A Salute to African-American Literature…………………………………23
African Literature in the Making………………………………………….28
This paper attempts to trace the various vicissitudes of the evolution and development of African Literature: from oral literature, through pre-colonial literature, colonial literature, to post-colonial literature. African literature is defined as ‘literature of and from Africa’. However, though cursory reference is made to non-English African literature as well, the focus of this paper is literature of English ‘black Africa’. A special page is devoted to African-American literature because of its unique historical position in the development of African literature. The foundations of modern African literature as an intellectual ‘school’ are traced back to the middle of the 18th century. Modern African literature emerged as a resistance platform, an instrument of struggle against oppression and exploitation. Unfortunately, more than a couple of centuries on, African literature is still faced with formidable challenges, including lack of freedom of expression imposed by political authoritarianism and socio-cultural reactionarism. Even though a great deal of achievement has been recorded since its inception in the 18th century, African literature still has a long way to go in the struggle to fulfill its mission to foster socio-political justice and true liberty for the common people of Africa.
By ‘African Literature’ we are referring to, in the words of Elizabeth Gunner, “The body of traditional oral and written literatures in Afro-Asiatic and African languages together with works written by Africans in European languages”1. One might summarize Gunner’s definition by simply referring to African Literature as “Literature of and from Africa”2. Africa is a vast continent, the second largest in the world. A geo-political unit of 54 nations, with a total population of about 1.033 billion people3, the African continent abounds in linguistic and cultural diversity as its people are rich in racial heterogeniety. There is ‘white Africa’, north of the Sahara, with its Islamarabian traditions; and there is ‘black Africa’, south of the Sahara, with its hybridized traditions (i.e. a sort of cultural alloy of Islamarabian traditions, Christo-European traditions, and pagan-ancestral traditions). The literary works of the divergent peoples of the gigantic continent of Africa are found in many languages and various genres, ranging from oral literature to written literature. The concept of African literature embraces not only literature produced by Africans on the continent, but also literary works of Africans in the diaspora (i.e. West Indian and American writers of African descent).
The sheer vastness of the African continent, and the concomitant racial and cultural diversity of its people, has for decades posed a formidable challenge for various definers seeking to paint a monolithic picture of Africa and Africans. As Parker & Rathbone4 rightly noted, as for instance, “North Africa has in turn presented a problem for those who have sought to define Africa and the ‘black race’”. African literature is definitely not excluded from this problem of definition. However, the theme of this workshop, ‘British Culture as Evidenced in African Literature’, dictates that our discourse here be delimited to literature of ‘black Africa’ only. This delimitation is justified for one obvious reason: After surveying numerous definitions of literature with a mission to reaching a ‘consensus’, Dazinger and & Johnson define literature as “a verbal art; … and its medium is the word…”5 As of today, the 11th day of December in the year 2013, not a single nation in North Africa has English as a national/official language. There may be sizeable populations of English speakers in many North African countries today, but the reading of literature in English is definitely a hobby of a small elite of the populations of those countries. Thus, I beg to hypothesize, to the extent that ‘the word’ is the medium of literature, North African literature has relatively little to do with British culture. This is not to suggest that there can be no cultural influence without linguistic exchange. However, as far as the concept of literature is concerned, language is so central and encompassing a factor that any cultural influence that excludes the medium of language can only be rated as peripheral.
The theme of our workshop further ordains us to focus our discourse here on English literature of ‘black Africa’ only, though nothing strictly bars us from making footnote references to African literatures in other European languages such as French and Portuguese.
Let me reiterate the focus of my thesis in one simple phrase: Literature of English ‘black Africa’.
