Thursday, December 19, 2013

O Africa!

I am interested in the rest of the world. I have tried to read widely, especially in poetry, serving myself skinny and fat anthologies of poetry in translation from Europe, from the broad expanse of Asia, from Latin America, and from oral traditions. Some literary traditions stretch back hundreds of years - in the case of China and India one might say thousands. When I’ve read in African poetries, however, I’ve been surprised at how shallow in time the traditions are. Considering that humans originated in Africa and have the most diverse genetic heritage there and its current peoples live in a range of societies and environments, I expected more than the Twentieth Century. But when we’re talking sub-Saharan Africa we are talking primarily about oral literatures, it seems. Publishing African poets didn’t really build literary careers until the last hundred years, the majority in the last fifty. I was also surprised how often the poets I was encountering spoke of “Africa,” as though it were a unity, rather the way poets in the U.S. speak of America. Africa is not a unity. It is huge and various. So why were poets from up and down the continent claiming one identity?

Last year I copied out a poem by Bernard Dadie called “A Wreath for Africa.” Dadie was born in the Ivory Coast (between Ghana and Liberia in West Africa). He wrote in French. Some lines (as translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy):

I shall weave you a wreath
of laurel and hibiscus
set in a butterfly’s wingspan
and the calm of underbrush in blossom.

… from the essence of flowers
with pendants of human life and wisdom.

I shall make you a crown
softly gleaming
with the brilliance of Tropical Venus
and in the orb of the feverishly shimmering
Milky Way.

I shall write
your name
in letters of
O Africa!

The anthology in which I found the poem was The Negritude Poets. Negritude is a francophone way of saying “blackness.” The poets weren’t just extolling Africa’s singular identity, they were self-identifying by the color of their skin. Other literary traditions tend to sort by nation-state and language. Africa encompasses many states, many languages. But the written languages were primarily introduced from Europe. The Negritude poets mostly wrote in French.

The Poetry of Our World: an international anthology of contemporary poetry includes a section of African poets. In his introduction Kwame Anthony Appiah offers his version of why the poets were talking about Africa (not Cote d’Ivoire, say):

It is one of the great ironies of history that the concept … the very idea of Africa - was itself a product of the encounter with European empires. Western-educated intellectuals articulated a resistance to colonialism not in the name of the specific precolonial societies whose heirs they were, but, almost always, in the name of Africa. The many colonial students gathered in London, Paris, and Lisbon in the years after the Second World War were brought together in their common search for political independence from a single metropolitan state. They were brought together too by the fact that their colonial rulers - those who helped as well as those who hindered - saw them all as Africans, first of all, because ‘race’ was central to Europe’s vision of them. But they were able to articulate a common vision of postcolonial Africa through a discourse inherited from prewar Pan-Africanism - a discourse that was the product, largely, of black citizens of the New World. Since what bound these African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists together was the African ancestry they shared, a racial understanding of their solidarity was, perhaps, an inevitable development.

Because the colonial powers were defining Africans by race/color - by “African-ness” - the poets, in order to find strength in solidarity and because they shared a common oppressor/ enlightener, also chose to define themselves by race and to embrace as homeland a unitary Africa. The Africans of the diaspora, “African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists,” had led the way. They already had been writing in European languages so had an older literary tradition. They already defined themselves primarily by color/race and by ancestral origin; because they often had little idea of where exactly in Africa their ancestors had come from these poets didn’t have much choice, it was all Africa. Of course, the Pan-Africanists already defined themselves by race because in the cultures into which they were born their whole lives were defined by race. Sure, you could deny and reject that identity but the larger society - White European Society - would still see you first by your skin. Also, of course, the Pan-Africanists had already produced a literature of resistance to European hegemony and African-born Africanists had a natural sympathy for this tradition.

So I get it a little better. I suspect the paeans to “Africa” will be fewer as time goes by, as national and language-centered native literatures develop, but Africa had a unity imposed upon it, and for the emerging poets of that continent embracing unity proved more useful/fruitful - and in some cases, beautiful - than ignoring it.


Nin Andrews said...

My daughter travels to Africa regularly, most recently Niger and Burkina Faso. She and I both read this book, Americanah, which I highly recommend.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Thanks, Nin. I'll keep an eye out. Maybe once it's come off the long waiting list at the library ...