monrovia, where she marries into Liberian high-society. In the interstices of their narratives, Moore slips in occasional first-person narration as the dead enslaved woman Charlotte, now become the wind, whispers to each of the characters and encourages their defense of Liberia.
The powers manifested by Gbessa, June, and Norman each represent aspects of black diasporic survivance in the transatlantic world of the 19th century. For Norman, the ability to disappear and escape detection by slavers; for June, the magnificent strength to fight off and withstand the slavers’ weapons; and for Gbessa, the quintessential ability to simply survive it all, to return to life again and again after witnessing the torturous deaths the slavers enact. They all bear witness to the extreme violences white colonialism metes out against black bodies, and even discover the ways in which white colonialism turns African indigenous groups against one another in the name of greed.
Taking place at this unique moment in African history, Moore shows the shift from local to global thinking in disputes over identity, race, and belonging as they affect the colony and later nation of Liberia. Gbessa, June, and Norman are ultimately Afrofuturist superheroes, African-American folk heroes, and African spirit-people alike, a distillation in contemporary literary novel form of centuries of black diasporic modes of understanding the place of blackness in a world where racial slavery exists, and a storified blending of the African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean identities that made up Liberia in the middle of the 1800s.
I call She Would Be King Afrofuturism becomes it refracts a key and often forgotten aspect of Afrofuturist texts: that they are all meditations on the history of blackness and the legacy of racial slavery insofar as the situation of blackness at any moment in global history after the beginning of the slave trade is always a tension between temporalities, between past pains, present hopes, and future possibilities. Moore’s impressive novel is thus reminiscent of what are, to my mind, the early 21st century’s two most important Afrofuturist texts: N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (2015, 2016, 2017) and Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (2016). The latter is especially resonant with Moore’s novel, since it too is about nation-building in Africa and about the tensions between indigenous Africans and those returned from the diaspora, as well as conflicts with white settlers. Moore thus picks up an important strand in Afrofuturist thinking: the place of the past in present attempts to build black community, to live and reside in a world of colonies and capital.
To reflect for a moment on the title, Gbessa is the she who would be king. She is a stand-in for Africa herself, a continent that might have been a geopolitical king, had its wealth and people not been systematically stolen for centuries, its land not divided by colonizers, its languages not silenced by European and Middle Eastern ones, its ancestral belief systems not throttled by Christianity and later Islam. Gbessa, too, could have been king in a world where women could be rulers, where the Poro warriors and American-influenced former slaves of Liberia’s colonial and early national elite did not think women couldn’t lead.
Gbessa’s story, though, and that of Norman and June—who meets his mother, Charlotte, the wind, for the first time after travelling to Kilimanjaro—retell Liberia’s own story, make its early years as a nation a thing of retrospective Afrofuturist possibility. In this world, Gbessa need not be king, she need only be herself, and in doing so she rallies the exigencies and histories of blackness to remake the world.