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Masters of the Drum: Black Lit/oratures Across the Continuum.

Reviewed by

Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure University of Northern Iowa

Robert Elliot Fox's book Masters of the Drum: Black Lit/eratures Across the Continuum is a groundbreaking work and an important contribution to the study of African, African American, and Caribbean literatures. Although the book is a follow-up to Fox's first book, Conscientious Sorcerers: The Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany (1987), it is unique in that it recrosses the Middle Passage: It is a cultural and literary journey from the African Diaspora (North and South America) to Africa. The book is divided into three parts, "Wayfaring Roots," "Vibration Positive," and "Set Your Mind To Africa." The theme that links the three parts centers around the cross-cultural experiences that resulted from slavery, colonialism, and neo-colonialism.

In the introductory chapter, "Drumtalk: Black Rhetorics, Black Rhythms, Black Writing," Fox outlines his main concerns in the book, namely "the 'deep song' of the black experience" in the "African-Atlantic continuum" (3). Using Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine as a starting point, Fox argues that, although the slave master succeeded in suppressing the physical drum, he failed to eradicate the one in the "skins." Consequently, there has been a shift from the physical drum to playing bodies and what Amina Baraka has called" 'a drum on tongue'" (4). In the written text, the talking drum has translated into the idea that writers in Africa and the African Diaspora respond to certain "beats." The crux of Fox's argument is that, just as "the master drummers in Africa give the call, 'spell out' the rhythms," thus directing the movements of the dancers, "so too do the best and deepest articulators of black lit/oratorical tradition" direct our understanding and help us to "re/member . . . scattered bodies of experience" (11).

The three chapters of Part I range from an overview of African American literature and criticism to Ishmael Reed's Neo-HooDooism and Bob Kaufman's poetry. Chapter two, "To Reveal Is to Heal: Some Thoughts on African American Literature and Criticism since the 1960s," surveys the practice of African American literary criticism since the Black Arts Movement and suggests that there has been a clash of ideas concerning how to read black texts or how the canon is formed. One such clash is the high demand for black women's writing, whereas the demand for black men's writing is declining. As evidence, Fox cites the projects of Maryemma Graham and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which seek to bring to the fore materials written by black women. Equally interesting is Fox's discussion about the battle between Joyce Ann Joyce and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Houston A. Baker, Jr., concerning what tools to use in African American criticism. Here Fox does not straddle the fence. Joyce's critical approaches are called "monochrome, monotonal," and her assertions something that read like "lingering echoes of the 1960s" (36). In stark contrast, Baker's and Gates's approaches are labeled polychromatic. The chapter ends with Fox calling for an eclectic approach to reading and interpreting African American texts. There is nothing wrong, Fox argues, with using "Euro-American analytical tools" as long as these are not regarded as "one's exclusive set of instruments" (40).

Chapter three, "Blacking the Zero: Toward a Semiotics of Neo-Hoodoo," reads Ishmael Reed's Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic via Jacques Derrida, Terry Eagleton, Wole Soyinka, Rene Depestre, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to name a few. The chapter examines the different meanings of the yin-yang signs that appear in Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and Mumbo Jumbo as one of the metaphors for Neo-HooDooism. Using geometrical figures and charts, Fox cogently demonstrates how the yin-yang sign can be identified "as a veve (verver), a sign that represents a loa," to appeal to Atibon-Legba, the guardian of crossroads. In Reed's writing Atibon-Legba is reconfigured as the hoodoo detective Papa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red, and Fox cogently interprets LaBas as a North American version of the Haitian Papa Legba, a "New World incarnation of the Fon divinity Legba." Reed's aesthetic and metaphysical preoccupation, Fox notes, is to challenge Eurocentric ways of looking at reality by providing variegated ways of perceiving reality. There "are possibilities other than those that immediately meet the eye/I" (58).

The last chapter in this part, "Blue Syntaxophones: The Poetry of Bob Kaufman," explores Kaufman's commitment to oral tradition through an analysis of some of the poems from Golden Sardine and The Ancient Rain. More specifically, this chapter briefly studies the interaction among the oral tradition, jazz, and surrealism in Kaufman's poetry. By using a diagram, Fox shows how a verse like "I am a Negro. I am Oregon" from a poem in The Ancient Rain can be read as an anagram for "'O negro' or 'negro O,'" the former meaning black in Portuguese, the latter suggesting a "voided negritude or 'Negro degree zero'" (68). Although Fox compares Kaufman to the Negritude poet Aime Cesaire, he argues that Kaufman's language is "jazzier" and "far more streetwise" than Cesaire's.