Four distinct phases are marked out in the evolutionary growth of African literature, viz: oral literature, pre-colonial literature, colonial literature and post-colonial literature. Each of the diverse peoples of Africa, whether we call them tribes or ethnic groups, has got a centuries-old collection of stories and poems passed down from generations by word of mouth. Unlike European concept of literature as a written embodiment of artistic expression only, the African concept of literature not only encompasses oral literature as well, but also acknowledges oral literature as the basis of written literature. In this respect George Joseph noted:
"Literature" can also imply an artistic use of words for the sake of art alone. ...traditionally, Africans do not radically separate art from teaching. Rather than write or sing for beauty in itself, African writers, taking their cue from oral literature, use beauty to help communicate important truths and information to society. Indeed, an object is considered beautiful because of the truths it reveals and the communities it helps to build.6
The Ugandan scholar Pio Zirimu merged the two words ‘oral’ and ‘literature’ to coin the new term ‘Orature’7. The instruments of orature include proverbs, riddles, folktales, storytelling and songs of praise. For centuries, orature, in its verse and prose forms, has been used as a medium of societal education and entertainment, as well as for preservation of communal history.
An excellent source of enlightenment on this subject is Ulli Beier’s Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing from ‘Black Orpheus’ (1964). And I seek your indulgence to quote a couple of passages from that illuminating piece:
About the Ewe of Ghana, it says:
The Ewe country makes exacting demands on its people. From the sweat of their brows, the Ewes eke out their bare livelihood. Their part of the country has no gold and diamonds and timber as have some parts of Ghana.
But the people have an extraordinary gift for music and drumming and dancing. How, otherwise, could the people of Eweland have maintained such good humour and optimism in the face of hardship?
The poems … are words of folk songs. Not mummified folk songs dug out from an archeological pile; but living songs which, like farmers of old, the farmers of today are singing at work, as they clear the bush, plant the crops and harvest them; while they weave the clothes they wear, carve the stools they sit on or build the houses they live in.
They are above all songs which are sung to honour a departed one, and to mourn his loss.
When were they composed, these songs? And who composed them? No one knows. What is known is that they are almost as old as the Ewe people themselves. Containing some of the richest literary pieces in the Ewe language, the songs are highly charged with emotion and, in Shakespeare’s words, with ‘wise saws and modern instances’. And the thoughts are condensed in terse language, making their translation into English a hazardous venture!…8
Regarding the Hausa of Nigeria, the book has this to say:
There are certain kinds of rythmic utterances which one would hesitate to classify as poetry, yet which are clearly related to it, and which illustrate the linguistic and social basis of the oral tradition.
Among the Hausa each individual has what is known as a drum rhythm. It identifies him, and almost always has attached to it a series of words that either describe him, or form themselves into a characteristic epigram. This is at the base of the oral tradition. Similarly, each class of individuals in the society has songs composed to be used at work, or as identification. Men are set this task according to talent, and while the changes in the social structure are weakening this system, it is a rare individual who cannot phrase words to a pattern with some degree of success….9
Gunner was telling right in describing literature as ‘atomized, fragmented history’; every piece of literature is conceived against a historical backdrop of some sort. Literature and history are intertwined. One cannot separate the literature of a people from their history. History is the reservoir from which literature is fed; literature is, in turn, the medium through which history is told. Thus, if Africa is the cradle of humanity, as it is now consensually acknowledged, then the people of Africa must have the oldest history among the human race. It then follows syllogistically that, insofar as orature is counted, African literature must be the oldest literature obtainable.
In the Preface to his Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali10, D.T. Niane lamented:
… Unfortunately the West has taught us to scorn oral sources in matters of history, all that is not written in black and white being considered without foundation. Thus, even among African intellectuals , there are those who are sufficiently narrow-minded to regard ‘speaking documents’, which the griots are, with disdain, and to believe that we know nothing of our past for want of written documents. These men simply prove that they do not know their own country except through the eyes of Whites.
Niane went further to quote the words of the griot, thus:
I am a griot. It is I, Djeli Mamoudou kouyaté, son of Bintou Kouyaté and Djeli Kedian Kouyaté, master in the art of eloquence. Since time immemorial the Kouyatés have been in the service of the Keita princes of Mali; we are vessels of speech, we are the repositories which habour secrets many centuries old. The art of eloquence has no secrets for us; without us the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind; by the spoken word we bring to life the deeds and exploits of kings for younger generations.
