Thursday, February 25, 2016

The possessors and the dispossessed: Championing Learned Habbits or Forging a New Identity

A young African post colonial academic and writer named Jomo Kenyatta once told a story in his first major publication named Facing Mount Kenya.  This story tells about a man who builds a hut and, during a rain storm, an elephant neighbor comes by.  The elephant asks to place his trunk in the hut to keep it out of the rain, which the man allows, unfortunately it does not simply end there.  The elephant slowly but surely pushes his trunk into the hut and forces man out of his hut.  The man calls the king lion to come and handle the situation, to which the lion launches a commission run by friends and peers of the elephant.  As you can imagine, the commission found in favor of the elephant, so the man builds another house.  Another animal takes over this house and this whole process recurs many times over.  Eventually an angry man built the biggest and best house of them all and all of the animals left his former houses and fought over this grandiose new house.  The man set the entire house on fire and lived happily ever after in his original house.  This is obviously in regards to imperialism and colonialism, but what is more surprising is the ending of the man happily living after burning the grandiose symbol of wealth to the ground with the “animal” in it.  Funnily enough, Jomo would go on to be Prime Minister of an independent Kenya a few years later after a bloody rebellion, so it would seem that his story was more of a vision of the future, though Kenya may not be as perfectly happy as the man in the story and the cost of independence was more than a house.
This story, and the historical event following it, shows the interesting mirrored relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, the possessor and the dispossessed.  To look into this relationship, first, let us look into the psychology and techniques of the possessors.  It starts at the point of contact, in the case of West Africa, the 16th century.  At this moment the possessors, or more accurately those who would blaze the trails for the true possessors, in shock of the unknown try to apply what they do know, their existence and cultural dimensions, to this new people.  This issue is two fold: first, that you do not understand enough about these people to make any comments about their culture and, second, one people’s cultural dimensions cannot be applied to another’s in a value based manner.  Because of their ignorance, these trailblazers then relate their experiences in the only way they can, in ignorance.  Even in ignorance, these men, and those that follow, become the experts on these foreigners, thus how they represent them becomes the standard.
  The next step involves opportunity and this is where a branching path occurs, either there is a spirit of mutual respect and the cultures learn and benefit from each other, the less likely path though it may be, or the trailblazers lead to possessors, the route I will focus on since it is the route of that was taken in Africa.  In this route, the possessors use a combination of seemingly harmless trading, missionary work, and force in many instances.  The missionary work was particularly effective in the case of West Africa, as the people of this area, especially the Igbo, but they are not apt to be forcefully talk about their religion with those outside their individual villages, so they were shocked by the audacity of these mysterious people both talking about their beliefs and attempting to share their God with them.  There is a story amongst the Igbo about a group who immigrated to a Igbo village and asked to share the villages gods with them and instead of asking why they simply shared the children of their gods with them, as not to confuse or impose their religious beliefs, and they would not ask where their gods went since it would be rude to ask about their religion.  This highlights why it seemed so audacious for the missionaries to do as they did, thus why the West African people uncomfortably accepted them.  Once the possessors are able to drive their claws into the culture, they draw in the outcasts of the society and then become permanent installations.  It is during this phase that the possessors, in order to justify their atrocious conduct, transform the people of this new land into, at best, lesser humans and, more often and at worst, the negation of humanity, savages.  This transformation from ignorance to negation is well seen in comparing Captain John Lok’s description of Africans as “a people of beastly living, without God, laws, religion” to the inhuman description of African dancers in Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson.  Another interesting description comes from Conrad in Heart of Darkness when the narrator says, “Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman”, which is of particular interest because it not only uses the narrator as a foci to channel the gaze of the western reader and scare them with the possibility of this savagery being human and, by extension, savagery being apart of the reader.  Not only is this highly narcissistic and reek of fear, both concepts that will be discussed later, but it is dehumanizing in its use of the gaze.  All of these examples show how the narrative becomes more eloquent and effective, but the core  message is quite the same.  With national power through the influence of colonialist rhetoric and international power through trade, missionary, and military force; the possessors are able and willing to enact full domination over the “savages”.