With the second part, "Vibration Positive," a pun on Bob Marley's "Positive Vibrations," Fox migrates south of the United States to dialogue with Derek Walcott, Caribbean women, and Lorna Goodison. Chapter five, "Derek Walcott: History as Disease," examines Walcott's attitudinal aesthetic toward history and argues that Walcott scarcely respects or admires the latter. In effect, he views history as a nightmare or "'that Medusa of the New World'" (87). In "Re/vision and Resistance in Caribbean Women's Writings," Fox argues that language, voice, and memory are some of the thematic and aesthetic tools whereby contemporary Caribbean women writers add "a new rhythm to the drumming" of male perspectives (107). This concept is carried over to chapter seven, "Working toward Light: A Conversation with Lorna Goodison," a chapter that breaks the rhythm of Masters of the Drum by way of an interview that provides insight into the mind of Jamaican poet and painter Lorna Goodison. While admitting that her poetry is characterized by duality - oral tradition and literary tradition - she reveals that she feels obligated "to just write from inside that Caribbean experience" without worrying about readership. Fox has done a wonderful job in asking those questions that really probe Goodison and lead her to make powerful statements like, "I don't like to be contained. I don't want people to tell me that I shouldn't write political poetry. I come as I am" (121).

In Part III, "Set Your Minds to Africa," Fox reverses the Middle Passage motif and connects the African Diaspora to Africa through a reading of Ayi Kwei Armah, an analysis of African literary theory, and an interview with Nurrudin Farah. In "The Untold Stories in Armah's Why Are We So Blest?," Fox provides a cogent way of better appreciating Armah's novel. While admitting his dissatisfaction with this novel, Fox argues that Armah's novel is neither a "reverse-racist" nor an "anti-white" novel, as critics like Adewale Maja-Pearce have purported. What is praiseworthy about Fox's approach is that Armah is studied in conversation with other black writers like Ralph Ellison, Claude McKay, W. E. B. Du Bois, David Diop, and Ngugi wa Thiong'O. The next chapter, "Theory and Its Discontents: An African Instance," resembles chapters two and three of Part I insofar as it, too, tackles the question of what kind of theory is most well-suited to reading African literature. Actually, the whole chapter seems to build around Fox's response to the theoretical ideas advanced by the Nigerian critic Chidi Amuta in his book The Theory of African Literature: Implications for Practical Criticism (1989). Fox faults Amuta for deriving his theory from Marxism (at the time when African endeavor in socialism was failing) and for being prescriptive, and thereby ignoring the complexity of African cultures and literature. Yet, ironically, Fox falls into the same trap by suggesting that "the best books" on African literature are Simon Gikandi's Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction and Christopher L. Miller's Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa. Also, one wishes that Fox had developed further the last section of this chapter, in which he suggests that African literature should be read "from many angles."

Nowhere in the book is this complexity of African literature more resounding than in the last chapter, "Occupying Ambiguous Territory: A Conversation with Nurrudin Farrah." The Somali writer emerges from this 1989 interview an angry man: He is angry against people whose reading lists always include Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'O; he is disappointed that his novels, especially From a Crooked Rib, have not been given due critical attention. Fox attaches a postscript to the interview, informing readers that since the interview Farah's work has been given the critical attention it merits. Unfortunately, the excellent insights into Farah's creative mind, such as the fact that African writers "no longer have the luxury of writing some masturbatory exercise," are marred by Farah's apparent jealousy of Ngugi (who is one of the two African writers most assigned to students). But what is more troubling is Farah's misreading of Ngugi's work. Farah argues that there is nothing "African" in Ngugi's novels: "The novels published by Ngugi so far do not capture the spirit of the African person" (165). Yet even in his early novels like Weep Not Child and The River Between, Ngugi has aimed at capturing and preserving Kenyan culture, and Ngugi is today one of the few African writers who write in an African language. Despite the anger and misreading, Farah is legitimate in addressing the canon formation in African literature. In his own words, "You need to supplement your reading of the Achebes and the Ngugis and the Soyinkas with other writers who occupy different spaces on that canvas" (164).

With the recognition that this book reflects an evolution in Fox's scholarship - the majority of the essays use Euro-American-derived critical approaches to read African American, Caribbean, and African texts - Masters of the Drum: Black Lit/eratures Across the Continuum is highly recommended for students, teachers, researchers, and readers whose aim is to reverse the Middle Passage in order to better understand the connecting experiences between the African Diaspora and Africa. Fox's book mirrors what present and future African and African Diaspora studies should be, and deserves a wide readership.
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Author:Mvuyekure, Pierre-Damien
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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