I derive my knowledge from my father Djeli Kedian, who also got it from his father; history holds no mystery for us; we teach to the vulgar just as much as we want to teach them, for it is we who keep the keys to the twelve doors of Mali.
I know the list of all the sovereigns who succeeded to the throne of Mali. I know how the black people divided into tribes, for my father bequeathed to me all his learning; I know why such and such is called Kamara, another Keita, and yet another Sibibé or Traoré; every name has a meaning, a secret import.
I teach kings the history of their ancestors so that the lives of the ancients might serve them as an example, for the world is old, but the future springs from the past.
My word is pure and free of all untruth; it is the word of my father; it is the word of my father’s father. I will give you my father’s words just as I received them; royal griots do not know what lying is. When a quarrel breaks out between tribes it is we who settle the difference, for we are the depositaries of oaths which the ancestors swore.
Listen to my word, you who want to know; by my mouth you will learn the history of Mali.
By my mouth you will get to know the story of the ancestor of great Mali, the story of him who , by his exploits, surpassed even Alexander the Great; he who, from the East, shed his rays upon all the countries of the West.
Listen to the story of the son of the Buffalo, the son of the Lion. I am going to tell you of Maghan Sundiata, of Mari-Djata, of Sogolon Djata, of Naré Maghan Djata; the man of many names against whom sorcery could avail nothing.11
It is true that oral traditions - with a mission to blend myth with reality in an attempt to create universal, timeless impressions - are not free from defects. On this score I quote from Parker & Rathbone:
Yet oral traditions … were far from straight forward. They were generated within particular cultures and strongly shaped by local aesthetic preferences, with narratives often advancing by way of spiritual or magical transformation rather than incremental chronological change.12
However, what is equally undeniable is that, insofar as they inevitably originated from oral sources, and to the extent that they were crafted by fallible men, written sources are not impeccable either. In a nutshell, and to say the least, the “heroic code” is by no means the monopoly of the story of Beowulf; the epic of Sundiata is likewise entitled to the “heroic code” with equal authority.
One of the thinnest threads in the expressive weavage of literature is the question of precise transitional barrier between oral literature and written literature. In terms of form, the difference can be simple and straightforward – one is written, while the other is not. But in terms of content, the distinction between the two may not so easily yield to a clean-cut of the theoretical sword. Elizabeth Gunner captured this knotty point in the following paragraph:
The relationship between oral and written traditions and in particular between oral and modern written literatures is one of great complexity and not a matter of simple evolution. Modern African literatures were born in the educational systems imposed by colonialism, with models drawn from Europe rather than existing African traditions. But the African oral traditions exerted their own influence on these literatures.13
The early African writers in European languages are sometimes characterized as translators, because much of their writings was little more than transposition of their native oral traditions. In other words, they were translative writers rather than creative writers. What is instructive to note here is that in the process of this transposition orality was in turn twisted to suit the specific character of the written word. Thus, both oral literature and written literature influenced each other on the transitional borderline.
At any rate, the first phase in the evolutionary growth of English African literature is what is generally labeled as pre-colonial literature. Pre-colonial literature dates from the period of the Atlantic slave trade between the 15th and 19th centuries, perhaps the darkest chapter in the history of homo-sapiens. The Atlantic slave trade, which some commentators rightly refer to as the ‘odious commerce’, involved the forced shipping of over 12 million African men and women to the Americas as human commodities. Some of these slaves later regained their freedom, and the lettered among them then used their literacy as a weapon for fighting back against slavery; they published stories of their horrific experiences in the yoke of slavery. Of the very first generation of slave narrators, three personalities stand out: Ignatius Sancho; Ottobah Cugoano; and Olaudah Equiano. To these three exceptional Africans, O.R. Dathorne has this homage to pay:
They were all West Africans who had been enslaved and who had managed to get to England only as servants. That they survived is a testament to their fortitude. That they could read at all proves considerable ability.14
The most famous, and also the most controversial, in that circle is Olaudah Equiano. His The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Equiano was published in London in 1789. The list of pre-colonial slave writers, even the famous among them, is far too long to be posted here. Some of the freed slaves were brought back to West Africa and resettle in Liberia and Sierra-Leon, and they also chronicled their experiences.
