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Contemporary Literature in the African Diaspora.

Olga Barrios and Bernard W. Bell, eds. Contemporary Literature in the African Diaspora. Salamanca, Spain: Universidad de Salamanca, 1997. 170 pp.

This collection of essays by eighteen literary scholars is the outcome of symposium on the African Diaspora that was held in 1996 at the University of Salamanca, Spain. According to Olga Barrios, who co-edited the volume with Bernard W. Bell, the symposium was the means by which its organizers hoped to "reinvigorate the University's academic program in North American literature." The fact that the symposium was held in Spain, the host of two other international conferences on the African diaspora during the 1990s, strongly suggests that African diaspora and African American literature have finally come into their own as world literatures.

The essays are divided into three sections--"African American Literature," "Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Literature," and "African Literatures in English." As is often the case when conference papers are gathered and revised for publication, there is not much scholarly depth in Contemporary Literature in the African Diaspora. Almost all of the essays address issues of gender, race, and class, but, with a few exceptions, they don't contribute much that is new, particularly for North American African Americanist literary scholars. In the section on African American literature, essays by Trudier Harris and Bernard Bell are notable exceptions.

Harris's "What is Africa to African American Women Writers" raises provocative questions about the way African diaspora women writers imagine Africa as their cultural marker without ever having experienced continental African culture. Harris presents an overview of the history of Africa as a rediscovered homeland in the African American literary imagination from the Harlem Renaissance to the present, only to accuse writers as diverse as Nikki Giovanni, Gloria Naylor, Paule Marshall, Octavia Butler, Alice Childress, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison of not only exploiting Africa for their own creative purposes but also of sinning against Africa in their efforts to bridge the gap between the African and American sides of their personal and collective identities. As she puts it, "In the interest of bolstering African American identity, these writers have distorted African identity, disrespected Africa's unique cultural traditions, and contained Africa's largeness within the smallness of their created art. There i s seldom a genuine desire to know Africa." For Harris, this lack of a desire to know Africa--this ignorance--is the first of "various kinds of sins" African American women writers commit against Africa. But there are greater sins, according to Harris. "Another sin is collapsing the individuality of African countries and cultures into a singularity that probably does not exist--and certainly not to the extent these writers would claim. But perhaps the greater sin is arrogance--the arrogance in assuming that black Americans, because they have an historical tie to Africa, can use its connotative resources however they wish in their own bids for individual and communal freedom and identity."

One cannot help but wonder what kinds of responses this dubious argument about the relation between the African American literary imagination and Africa generated from conference participants! I, for one, am inclined to leave the rhetoric of sinfulness within the domains of religion and to speak instead of errors in critical judgment. Harris has erred here. For one thing, African American writers hardly have the power to re-colonize the continent for their own purposes, as she contends. Neither have they reaped "financial rewards" worth talking about as a result of their literary imaginings about Africa--or anything else, for that matter. In that sense, it is not the writer, but multinational corporations who pose the greatest threat to Africa. Also, Harris seems to forget that it is precisely because Africa is made up of so many cultures and countries that Africans living on the continent often are ignorant of the ethnic and cultural differences of people with whom they share this vast geographic space. It is therefore unreasonable to expect African American writers somehow, magically, to know Africa any better than Africans, or critics, for that matter. More important, in the interest of presenting her arguments, Harris errs in her reading of Alice Childress's Wine in the Wilderness, a play that has little to do with Africa. The action revolves around an African American male artist's exploitation and objectification of a working-class black woman, Tomorrow Marie, for aesthetic purposes. it is not Bill's wife, Cynthia, who brings Tomorrow Marie to his apartment to serve as the model for the third panel of his triptych, as Harris contends. Bill is not married, and this fact is important for the development of the conflict and tension between Bill and Tomorrow Marie and the play's denouement. My point in citing this error of reading is to suggest that the literary critic's responsibility is to writing and literature. We owe it to the writers whose work we interpret to read carefully and to allow them to decide f or themselves whether or not it is sinful for them to let their imaginations wander and roam where they might, even to Africa with all of its complexities.

The other essays in this section are much less provocative, although Bernard Bell's essay on the fiction of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan raises some interesting and rather contentious concerns about fictional stereotypes of black men and about these writers' "complicity" in the "neocolonial cultural and political domination of American males of African descent." Essays by Sheila Lloyd, Josefina Cornejo, Maria Del Mar Gallego, Ana Maria Fraile, Australia Tarver, Ana Maria Manzanas, and Jesus Benito are mainly thematic and offer a good introduction to recent African American fiction. Likewise the essays in the "Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Literatures" section of the collection are most welcome as easily accessible introductions to fiction by writers from the Caribbean environment like Olive Senior, Erna Brodber, Derek Walcott, and the Antigua-born African American novelist Jamaica Kincaid. This section is greatly enhanced by essays on Afro-Latin literature by Rosalia Comejo-Parrie go and by Laurence Prescott. Many North American undergraduates--and some graduate students, for that matter--have little or no knowledge about the African diaspora beyond the English-speaking Caribbean environment. Cornejo-Parriego's essay on the Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferre and Prescott's brief discussion of Colombian writers of African descent help to underscore the fact that the dispersion of African peoples into the so-called new world was indeed vast.

The third section of Contemporary Literature in the African Diaspora, "African Literatures in English," begins, curiously, with a discussion of Mariama Ba's Une si longue lettre, which is in English only by virtue of its having been translated from the original French, and is not considered part of Anglophone African literature, as the title of this section implies. Nevertheless, the author of this essay, Katwiwa Mule, offers a compelling discussion of the complexities of African cross-cultural relationships and the problems of gender and post-colonialism as they are articulated from the point of view of Ramatoulaye, a French-educated Senegalese woman who is writing, in French, to her close friend, Aissatou.

Each of the final three essays in this section deals with drama. Olga Barrios begins her essay with comments on how the Black Theater movements in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s and in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s illustrate the idea of the African diaspora. Despite "different sociohistorical and political contexts," black people in both countries suffered similar kinds of racial oppression. Black North American and African playwrights like Amiri Baraka, Wole Soyinka, Ed Bullins, and Douglas Turner Ward gave creative expression to this oppression in plays and saw them successfully produced on stages in their fellow playwrights' countries. After giving a succinct and well-informed overview of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, Barrios focuses on a play by Maishe Maponya titled Gangsters to show the intersections between the Black North American and Black South African theater movements. Central to both were the ideas of black consciousness and black power. According to Barrios, "Ga ngsters reflects how the Black Consciousness artists, infuriated by the blood shed by the children of the Soweto uprisings in 1976 and Stephen Biko's death in prison, dramatized that rage and the spirit of the dead into their artistic work." For students and scholars interested in politically committed theater, Barrios's "Black Consciousness Theater in South Africa and the Committed Artist" is an informative and essential text.

Kriben Pillay's "Narrative Devices, Time and Ontology in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead" and "The Amistad Affair and the Nation of Sierra Leone" by Iyunolu Osagie are insightful, the former for its emphasis on the staging and performance of this one-act play by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, and the latter for Osagie's discussion of the impact that the play Amistad Kata1

Kata by the Sierra Leonean playwright Charlie Haffner had on people who, for the most part, cannot read. These essays on drama and those on the literatures of the Caribbean environment and Latin America help to make this a useful text for students interested in the African diaspora. They will find in this collection a sampling of the kind of work that makes the idea of African diaspora literary studies a reality.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Adell, Sandra
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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