Now is when the foreign land becomes a colony to the empire and the parasitical relationship of motherland to colony begins.  In this stage the archetypal characters created by colonial rhetoric are forced as fact upon the populace and their identity appropriated and wiped out almost entirely.  It is in this stage that possible resistances of the previous stage become less persistent and vocal, thus the act of domination is completed.  Also in this stage, the colonists not only leech away natural and human resources, but also creative resources through colonist writing becoming accepted as the dispossessed’s writing by matter of fact not only on a national or multinational scale, but on a global scale.  This is the era where Joyce Cary became the first major Nigerian author, as an Anglo-Irish former soldier who was stationed reluctantly in Nigeria, through the disastrous, yet critically acclaimed, Mister Johnson.  Facts like this and Anglo/Western supremacy over creativity were further drilled into the youth’s brains through the schooling system.  By using education, these bright young Africans were brainwashed into believing in Western supremacy and the need for Westerners to provide for the Africans, not just on a creative or institutional level, but even attempting to convince them that they waste the land they were given.  Ms. Huxley, who was an advocate for white Africans and live in Africa for quite some time, wrote that this land is owned by the animal, not the blacks or white, and if the whites were forced out of Africa, then the land would be wasted on the beasts.  This is to completely rewrite the history of Africa as if the Africans cowardly hid in holes all day and foraged when possible, when they, in actuality, worked the land quite well and developed well established economies between villages.  This is not a surprising fact when you take into regard that the westerners already rewrote identity of an entire continent of people over the course of 400 years or so, according to Hammond and Jablow in The Africa that Never Was, but it is an atrocious and surprising fact none the less.  This, and other arguments regarding the subpar brains of the Africans primarily, made up the second line of defense and legitimization of colonization, that westerners are not only beneficial, but required if the African people are to be sustained.  In this way the narcissistic tendencies of colonialism are further substantiated, as the westerners have now set themselves up as God figures in the eyes of the Africans and, many times, even in their own eyes.
Now is the winter of the Africans discontent, as the continuos abuses of power lead to the eventual uprising of the African people.  It is at this time that force becomes a weak last resort and brainwashing ceases to work, slowly the prey has learned from the predator and seeks to reap the benefits of these harsh lessons.  Now on the defense is where fear and narcissism play their key parts, as the westerners attempt to calm growing discontent with feigned, yet believed, innocence.  People like Huxley would argue that though parts of the system failed the people, the institutions led by westerners are still needed and that the “white men” are not to blame for the atrocities.  This idea that by attacking the institutions of enslavement are to attack individual white men and women personally is the greatest form of narcissism, as if one man or women means anything when compared to hundreds of years of debasement.  But this was their tactic, attempt to put an innocent mask of individuality on the face of evil to abate anger, but this only worked for a time.  It is at this point that, through blood or otherwise, rebellion is started and the abusers are driven out, but the fact remains that this leaves an unfathomable power vacuum wide open throughout Africa.  It is at this point that the people take the dangerous route of replication of learned tendencies, or the unknown path of forging a new identity.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Fallacy of a Single Story: An Africa of Many Cultures

          Both my roommate and an acquaintance of mine are taking a course on women in modern Africa and they had to write a paper on gender roles.  An unfortunate commonality between these people was that they spoke about Africa as a single entity of a single story, and in that story women mistreated and over looked by a male dominated society.  This story is very much true for South Africa, which records high numbers abuse cases from women, and Congolese, which historically abused women in many ways including poisoning them to test if they were witches.  These cases are unacceptable, though you need to still understand the reasoning behind these events, but in other parts of Africa, especially Igboland, respect women, especially in the modern day.  The reason for these generalizations, which are many times not the literature's fault itself, is because people want to simplify Africa down to a single entity, a single story, and in this take away African identity.  One of the books they read was Things Fall Apart and they made the assumption that because Okonkwo was harsh in his treatment of some of his wives, that Igbo culture looks down upon women.  In reality, I believe that this conclusion can only be made under the assumption that Okonkwo is the true hero and avatar of Igbo culture, which is not quite correct.  Okonkwo is the mans man of the Igbo culture, but he is only the fully masculine representation of the Igbo culture, but Igbo is just as feminine culturally.  The reason Okonkwo refuses to embody both the feminine and masculine parts of the culture is because his father fully embodied femininity in, many times, the worst of ways.  By reading this book in a face value way, you see the protagonist as the hero and assume that his mistreatment is reality, whereas if you would read more deeply you would realize that by being culturally immobile and overly masculine in terrible ways is what led to Okonkwo being no more than a "reasonable paragraph" in the history of the Igbo.  Furthermore, of all the books I have read, they all have strong female leads and are from all over Africa.  This becomes a lesson in writing a single story for a huge and multicultural area can lead to misconceptions on a global scale, thus leading to stereotyping and appropriation of their cultures therein.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

What is an African Writer?

