Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Nyasanu is one of Yerby’s finest characterizations: His description is based upon historical fact. The Dahomean people were proud, self-sufficient, fierce, and feared warriors. The Dahomean is prefaced with a note to readers stating that all of its historical and sociological aspects are based upon the critically respected anthropological study Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (1938) by Melville J. Herskovits.

Yerby insists that the historical events explored in The Dahomean have a basis in fact and that the details of each characterization are based upon exacting research. Moreover, Yerby succeeds in correcting the generally held belief that slavery was useful—at least useful in exposing the backward peoples of Africa to modern and progressive American culture. On the contrary, Dahomey itself and individuals such as Nyasanu were highly sophisticated; this indigenous culture was decimated by the intrusion of slave traders into the African continent.

Nyasanu is the central figure in the novel, and Yerby spends much time and painstaking description to create the majestic and imposing figure of his protagonist. As Nyasanu passes from youth into young manhood, his physical, intellectual, and leadership qualities are expanded by challenges, difficult and trying circumstances, and exposure to the ambiguities of life in the public eye.

Nyasanu learns well. He becomes a fierce warrior, a gentle lover,...

(The entire section is 518 words.)