In talking about pre-colonial literature, it will be too conspicuous an omission to not make reference to the medieval University of Timbuktu in West Africa. Such an omission may not be excused even by the pronouncement of delimitation of our discourse to English ‘black Africa’ only, for in this particular context we are talking about pre-colonial era which predates the balkanization of Africa into English, French and Portuguese labels.
The University of Timbuktu was established in ancient Mali, West Africa, in the 12th century. At its peak it had an enrollment of around 25,000 students from Africa and other parts of the world. Silas Allen reported Michael Covitt, the founder and chairman of the Malian Manuscripts Foundation in Chicago, in the following words:
Scholars came from as far away as Turkey, Persia and Portugal to study at Mali's University of Timbuktu… and many of those scholars stayed and wrote their own manuscripts in nearly every discipline imaginable.
Among those manuscripts are ideas on forgiveness, understanding and resolving conflict peacefully…
The total number of the manuscripts of Timbuktu is estimated to be over 300,000.
Pre-colonial literature does not refer to only literature produced before the advent of colonization in Africa; it also includes modern literature concerned with the pre-colonial era. Elizabeth Gunner tells us this when she refers to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) thus: “Things Fall Apart is a pre-colonial novel that ends with the coming of colonialism, which triggers Okonkwo’s demise.”16Things Fall Apart is a narrative of conflict between tradition and change in pre-colonial Igboland of today’s Nigeria. The British colonizers regard the Igbo culture as pagan, primitive and barbaric and are determined to eradicate it by persuasion or by force. Okonkwo, the protagonist, champions resistance against the intruding foreign culture. Eventually, things fall apart in Igboland because the order that results from the conflict is socio-cultural confusion, a split between ancestral tradition and the new culture brought by the white man.
The precise demarcation between pre-colonial literature and colonial literature is far from clear. Colonization of Africa was formalized at the Berlin Conference of 1884/5. Although Britain had abolished slavery in 1807, and 1867 had seen the last recorded voyage of slaves across the Atlantic, the Berlin Conference’s formal declaration of Africa as a European possession was perceived by freed slaves in the diaspora as a revival of slavery in a new form. As such, the antislavery writers in Euro-America lost no time in redirecting their focus to also embrace anti-colonial campaign. Some decades later, a body of anti-colonial African writers emerged on the continent itself. In 1911, Joseph E.C. Hayford of Ghana (then Gold Coast) published his Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation. Hayford’s book is regarded as the first African novel written in English; “although the work moves between fiction and political advocacy, its publication and positive reviews in the Western press marked a watershed moment in African literature”17. The next few decades after Hayford’s publication witnessed a spring of novels, plays and dramas by African pioneer writers in various African nations. These literary works generally showed themes of liberation, political independence and cultural emancipation.
But there was another front to the battle. Colonialism was predicated on the pretext of a mission of paternalistic moral obligation to go and ‘civilize’ the ‘primitive sorts’ out there. We all know the common stratagems of the colonialists. The word colony comes from the Latin word ‘colonia’ which literally means a ‘farmland’. Wherever the colonialists found a ‘farmland’, their first tactic was to deny any previous ownership of that property - they did that in Australia and the Americas. Where evidence of previous ownership was too glaring to be denied, as in the case of Africa, then their second tactic was to warp and question the credibility – in fact, the humanity - of the previous owners. As such, while African writers were engrossed in anti-colonial literature, colonial apologists were equally frantic with copious production of their own literature to scuttle the struggle of the African writers. The ideological battle between the two fronts is tersely outlined by Thandika Mkandawire in the following passage:
One task of ideas in both the enslavement and colonization of Africa was to dehumanize the enslaved and the colonized by denying their history and denigrating their achievement and capacities. The colonialists’ claim to universalism for their culture and values, and the demotion of other cultures to only particularistic and exotic significance, could not but provoke response and resistance. It is perhaps not surprising that some of the earliest intimations of pan-Africanism invariably included a vindication of the cultures and histories of peoples of African origin. And among the first intellectual ‘schools’ to emerge in Africa were those of historians; in Ibadan, Dakar and Dar es Salaam, for example. These schools took upon themselves the task of challenging the imperial narrative, one of whose intentions was to obliterate the memory of their pre-colonial existence18.
