Set in Ghana and America, Malcolm Frierson’s debut novel, A Place In the World, explores the often difficult issue of race and its influence on American society.
Kwame, the man at the center of the novel, is a brilliant university professor, who is passionate about his African roots. With his wife Evelyn, Kwame travels to Ghana, where the couple spends a year, while they wait to adopt a child. Along the way, Kwame becomes romantically involved with his teaching assistant, Layla, and eventually divorces his wife. Evelyn returns to America with their adopted son, Kofi, and marries Brian – a white man who is a brother to one of her best friends. Kwame, meanwhile, marries his new love.
Growing up in America, the young Kofi learns to navigate the simmering tensions between his two families, even as he deals with his own anxieties, which threaten to ruin what is, otherwise, a life full of promise.
Kwame expects his adopted son to grow up in his own image – proud of his African heritage and determined to stand up for his pride. Evelyn on the other hand, wants nothing to do with Kwame’s extremist positions about race.
As the story unfolds, Frierson teases out the issues of race in modern America through the lives of the characters involved. On the one hand, are people like Kwame, for whom race defines everything, and for whom life is either black or white. But Frierson is careful to show us that such extremism exists on both sides of the color divide. The story of Mr. Griffin, the white elementary school teacher, who racially baits Kofi is a case in point. In a particularly disturbing incident, Mr. Griffin seeks to make a spectacle of Kofi (then aged 10) in front of his classmates by casting him as an African cannibal – an experience that leaves the young Kofi feeling confused and unprotected.
“He had to tell someone. His mother, Evelyn, was one of the most popular teachers at the school. Every weekday, during their drive home from school, Kofi and his mom shared their highs and lows of the day. Today, young Kofi would talk about Mr. Griffin making a spectacle of him. But wasn’t it possible that his mother would be terribly disappointed in his acting just like his father? Kofi had heard his mother scold Kwame many times for his foundationless charges against white professors, business owners and politicians. He couldn’t risk losing his mother’s love as his father had, by being mad at any white person. He would wait to share news of his discomfort in Mr. Griffin’s class just until the weekend, when he would spend time at his father’s home. Kwame would understand, he figured. But wouldn’t his father also be furious with him for succumbing to ridicule instead of daring to speak up on behalf of his African homeland?”
On the other hand, again, mostly through the experiences of the young Kofi, we see race play out in unexpected ways. The young black kids with whom Kofi attends school are mean to him in ways that remind us of Mr. Griffin. In contrast, when he moves to a new school – this time a predominantly white school, the kids are much more respectful and friendly.
Ultimately, while race is, no doubt, a major theme in this commendable debut, Frierson manages to produce a book that is also so readable – combining great storytelling with unrelenting pace and tension.
A Place in the World was published in 2011 by Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers. The author is a doctoral candidate in African American history at the University of Memphis.