Africa and the World
I’ve been asked very loosely to think about the relationship of African writers and Africa at large to American writing. An enormous topic, of course, but I’ll offer a few thoughts. Even before 1922, when Countee Cullen wrote his famous poem “Heritage,” Africa was a monolith, an idea for most Americans. We know that through the so-called idea of Africa, many white Americans have found their imagined antithesis, their aesthetic inverse, their thrilled fantasies. Even, or perhaps especially in children’s literature, for example, one still encounters vulgar stereotypes such as bones through the nose, wild-eyed savages, and darling knaves in contemporary garb. But what of the African American writer’s relationship to her African predecessors, heritage, and peers? That for me is a richer and more interesting question.
In the poem I mentioned, “Heritage,” Cullen wrote: “What is Africa to me: / Copper sun or scarlet sea.” He echoed William Blake’s metrical and rhyme patterns from “The Tyger”—“Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night; / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”—in writing the African American self, the temporal relative to the immortal, the African American relative to the imagined African self. For Africa as such was no more real or known to Cullen than it was, say, to Picasso when he first saw those sculptures at the Trocadero near the turn of the century and was so radically rocked at the aesthetic and philosophical root, his entire artistic project and European art history changed forever.
We know from the landmark 1925 anthology The New Negro that many African Americans were seeing and imagining Africa for the first time when this art and these artifacts made their way to the Western world. So Africa was, for those writers, also new, and their relationship to it opened for exploration and investigation. Yet the African American, of course, has a different history, a different journey to explore, a different relationship to Africa that emanates from the interruption, the violent fissure of the Middle Passage and its subsequent soul-annihilating indignities. There is a melancholia about the unresolved slash, the never-to-be-known homeland that coexists with the great and limitless possibilities of reinvention, which gave the world, for example, jazz—a music that is heavily influenced by Africa but utterly, purely, completely African American, which is to say, American.
We died at the bottom of the ocean, and then at the hands of the brutal slave system, then due to the privations of Jim Crow, then at the hands of the police and of each other. That’s a lot of unending blues. I think of Gwendolyn Brooks’s wonderful words that strive to connect the dots between Africa and Afro America: “I am black. I am one of the blacks. We occur everywhere. Don’t call me out of my name.” And her wish to be called “black” links her to other African people, diasporized and not. Does that linkage hold? Is our wish for it to hold sentimental? How do we locate motherland in our art forms? The African retentions, as the art historian Robert Ferris Thompson called them, of bottle trees and shell-studded graves.
In poetry, you see the continued effort of black American poets of almost all stripes to keep their ears open, both for the literal sounds of our different Englishes—formal and vernacular—and for our oral traditions and whatever is left of proverbial logic and structure, ancestral mythos, musicality, the African something—the genius that occurs when spoken word successfully marries literary form. We see African Americans now sending our cheek-scrapings and hair strands to genomic projects at Howard University in hopes that we can learn not so much what we have, how much of what we have in us, but rather names, names that will tell us something about what we come from, give us something to start with.
I wonder, in that particular search for roots, do we overlook that which we have, skip right over to the easier work of romance and iconography? Perhaps we look past what we have already made, skip over the added challenges of being an American in the world with civic responsibilities and an urgent need to have our say in our country’s role at home and in the rest of the world. I think about moments of contact and cross-pollination: the mutual-admiration society, for example, of Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe; the relationship of the late poet and scholar Melvin Dixon to Senegal and his fine, definitive translation of the poems of Senghor; Langston Hughes’s anthologies of African short stories and poems, which brought African writers to U.S. audiences in the 1950s and ’60s; Robert Hayden’s winning the Grand Prix for poetry in 1966 at the African Arts festival in Dakar; Louis Armstrong giving a trumpet to the young Hugh Masekela; Stevie Wonder and Sounds of Distinction covering Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass”; James Brown and Fela Kuti riffing back and forth endlessly, fiercely.