What is an African writer?  This question of if a writer is or is not considered part of a certain ethnic or geographic society is not a questioned one we ask of British literature or Russian literature, but it does plague any society deemed “post colonial”, including the United States.  Many of the works I have been reading have attempted to answer this in a variety of ways.  The first, and arguably most controversial, way is language, in other words if you don't write in an African dialect then you're not an African writer.
There are obvious points to be made for this argument since it, on the surface, makes a lot of sense.  British authors write in the Queen’s English, or the equivalent of the time period they lived in, and the French write in French primarily.  Following a Western frame of thought this theory makes complete sense, but two concepts need to be explored if we are to agree with this idealism.  The first is the idea of globalization.  With the dawn of mass colonization by the European powers, and eventually America, the blank spaces of the map began to rapidly be filled in, thus cultures were experiencing each other on a massive scale.  This led to the opportunity for people to show off their culture on a world stage, but obviously many people won't speak your same language.  Thus the language of the conquerors, primarily English and French in this part of the world, became a semi universal language.  This idea leads into the second, practicality.
One of the key reasons for Africans wanting their literature to be acknowledged was to reclaim an identity of their own that was appropriated by the colonizer so through their own art and literature, especially in the British adventure novels like the Allan Quartermaine series.  In these pieces that went on to represent the “reality” of African identity until the end of post colonialism, and debatably well past that, they had no voice unless it was garbled language or submissive language spoken in the colonizer’s tongue.  Furthermore they became represented as animalistic and savage, thus becoming literally inhuman in every way.   Even the few souls who considered them human still saw them as a lesser race, a “little brother”, to be uplifted as part of the “white man’s burden”.  In any event, this led to the spread of the dominant languages of English and French, thus to reach the largest audience, one must write in one of these two languages, especially English because it was spread by the immense British empire and by the neocolonialist Americans.  Thus it becomes practical to use the language of the colonizer in order to reclaim your stolen identity.
The counter argument to that of practicality goes back to those who believe in using primarily African languages, some go as far as to denounce translations even.  This group believes that by using the language of the colonizer, you are accepting continued subjugation by being in debt a foreign language.  Another argument is that if the goal of African literature is to reclaim African identity, how can a true African be described in a non African language?  To these arguments there are three primary idealists formed in defense of the use of foreign language.  The first completely agrees with the accusations, but they believe that it is ultimately the price you must pay in order to reach the larger audience and spread your ideas.  The next group includes writers like Achebe who believe in the Africanization of foreign languages like English, in Achebe’s case.  They argue by adapting the foreign language to African sensibilities, by adding African phrases in African or changing the spelling of words in some cases, you are not being subjugated by the language of the colonizer's, but instead working with a global community in order to define your own niche.  The last is a more radical frame of mind, and includes many Africans who subscribe to the negritude movement, in that they go so far as to say that African languages are not adequately eloquent enough to define African identity and languages, especially French, of the Western nations are objectively more eloquent and better for the writing of literature.  I do not have any knowledge of any African language and as a result cannot lend comment to the last ideology, thus I will express my viewpoints on the other two.
Between the practical approach, which seem defeatist in my opinion whether true or not, and the Africanization of foreign languages, I tend to side with Africanization.  Dialectical differences have always lent literature an interesting edge, especially when you use America as an example.  First off, no one would try to claim American literature is British by nature because it uses English originated in England.  Primarily this is because the stories told are uniquely tied to an American identity and use English that is dialectic ally distinct from the Queen’s English.  Even within the United States there are dialectical differences that cause debate.  Many argue that Sound and the Fury by Faulkner is not as much an American novel as a southern novel, partially because the story told seems like an experience that is uniquely southern in nature, but there are also arguments that the language itself has phrases and word use that is southern in nature.  Though very evident in American literature, this is not unique to America and Africanization is well in place in Africa.
