I wouldn’t exist if not for the ugly historical fact of slavery.
Somewhere along my family tree, ancestors of mine were traded into bondage, most likely from somewhere in West Africa. And then other forebears wound up on the island of Ayiti—known today as Haiti—where slaves fought for their freedom in the 18th Century. I have no way of knowing what it felt like to be a slave or to fight my way out from someone else’s ownership. Those ideas have fascinated me for a long time, though. In 2013, a video game is going to offer me a glimpse of these time-lost realities.
“Is Haiti going to be in it?” That was the first thing I wanted to know after hearing that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was going to be set in the Caribbean. Before she died seven years ago, my mom used to regale me with stories of how the Haiti she left was a tropical island paradise. I never saw that Haiti and—because the island only ever shows up in the public consciousness during times of disaster— it rarely ever gets portrayed that way. And while I’ve known about Haiti’s slave revolt and 1804 establishment as the first black independent nation since I was a kid, its glorious past is hard to see when the country is so tragically poor and unlucky. I’ve been to Haiti three times, with the most recent visit a little less than two decades ago, and that past was hard for me to find in person, too.
"...I might be traipsing around an island where some Frenchman with my last name owns someone who looks like my father. And that might make me wince a little. "
But I’ll get to see an idealized version of it when Assassin’s Creed IV comes out later this year. When I saw ACIV last week during a preview event, game director Ashraf Ismail told me that there would be missions on the game’s virtual version of Haiti, though he couldn’t tell me specifics about what lead character Edward Kenway would be doing there. Still, I’d get to see representations of the island's shorelines and colonial-era architecture before they got eroded away by time and lack of resources.
The game begins in 1715, when European rule over the island was still firmly established. That means I might be traipsing around an island where some Frenchman with my last name owns someone who looks like my father. And that might make me wince a little. But Ismail also told me that Edward Kenway’s first mate Adewale starts the game as a slave and becomes a free man over the course of the single-player story. Adewale will also be the focus of some of Black Flag's DLC.
Focusing on Adewale and touching on slavery as it might’ve been lived in the early 1700s moves the racial portrayal forward from last year’s Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. The heroine of that Vita game was the child of a slave and had missions where she freed others from servitude. And, with confirmation that Aveline will also be playable in PlayStation-exclusive add-ons for the game, ACIV will have two prominent black characters where so many titles struggle to have even one.
The reason I'm interested in how video games feature black people in big or small roles is to see how the multiplicity of the black experience gets represented, if at all. And when it's in a series like Assassin's Creed, which prides itself on meticulously researched recreations of past centuries, characters like Adewale and Aveline are chances to see how the present reconstructs the past.
Of course, the ACIV excursions into their digital Haiti could be filled with a bunch of voodoo tomfoolery, since that's the only thing that pop culture seems to think Haiti is good for. And, yeah, I am a little mad that this black man and woman don't get to headline their own games, especially since Liberation sold a very respectable 600,000 units. But I'm not going to let that annoyance quash my curiosity.
"...The worst part about having ancestors who descended from slaves is the sense of erasure. No matter how good the record-keeping was throughout the centuries, you know you're going to hit a wall. Parts of the family story will simply be voids. "
No matter what's in the final game, there's a part of me that going to have a sentimental response to being able to sail to Haiti in a video game. And crossing paths with a character who journeys from being another man's property to an unfettered freebooter will undoubtedly tug at my soul as well.
I remember once I asked my mom if she and a friend came over to America on the same boat. She laughed at me. "No, we flew on an airplane."
The worst part about having ancestors who descended from slaves is the sense of erasure. No matter how good the record-keeping was throughout the centuries, you know you're going to hit a wall. Parts of the family story will simply be voids. I'm probably remembering this wrong but I seem recall my mom telling me about her grandfather's chest hair. She remembered laying her head on it as a child and that it was thicker and more wiry than that of other male relatives. She said it was because there was a white man in the lineage a few generations back but never elaborated. Of course, the very idea that there was 19th Century race-mixing in my personal family tree set my heart afire. Was it business that brought these predecessors together? Was it true love? Was it one and then the other? I'll probably never find out.
What Adewale and Aveline can represent is a placebo for those historical voids. It's a placebo made out of popcorn, sure. But these two characters' collective existence manages to soothe nonetheless because it's evidence that creative people see value in an ancestral line like mine. Roll your eyes if you want but entertainment set in the days of yore tends to primarily come in the lighter shades of humanity's spectrum. In an age when it seems like every other video game lets you rampage through New York City streets, Greco-Roman coliseums or Old World Europe analogues, I’m excited to trawl the waters of the Caribbean and pull into the ports of a homeland I'm still trying to know.