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By Lisa J. Long

Sunday, May 22, 2011.

Ancestors  is the result of a painstaking thirteen year search for the authors ancestral history.  As described by Crooks in the fascinating afterward to the novel, his persistence in the almost impossible task of tracing ancestral routes through slave history turned to an all encompassing passion. Crooks was successful in piecing together his fragmented ancestral history and has constructed a family tree dating back to the birth of Ami Djaba in West Africa in 1777. Using the real names of his ancestors, Crooks’ novel is the story of what he imagines they suffered during their lifetime spent on a slave plantation in Jamaica and traces their possible stories over a forty year period from his great –great- great grandfathers capture as a boy in Africa to emancipation in Jamaica in 1838.

The novel begins in August 1798, Crook’s protagonist, a boy squeezed between strangers on a dark and stench ridden slave ship bound for Jamaica develops a mother –son relationship with Ami. The two seek comfort in each other on the miserable and torturous journey, a journey which only two of the three hundred on board survive.  Ami and the boy are separated when they arrive in Jamaica and are sold to work on different plantations but the boy, renamed August, never gives up hope that one day they will be reunited.  

The narrative follows August through his adolescence as he learns how to live as a slave on Crooks Cove plantation. Taken under the wing of another mother figure August learns the language of the slaves, how to work and how to survive by obedience. He never forgets Ami and they are reunited when she is put to work at Crooks Cove several years later with her Mulatto daughter Sarah Brown, born out of rape, free from slavery as the daughter of a slave master but tied to a slave life through her mother.  

As August progresses through adulthood and with a family of his own, thoughts of freedom dominate his mind. His life becomes a long and frustrating journey of false promises, dashed hopes and failed rebellions. Crooks has created strong characters and the women in particular stand out as the backbone of the plantation, maintaining some of the traditional customs, and ultimately suffering through and for the men. Through the stories of the women Crooks uncovers the brutality of slavery describing in unflinching detail the beatings and punishments often leading to death, the rape of slave women by the ‘massa’s’ and surprisingly the often admired maroons role in returning runaways to the plantations.

A strong theme throughout Crooks’ narrative is the complicity of the church in slavery.  Reverend Rose a white missionary is a constant presence in the life of the plantation, with an almost apologetic kindness he develops a fondness for August and teaches him to read, provides him with the weekly newspaper and welcomes slaves into his congregation. The slaves are forbidden from attending sermons by the black pastor Daddy Sharpe as he preaches defiance encouraging rebellion through his sermons and songs ‘we will be slaves no more, since Christ has made us free, he has nailed our tyrants to the cross and bought our liberty’. Rose is a force for calm amongst the slaves discouraging dissent and encouraging patience and prayer as well as discouraging traditional religious practices.  

Crooks has created a pitiable character who does not have the courage of his convictions and uses the bible to justify suffering. This character is used to great effect, embodying the collusion of the church with the system in manipulating slaves into submission.

Crooks brings to life the disappointments and failures to secure freedom so tentatively that it becomes too much for the reader to bear and it as much a relief for the reader as it is for August when emancipation is granted. Crooks is clearly knowledgeable and desperate to impart as much of this to the reader, however this can be a distraction from the story and interrupts the flow of the narrative in places.

Crooks includes a four page chapter which abruptly moves the novel from Jamaica to the House of Commons, England. A dozing William Wilberforce leaves the room as Prime Minister Canning and Lord Buxton debate their respective arguments for and against slavery. This chapter was disconnected from the story and such attempts to impart knowledge within the flow of the narrative made it difficult to stay engaged with in places.  

Despite it being a little overcrowded with fact this is a moving narrative, rich in historical knowledge. What shines through the narrative is Crooks’ need to share the past and bring to life the connection between Diaspora and ancestors so that others may find the connection that has brought him fulfilment. Crooks determination is an inspiration for anybody hoping to uncover an ancestral past and the work is certainly a labour of love.

Lisa J. Long lives in Harrogate, England. 

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