(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Dahomean: An Historical Novel traces the life and times of Nyasanu, the second son of an influential village chief in Dahomey named Gbenu. Gbenu is a thoughtful chief aware of the pitfalls of his rank. Nyasanu is a rebel at heart, particularly opposed to the custom of polygamy. He marries a beautiful young woman named Agbale who is brave and loyal.

Before long, the domestic bliss is interrupted by a war against the Maxi tribe, a rather inept foe. Both Nyasanu and Gbenu serve in this campaign under the leadership of King Gezo; Gbenu is killed. A hero, Nyasanu succeeds his father in rank and position, shunting aside the first son, Gbochi, a weak man who lacks leadership qualities.

Life becomes ever more complicated for Nyasanu, now the village chief. His first wife dies in childbirth. He marries for a second time, mating with a more stubborn and thoughtful woman who becomes strongly loyal to him. A further complication develops when King Gezo gives one of his daughters to Nyasanu as a reward for his exploits in battle. Nyasanu accepts Princess Yekpewa against his better judgment. Nyasanu is aware that, as one of no royal blood, he cannot command Princess Yekpewa to do anything, and her presence will inevitably cause jealousy and discontent among his other wives. In all, Nyasanu has seven wives, two of whom are inherited from his father.

Between the responsibilities of office and his private concerns, Chief Nyasanu is treading on very shaky ground. When Princess Yekpewa and Nyasanu are wed, he discovers that she is not a virgin, having committed incest with her half brother. As Nyasanu rises to power as the governor of the province, a position known as “Gbonugu,” his fate is rapidly being sealed.

Ultimately, Nyasanu is betrayed by his half brother Atedeku, a self-centered prince, and Princess Yekpewa. In his status as governor, Nyasanu is far removed from his constituents. As a gesture of good faith and humility, Nyasanu erects a virtually indefensible home near the outskirts of his village. He is consequently captured by a tribe of warring Africans who sell him into slavery. As the novel ends, Nyasanu, now known as Wesley Parks, declares his intention to tell his story of life in slavery one day. That story became the sequel to The Dahomean entitled A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest, published in 1979.

The Dahomean Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Benson, Joe. “Frank Yerby.” In Southern Writers, edited by Robert Bain, Joseph M. Flora, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979. Presents an overview of Yerby’s life and career and would serve as a good general introduction. Specifically notes that Yerby’s historical novels are an “attempt to correct the reader’s historical perspective on the themes of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.” A brief bibliography follows the discussion.

“Frank Yerby.” In Modern Black American Fiction Writers, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. Broad overview of Yerby’s life and work, commenting on his contribution to the field of African American literature.

Graham, Maryemma. “Frank Yerby: King of the Costume Novel.” Essence 6 (October, 1975): 70-71. Argues that Yerby is a unique and neglected talent, particularly with regard to his African American novels.

Jarrett, Gene Andrew. “Introduction: Gene Andrew Jarrett.” In African American Literature Beyond Race: An Alternative Reader, edited by Gene Andrew Jarrett. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Brief essay on Yerby, introducing an excerpt from his fiction that is meant to contribute to a showcase of the complexity and diversity of African American literature.

Turner, Darwin T. “Frank Yerby as Debunker.” Massachusetts Review 20 (Summer, 1968): 569-577. Contends that scholars no longer read Frank Yerby and that many resent him. Notes that Yerby was tried first as a symbol but refused to plead for his race as a token author. For that reason, many of his contemporaries resented him.

Turner, Darwin T. “Frank Yerby, Golden Debunker.” Black Books Bulletin 1 (1972): 4-9, 30-33. Crafty article that describes Yerby’s style in the form of a recipe. Mentions all the elements present in Yerby’s novels that make them best sellers.

Turner, Darwin T. Review of The Dahomean, by Frank Yerby. Black World 21 (February, 1972): 51-52, 84-87. Says that The Dahomean is Yerby’s most satisfying novel; as a record of an astonishing time and people, it captures readers’ attention. Notes that readers who have devoured Yerby will find many familiar elements; except for the blackness of his skin, the protagonist resembles earlier Yerby heroes. Unlike most Yerby heroes, however, he is not an outcast seeking position.