A quotation from Sule Bello might shed some light on Mkandawire’s words:
In this respect the various prejudicial, perjorative, condescending and dehumanizing references to the African person and his indigenous traditions, or the outright tendency to deny him any history, were all but attempts at reducing him, as a human being, by way of isolating him from his past as well as “convincing” him of his inherent cultural, and creative, or developmental, incapabilities as a justification for his domination by foreign powers.19
Interestingly, the battle was waged even inside the kingdom of Jehova. Sule Bello reported Peter B. Clark (1986) in the following words:
Thus we find that Christianity was divided along the lines of pro-imperial missionaries who were bitterly opposed by the anti-imperial missionaries under the leadership of the freed slaves who came back to West Africa as missionaries. Indeed this led to the evolution of African churches, which eventually became very important in the nationalist struggle against colonialism20.
Nevertheless, the African writers eventually emerged from the fight as the vanguards. By the middle of the 1960s colonialism in English Africa was all but over.
With the proliferation of universities and colleges in post-colonial Africa, African literature grew rapidly, both in quality and in quantity. African writers, from Chinua Achebe in the West to Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the East, soon began to win international acclaim. In 1986, Wole Soyinka of Nigeria became post-colonial Africa’s first winner of the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. According to Ali Mazrui and others, seven major conflicts are identifiable as general themes of post-colonial literature, viz:
… the clash between Africa's past and present, between tradition and modernity, between indigenous and foreign, between individualism and community, between socialism and capitalism, between development and self-reliance and between Africanity and humanity.21
Indeed, a great deal of post-colonial literature was devoted to expression of disillusionment with independent Africa. One famous magnum opus on this subject is Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1969). In The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, the masses of Ghana - having fought tooth-and-nail to overthrow the British colonialists whom they had disdained as repressive exploiters – moan and grunt with painful disappointment with their native political leaders. Engrossed in kleptomanic corruption, the native political leaders turn out to be just as repressive, if not even worse, than the erstwhile foreign colonizers. Here is a couple of quotations from The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born:
How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders? There were men dying from the loss of hope, and others were finding gaudy ways to enjoy power they did not have. We were ready here for big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them onto our backs. These men who were to lead us out of our despair, they came like men already grown fat and cynical with the eating of centuries of power they had never struggled for, old before they had even been born into power, and ready only for the grave….22
It should be easy now to see there have never been people to save anybody but themselves, never in the past, never now, and there will never be any saviors if each will not save himself. No saviors. Only the hungry and the fed. Deceivers all. Only for that is life the perfect length. Everyone will tell you, pointing, that only the impotent refuse. Only those who are too weak to possess see anything wrong with the possessing fashion. Condemnation, coming from those who have never had, comes with a pathetic sound. Better get it all first, then if you still want to condemn, go ahead. But remember, getting takes the whole of life.23
‘…I saw men tear down the veils behind which the truth had been hidden. But then the same men, when they have power in their hands at last, began to find the veils useful. They made many more. Life has not changed. Only some people have been growing, becoming different, that is all. After a youth spent fighting the white man, why should not the president discover as he grows older that his real desire has been to be like the white governor himself, to live above all blackness in the big old slave castle? And the men around him, why not? What stops them sending their loved children to kindergartens in Europe? And if the little men around the big men can send their children to new international schools, why not? That is all anyone here ever struggles for: to be nearer the white man. All the shouting against the white men was not hate. It was love. Twisted, but love all the same. Just look around you and you will see it even now. Especially now.’24
No wonder, life became hell for the most talented of post-colonial African writers: their books were banned; some of them were incarcerated; others were killed; and yet many others were driven into the painful, humiliating experience of life in exile. (Just three years ago I was myself paraded at gun-point through Nigerian bookshops to withdraw my book Niqab (face-veil): An Exemplary Sunnah or a Repugnant Innovation? (2010) I had to run for my dear life). Thus did political authoritarianism deal a crippling blow to the evolutionary growth of African literature. Lamenting the situation in his native Kenya, Ali Mazrui, one of Africa’s foremost scholars, stated:
If the first two killers of intellectualism in Kenya were rising political authoritarianism and declining academic freedom, the third killer was the cold war between Western powers and the Soviet bloc. The government of Kenya was co-opted into the Western camp, sometimes at the expense of Kenya’s own citizens. Being socialist or left-wing as an intellectual became a political hazard. All sorts of laws and edicts emerged about subversive literature. Possessing the works of Mao Zedong of the People’s Republic of China was a crime in Kenya, and people actually went to jail for it. My own nephew, Dr Alamin M. Mazrui of Kenyatta University, was detained without charge by the Moi regime for more than a year for being a left-wing Kenyan academic in the company of other left-wingers as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo.
Intellectual opposition to capitalism in Kenya became increasingly a punishable offence. Lives of socialists were sometimes in danger, as in the case of the relatively powerless Pinto, who was assassinated. Moderately left-wing political leaders such as Oginga Odinga were ostracized. All these were forces fatal to intellectualism in Kenya.25
A Salute to African-American Literature:
In talking about African literature, African-American Literature is entitled to a special page. By African-American Literature we mean the body of literature written by Americans of African descent, including those in the Caribbean or West Indies.
In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Toni Morrison, the first African American to be awarded that Prize, stated.
Word-work is sublime…because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life.26
I have decided to open this chapter with Tony Morrison’s philosophical statement because I intend to from here on adopt her phrase ‘word-work’ as my own. By ‘word-work’ I understand ‘literature; the art of writing’. African Literature owes more than a lot of its development to African-American word-work. Mention has already been made of Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cogoano and Olauda Equiano - they were all African Americans. It is instructive to note that even the very name ‘Africa’, as well as the idea of ‘Africanity’, to an immeasurable extent, owe their development and popularity to the nostalgic yearnings of African Americans as expressed through their word-work. Parker and Rathbone expressed the point in the following vein:
… the modern idea of Africa emerged, in many ways, from the dehumanizing crucible of Atlantic slavery.
It was from the crucible, moreover, that Africans themselves first began to appropriate the idea of Africa. The first to do so were Western-educated intellectuals from the black diaspora, men like the celebrated anti-slave trade campaigner Olaudah Equiano and 19th-century African Americans like Alexander Crummel, Martin Delany, and Edward W. Blyden. Able to perceive Africa because of their very removal from it, these thinkers laid the foundations of what came to be known as ‘pan-Africanism’. They did so by appropriating not just the idea of Africa, but also the 19th-century European language of race. In early pan-Africanist thought, Africa – or ‘Ethiopia’, as the continent continued sometimes to be called – was seen as the home of a distinctive people, the ‘Negro race’. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that these ideas began to develop within Africa itself…27
The following is a quotation from Morrison’s famous book Beloved (1987), the book that won her the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction:
Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it…28
It is remarkable to note that blacks were deemed so worthless that they were not even considered capable of fighting an organized war-fair – all they were thought capable of was unleashing sentimental, irrational violence besides their “natural” role of carrying and hauling. It was by the power of word-work that African Americans won their right to fight in the American army. I quote from William Andrews:
With the outbreak of the Civil War, many African Americans deployed their pens and their voices to convince President Abraham Lincoln that the nation was engaged in nothing less than a war to end slavery, which black men, initially barred from enlisting, should be allowed to fight. This agitation led eventually to a decisive force of 180,000 black soldiers joining the Union army.29
In 1773, three years before America’s independence, Phillis Wheatley published her Poems on Various Subjects, Religion and Moral, which is considered to be the first African American book. Until then, the natural belief of whites was that slavery was the natural occupation of blacks because blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, and that the incontrovertible evidence of the intellectual inferiority of blacks was their inability to write and publish any intellectual works like their white masters. However, from the second half of the 18th century, starting from Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, William Brown, through Booker Washington, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Malcom X, Countee Cullen, to Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, to mention only a handful of the most noteworthy, African Americans decisively debunked the notion of black intellectual inferiority by inundating the Euro-American intellectual landscape with unprecedented degrees of ornate eloquence and literary embellishment. These African-American word-workers proved themselves to be such unparalleled standard-bearers of mastery of literary form and content that even the most eloquent of white political leaders, in their desperate moments, had to turn around and borrow from their superior impressionistic oratory. At the height of World War II, the refrain of British prime minister Winston Churchel, in his anxiety to whip up defiant patriotism in the British army, was Claude McKay’s protest poem at the 1919 Washington race march:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot ….
One particular contrast is of special interest here. As late as the 19th century, writing was still considered an exclusively male domain in European culture. We are told that the author of Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austin, perhaps the most famous English female writer ever, wrote her books secretly “behind a door that creaked”, so that she had the chance to hide her manuscripts before visitors could enter, because hers was a time when “English society associated a female’s entrance into the public sphere with a reprehensible loss of feminity”30 In the case of African Americans, it was a woman, in the person of Phillis Wheatley (at the age of just 20), who piloted the era of word-work. Thus, by their power of word-work, African Americans championed the cause of humanity by subduing both gender bias and racial prejudice. Today, African American literature has parallel recognition with Euro-American literature anywhere in the world.
What is most pertinent to note in this chapter is that, by their literary prowess, African American word-workers not only rose to their rightful seat of dignity in the American society, as well as fought for human dignity for Africa as a whole through their decolonization campaign, but they also inspired their bretheren on mainland Africa to stand up against both foreign exploitation and domestic colonization through the power of word-work.
AFRICAN LITERATURE IN THE MAKING
It is obvious from the foregoing discussion that the history of African literature is a history of struggle against oppression and exploitation, and for liberty and self-determination. Unfortunately, more than two centuries after it began with the emergence of African writers in the second half of the 18th century, this struggle has yet to be won. Trans-Atlantic slave trade may have been abolished, but ‘domestic slavery’ has been entrenched by acute economic depravity. Colonization was dethroned only for the more pernicious subtlety of neo-colonization to be enthroned in lieu. The ideal of négritude/‘the African personality’, with true cultural emancipation as its underlying principle, has remained a dream only. In the wake of the politicking of ‘Globalization’, with its underlying motive of Western cultural hegemony, it is yet to be seen precisely which course African literature is going to chart – resistance or obeisance? Huge strides have been made in the quest for gender justice – thanks to Mariama Bâ31 and others, but the objective has yet to be fully realized. On a general note, socio-political and economic justice has remained too far from satisfactory on the African continent. In a particular sense, and above all, foreign colonization has been replaced with domestic colonization whereby weaker tribes are moaning and grunting under the dead-weight of exclusionary degradation and marginalization by stronger tribes. African word-workers, from Ngugi wa Thiong’o32 in the East to Ola Rotimi33 in the West, have made some considerable efforts in the fight against tribalism on the continent. And yet tribalism, the potential genocidal mass-grave of the African peoples, has remained the greatest threat to the very survival of Africa. It is against this backdrop that I maintain the humble opinion that African literature is still in the making and will remain incomplete until African word-workers have succeeded in bringing about – among other goals of socio-political justice – the total eradication of tribalism from the African continent.
Achebe, C.(1959). Things fall apart: (Oxford: Heinemann)
Armah, A.K. (1969). The beautiful ones are not yet born. (Oxford:
Bello, S.(undated). Emerging perspectives on the origins, functions and
consequences of ethnocentrism in African affairs. (Kano: ARADA)
Dazinger, M.K. & Johnson, W.S. (1961). An introduction to literary