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Sunday, April 19, 2009

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Many Facets of Raced and Gendered Tele-Identity (Or, Nemos, Nomos and Narrative)

In the new HBO show The No. 1 One Ladies' Detective Agency, based on the book series of the same name, Americans are confronted with what seems for many the multiple improbable identities of the singular subject of the show, Precious Ramotswe. Precious is a middleclass, "traditionally built" (plus sized), Sub-Saharan African woman who works as a detective to mostly middle and upper middle class Africans. She is the fictional creation of 61 year old Zimbabwe-born British white male law professor Alexander McCall Smith and is played by African American woman rhythm and blues singer Jill Scott. Note that that's "Number One", not "No one", a pun that the author likely intended, considering the way in which the heroine of the show reveals herself to a sometimes skeptical public as a definite someone despite being taken on occasion for a gendered and raced no one. Moreover, Precious, with her cheery countenance, her self taught and intuition-driven insights and love for country is a sort of Vernian anti-Nemo (Latin for no one). The numerous race, gender, nationality and class formations at the heart of the show make it unlikely fare for a night time serial.

Precious is the daughter of a tribal elder in a small Botswanan village who, during her childhood, allowed her to be present while he and other elders dispensed justice. In the pilot episode, there is a scene wherein Precious' father adjudicates a dispute between two village men who both claim the same cow. The child Precious, who sits silently watching, suddenly seizes upon an idea: she goes and unties a calf belonging to one of the claimants. The distressed calf runs to its mother, the disputed cow. The message is clear: a calf knows its own mother, and so the undisputed owner of the calf must be the owner of the cow that produced it. The false claimant flees and Precious is congratulated by her father. For all of its pastoral beauty and simplicity the scene is potent in its meaning: wisdom comes from many sources and from many places, and the evidence upon which legal judgments are rendered is often readily apparent to those who have not rejected common sense and knowledge of the natural environment.

Upon his death, Precious' father leaves her his wealth in the form of several head of cattle and a Datsun truck. Precious sells the cattle and takes the Datsun with her to the big city in order to become a lady detective. When asked along the way why she chooses this career, she says "I love my country Botswana". This perhaps strikes some as saccharin in a world where idealism, at least in career choices, is increasingly rare. However, Precious' declaration of love for her country is a touching patria est communis omnium parens (our native land is our common parent) moment, a hopeful mantra that underscores the notion that it is possible to offer filial embrace of not only the Botwana that is the subject of the character's declarations but to also embrace the notion of a hopeful Africa. Indeed, Precious Ramotswe is perhaps a metaphor for the reclamation of what scholar Diedre Badejo has called the "legacy culture of Africa," the transnational and local (re)configurations of African cultures in the modern world. This perhaps heralds the articulation and validation of the full range of human thoughts, feelings and ideals both in Africa and in global African settings. With Precious, one may contemplate Africa's positive promise and its relationship to the broader non-African world rather than endlessly mourn its failures and its seeming disaffiliation from the wider world. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency has the potential to help illuminate the interplay between race, gender, and place and to reform certain pernicious and deeply held cultural ideologies in Western narratives of Africa.

Will the show last? I have to confess, when I watched the pilot episode and the next few shows that followed, I couldn't help but wonder if American white audiences would warm to a show with so many black characters in a setting that is so far from the United States, both geographically and culturally. Some members of audiences of color may find the cultural shift equally as off-putting, accustomed as we are to iconic shows that have featured racial and ethnic diversity but little departure from American social and cultural norms (Cosby Show or Fresh Prince of Bel Air, anyone?) However, along with the lush physical beauty of Botswana where the pilot show was filmed, there is also the dizzying array of black female beauty that is on display in the show. Black women of all sizes, shapes, hair styles and colors people the show, giving black women and other women of color the kind of aesthetic validation that is rarely available on Western television.

The series, presently consisting of a 105-minute pilot episode and six 60-minute shows, follows in the footsteps of gritty, dark HBO series such as The Sopranos, historicized dramas with penchants for brutal violence and graphic sex such as Rome, and socially provocative, psychosexual dramas such as Big Love. Wither The
No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in this panoply of shows? Only time will tell.