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African Literature

For a place that is home to hundreds of tribes without written language, Africa boasts plenty of literature. From the Egyptian Book of the Dead in ancient times, to the works of St. Augustine in the Middle Ages, to the novels of 21st-century Nobelist J.M. Coetzee, some of the world's great writing has come from the "Dark Continent."

It's ironic that only European ignorance saw Africa as dark. The first Western visitors were confused by the strange customs of the people, the impenetrable landscapes, and the overall foreignness of the last unexplored inhabited continent. Yet Africa (particularly North Africa) had a long intellectual tradition that reached back farther than the one the Europeans were so proud of.

While Germanic and Celtic tribesmen were still eating their meat raw and fighting in the nude, the Egyptians were conducting successful brain surgery, building pyramids that are engineering wonders by any standard, and organizing themselves into complex political and religious structures. Several millennia later, while Europe was feudal and plagued, the Arabs of North Africa were rediscovering Aristotle and developing mathematics.

Not quite what you'd expect from a "Dark Continent." To be fair, the bulk of Africa was long submerged in ignorance and animistic superstition from which it has yet to fully escape. But a lot of the Europeans' blanket dismissal was due to deep-seated racism, an attitude that any non-white people group was benighted and required Caucasian assistance to become fully (or even partially) human. It was a deplorable and frankly disgusting attitude, but it was held nearly universally and with almost religious dogmatism throughout the West.

The upshot was "the White Man's Burden," an idea that took its name from the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling. While interpretations of the poem were varied, essentially it presented the idea that less advanced cultures needed to be shepherded by more advanced ones, and that white people were under an obligation to help darker people out of their cultural morass.

As an example of Darwinist pseudo-fatherly philosophy, the idea was brilliant, allowing Europeans and North Americans an excuse and morally justifiable reason for conquest; as anything like a legitimate worldview, it was worthless. That didn't stop white men from storming through Africa, looking for slaves and gold and natural resources and spices. Soon, the white man's burden was one borne by the Africans themselves in their subjugation.

Probably the greater part of modern African writing has been a reaction to this sad state of affairs. One of the most brilliant and eloquent of all indigenous African writers, Chinua Achebe, deals primarily with the idea of foreign colonization, the destruction of African culture by the imposition of Western ideas and attitudes, and the necessity for native Africans to take back what they lost. It's almost a reverse white man's burden, in which the Europeans are pure evil and the Africans have the right and responsibility to break their yolk and then some.

Other writers have been more moderate. Many of them (ironically) are whites left over from the big colonial pushes, descendants of settlers who now consider themselves Africans. J.M. Coetzee, a white South African, has chronicled the often difficult road to reunification between white and black Africans, and the attendant sorrows and joys. One of the best single novels on that subject is Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, about the struggle against apartheid.

It's perhaps no coincidence that the bulk of Africa's literature is focused in the north and south. While there are brilliant writers from the interior, the geographical extremes as capitals of cultural progress are indicative of the polarization of the continent's populations. Even the timeline is polarized: early flurries of activity led to a long lull and only a fairly recent return.

Some historians of African descent (largely African-Americans) have posited a theory of Afrocentrism, which asserts that all human civilization can be traced back to Africa. That's a ludicrous idea, kind of a knee-jerk against Eurocentrism (equally ludicrous). At the same time, those too willing to overlook African culture in favor of Western or even Asian contributions to the world scene would do well to reconsider and examine more closely a land as full of life and mystery and culture as any other, and African literature is an excellent doorway to further study.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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African Literature
16 Items found Print
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