For many of us of my generation, the anti-apartheid movement was a way to connect with African writing, politics, and history in the making. That civil-rights battle for desegregation and human dignity resonated, of course, with our own history. In the United States in the 1980s, affirmative action was under attack, and the Reagan era was changing the country’s winds from the Great Society in the 1960s. The “Free South Africa” movement kept our eyes on the prize and fueled our own ongoing struggle. The movement gave us a certain kind of clarity; its writers gave us the gift of clarity as we moved through that transitional period in African American civil-rights history.
Today I’m particularly interested in the population of young black people, like many of the ones I teach at university, who are as likely to have been born in Lagos or Port of Spain as in Los Angeles. The diaspora is alive and well and creative and has a new face. The black kids now—as my own children, whose father is Eritrean—describe themselves: When he was four, the eldest said to me, “Mommy, you’re an African American, right?”
And I said, “Yes.”
And he said, “And Daddy is African, right?”
And I said, “Right.”
And he said, “So we’re African American.”
So, I think that generation of African Americans in American universities, that is to say, young Americans of immediate African descent, are the ones whom I’m very eager to hear from in the arts and in literature. I think that’s the next very exciting thing. And I know we’re going to hear from them loudly and in large numbers.
Being a race warrior, being a race worker, or even just being a race scholar in the American context is exhausting work. Sometimes the mind’s portals fill up and may seem unresponsive to the necessary knowledge that awaits us around the world in conversation. I say without hesitation that from African people and African literature, I have learned—and many of my companions have learned—certain essential aspects of these following large categories: beauty, grace, patience, profound woe, and capacity for joy. And so resonates the blues. There is more for us to find in the width of that sky. I want to close with two poems of mine that deal in some way with this contemporary diaspora as it “occurs”—to use Brooks’s wonderful verb—all over the world, but from my vantage point, here, in the United States, in this new century. This first one is called “The African Picnic”:
World Cup finals, France v. Brasil.
The TV sits in the bright sunshine.
We want Brasil but Brasil won’t win.
Aden waves a desultory green and yellow flag.
From the East to the West to the West to the East
we scatter and settle and scatter some more.
Through the window, Mama watches from the cool indoors.
Jonah scarfs meat off of everybody’s plate,
kicks a basketball long and hollers, “goal,”
then roars like the mighty lion he is.
Baby is a pasha surrounded by pillows
and a bevy of Horn of Africa girls
who coo like lovers, pronounce his wonders,
oil and massage him, brush his hair.
My African family is having a picnic, here in the U.S.A.
Who is here and who is not?
When will the phone ring from far away?
Who in a few days will say goodbye?
Who will arrive with a package from home?
Who will send presents in other people’s luggage
and envelopes of money in other people’s pockets?
Other people’s children have become our children
here at the African picnic.
in a parking lot, in a taxi-cab,
in a winter coat, in an airport queue,
at the INS, on the telephone,
on the crosstown bus, on a South Side street,
in a brand-new car, in a djellaba,
with a cardboard box, with a Samsonite,
with an airmail post, with a bag of spice,
at the African picnic people come and go.
The mailman sees us say goodbye and waves
with us, goodbye, goodbye, as we throw popcorn,
ululate, ten or twelve suitcases stuffed in the car.
Goodbye, Mamma, goodbye—
The front door shut. The driveway bare.
Goodbye, Mamma, goodbye.
The jet alights into the night,
a huge, metal machine in flight,
Goodbye, Mamma, goodbye—
At the African picnic, people come and go
and say goodbye.
Then to close, a short poem, a funny poem with a title that’s meant as a joke, which makes itself clear in the poem—an American poem, with an African American story in it that’s also an African story. The poem is called “Ars Poetica #28: African Leave-Taking Disorder.”
at the door. Urban crickets sing with them.
There is no after the supper and talk.
The talk is good. These two friends linger
at the door, half in, half out, ’til one
decides to walk the other home. And so
they walk, more talk, the new doorstep, them
nightgowned wife who shakes her head and smiles
from the bedroom window as the men talk
in love and the crickets sing along.
The joke would be if the one now home
walked the other one home, where they started,
to keep talking, and so on: “African
Leave-Taking Disorder,” which names her children
everywhere trying to come back together and talk.