As aforementioned, one of the prime defenders of the ideology of African English was Achebe and as such he put this idea into place in his writing.  Just as in the case of America, no one would say that his novel is British or American because they are the prime users of English, though some might claim that it is not African.  Achebe uses parables and phrase along with a story that is African in nature to evoke the culture of Africa without using an African language.  Similarly, Ptaaje also evokes a definable feeling of African culture without using an African language in Mhudi.  I don't have the book with me so I cannot quote and I'll add some in when I return to campus.  However, Ptaaje does so stylistically more so than through parables and phrasing.  He is stylistically oral, which is to say he uses his word to paint the setting and the mood that is taking place during the novel.  Furthermore he narrates the story as if you are a ghost hanging on the shoulder of the characters through 3rd person limited narration which creates a sense of familiarity with the characters while making it impossible to step into their shoes, these they are truly characters in a book and not a pair of pants for the reader to wear.
Another major qualification question that is discussed in the debate over what an African writer is, is their ethnic and national background.  The main split is quite obvious, the side that claims only Africans born and raised in Africa can be African writers and those who believes that if you have roots in Africa and strive to write for the African people then you are an African writer.  This differentiation of views is, yet again, one birthed of colonialism.  African languages had writing systems, but unlike in Western nations there were no formal schools for teacher writing, so only those who needed to write knew how to write.  When colonization was in full bloom, the colonizer's started building some schools for teaching, or more accurately indoctrinating, Africans.  However these were still a privileged few and thus a education disparity was created.  Some of a few even more privileged individuals were able to then go to Europe and further their education.  When colonialism was legally ended and African literature started to come onto the scene, many of the well known writers were those who studied in Europe.  This education disparity is the root of the nationality issue in being an African writer, as well as the language debate in some ways.  This question was pushed even more into the limelight when African literary critique started to come onto the scene.
Many argued that traditional literary critique could not apply to Africa because it was specifically designed for Western art.  Thus a cacophony of viewpoints came from throughout Africa and Europe, one of the most controversial being the inclusion and importance placed upon biographical information on the writer.  With this trend on the rise, many writers that were considered African came into question, a common occurrence being that they might have been born Africa, but moved to Europe early in life or spent much of their life in Europe only to come back in an attempt to reclaim their African identity.  This issue in combination with language and education debates creates issues to this day in regards to literature.
The final, and debatedly least controversial but still evident, argument that comes up almost immediately after the legal end of colonialism is that of writing form.
Many would successfully argue that the novel form was the child of European literature and it was best executed by Europeans and Americans, but an unfortunate assumption comes out this argument, that the novel form is solely a Western literary form.  This creates similar divisions that I described with language, that you can't use the novel for African literature because that is willingly allowing your art form to be subjugated to a foreign power or, on the other side, you use it purely for practicality or, finally, you africanize the form.  Much how English and French became more than a national language with the rise of colonization and became the property of all effected nations, so to the novel form is not Europe's because art is not the artist's but everyone who consumes it.  Back to Achebe and Ptaaje, both of these authors chose to adopt the novel  to African sensibilities, to Africanize the form.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


          Whereas I see Achebe as a source of compromise into bringing African literature into the forefront of criticism by using the international, not necessarily western, form of the novel, though he adjusts it to a more African sensibility; Plaatje writes Mhudi in such a way that it completely emulates the African oral tradition.  The way it is written is completely unique to anything else i have read throughout the world.  Beyond being wholly African in terms of style, though so well written as to reach a Western audience expertly, it is also wholly African in terms of its purpose.  
          Plaatje was originally a journalist in south Africa before writing this books.  As a journalist her used the written word to fight the injustice he saw in his society, fulfilling the idea of the African author in service to his community.  This idealism is very much alive in his book Mhudi as the main character, Mhudi, exemplifies a strong African female.  As in many parts of the world, women are by no means treated as equal citizens in several regions of Africa.  To have the main character of one of the most influential and unique books in the history of African literature be a strong and intelligent female is a major step in social reform.  However, this is not to say that Plaatje is unrealistic with his portrayal of Mhudi, she was no goddess in the book and she had to look towards the male lead of the book at times like when she was in flight from a lion.  Instead she is strong willed rather than strong in physique and she is very intuitive.  One of the best examples of this is when in their flight their eventually end up staying in proximity to a white family who has bought land in the area.  Whereas the male lead attempts to garner favor, Mhudi quickly sees them for what they are and when she get proof of their heartlessness, the male lead still fails to see.