You are here

The First New World Tragedy of Manuel Zapata Olivella’s Changó, the Biggest Badass

John Maddox

Afro-Colombian Manuel Zapata Olivella’s historical novel, Changó, The Biggest Badass (1983) follows members of the African Diaspora from their capture and continues through their oppression in Spanish America of the colonial and nineteenth century independence periods, Haiti, Brazil, and the United States from the 1800s to the 1960s. The story of the enslaved has been commonly called the “history of people with no history” (Fontana, Pérez) since with few exceptions, slaves were usually illiterate (Luis). However, the enslaved in Latin America maintained many African and Afro-Catholic spiritual traditions that continue today, which Zapata poeticizes. While Changó is a form of western written culture with literary ancestors in classical antiquity, it incorporates syncretic New World myths.

Despite Changó’s epic scope and numerous narrative modes, it consistently recasts the Greek model of muse and actor as a tragedy performed by the enslaved yet filled with the spirits of Africa and America. The tragic mode of representing slavery is evident in the novel’s first section to be set entirely in the New World, “The American Muntu,” which recounts the rise and fall of seventeenth-century Colombian king of slave rebels Benkos Bioho and the heretic priest and Afro-Catholic babalawo Domingo Falupo.  

            Zapata was raised in an environment where syncretic religions and Greco-Roman rationalism were equally influential, the latter being the heart of his father’s Neo-Classicist school and his medical training in Colombia’s Athens, Bogotá (Jáuregui). In addition to novels, he wrote tragedies. He valued the heart and mind as they relate to historicizing the oppressed, particularly Afro-Colombians. This combination of affect, reason, and language is why the first Greek historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, chose to emulate the tragedians (Lebow).

Historical fiction like Changó is a continuation of this dramatization of history as a cyclic progression of tragedies (Lukács; White). “The American Muntu”’s plot centers on a tragic collision, the deaths of Falupo and Bioho, and it follows Aristotle’s model of an ideal tragedy. Its tragic heroes thrive and suffer for their hubris and uncompromising ideals. They represent all Afro-Colombians and are archetypal figures that transcend their immediate context, as Aristotle, Thucydides, and the tragedians understood about tragedy. Their deaths remind the reader, like dramatic audiences, of their own mortality through their sacrifice. The cycle of success-ambition-overconfidence-(self-)destruction enacted by the king and the priest is akin to Hegel’s notion of historical cycles as large-scale tragedies. Likewise, Zapata’s tragedy exploits the violent episodes, suspenseful oral story-telling, the musical language, and the appeals to the emotions that Aristotle praised in tragedy for their ability to provoke fear, anger, empathy, and catharsis. Like the audiences of Greek tragedy and Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War, Zapata’s readers are distanced enough from slavery to contemplate it, but close enough to feel its sting. Tragedy teaches that reason and justice cannot end suffering, but it deepens our understanding of historical trauma without explicitly resolving it (Lebow). However, like Thucydides, Zapata’s text holds hope in the reader’s translation of words into thought and action. It is a work of mourning and working-through that turns his audience, like their enslaved Ancestors, into actors. Through tragedy, Zapata Olivella empowers readers to become actors in the cause of human liberation.

Session/Panel Title

Afro-Latin and Afro-Hispanic Literature and Classics

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy