Contrary to the general perception, the African literatures written before the twentieth century are substantial. Whatever limits can be imagined—in terms of geography, genre, language, audience, era—these literatures exceed them. Before the twentieth century, Africans wrote not just in Europe, but also on the African continent; they wrote not just in European languages, but in African languages; they wrote not just for European consumption, but for their own consumption; they wrote not just in northern Africa, but in sub-Saharan Africa; they wrote not just orally, but textually; they wrote not just historical or religious texts, but poetry and epic and autobiography; and they wrote not just in the nineteenth century, but in the eighteenth century and long, long before.
Yet, the general public and even scholars of African literature are often unaware of these early literatures, mistakenly believing that African literature starts in the late 1950s as the result of colonization, instead of many centuries before it. In this view, Africa is a savage Caliban who is introduced to writing by a European Prospero and Things Fall Apart is his first articulation. Westerns assume that whatever writing happened to be done on the continent was not done by Africans or in African languages and scripts until very recently. This lack of awareness of three thousand years of African writing is particularly surprising given the legions of pre-twentieth-century African texts that historians have uncovered and studied in the past fifty years. While historians labor to overturn long-held misconceptions about Africa as a place without history, literary critics have done little to overturn misconceptions of Africa as a place without literature. The extraordinarily rich trove of pre-twentieth century African continental literatures has yet to be written about in any depth by Euro-American literary critics. Certainly, no book addresses their work at length and almost no literary essays published outside of Africa address the continental works.
African literature written over the last millennia remains largely invisible for several significant reasons. One, many of the texts written more than two hundred years ago have not survived, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Scholars know they existed because travelers reported on them and extant texts make reference to now lost texts. Two, many were never published as print books and of those few manuscripts that were, most were published in obscure places. Three, very few of the texts written in an African language have been translated into any European language. For instance, the hundreds of Ethiopian indigenous texts remain obscure because only a handful have been translated into English. Indeed, in the dramatic cases of texts written in Meroitic or Libyco-Berber, the texts cannot be translated as the language and script is no longer understood. One of the great challenges of the twenty-first century will be archiving and translating the vast libraries of East and West Africa. Fourth, many continue to see sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa as geographic and literary domains separated by a gulf, rather than, as historians and archeologists continue to prove, having deep links to each other. As the origin of the human species, Africa is home to the most diverse peoples of any continent, one of its great strengths. That some of these Africans are lighter-skinned than others is an irrelevancy. All those born on the African continent, and whose forbearers were born on the continent, are Africans and have contributed to its vibrancy. The obsession with the race or region of African authors has resulting in obscuring the literature of the continent and prevented productive comparative work.
This lack of knowledge about early African literature torques the study of modern African literature. Analyses of contemporary writing in the United States, Britain, or Europe often take into account a centuries-old literary tradition rooted in different but related forms and themes. But research on African literature today tends to ignore the continent’s long literary history, with most scholars today focusing on African writing in European languages produced since 1950. For example, few situate later Nigerian experiments in English like Tutola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard, Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, and Iweala’s Beast of No Nation in relation to the English of earlier West African texts, such as the eighteenth-century diary of Antera Duke, an Efik slave-trading chief in what is now Nigeria. Likewise, few lay Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart alongside the work of Nigerian authors of the nineteenth century who were also concerned about the interaction of Christianity and local beliefs—including Egba clergyman Joseph Wright (1839), the famous Yoruba Anglican bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1837), and the Hausa writer Madugu Mohamman Mai Gashin Baki . Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor’s work on the Queen of Sheba is not considered in the context of the thirteenth-century Ethiopian text about her, Kebra Nagast.