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Literatures of the African Diaspora



From the shores of African states of the middle ages to the mid 1800’s slaves were being loaded, in fact, packed into slave ships for the shores of America where they would be sold at auctions. Many of those that were forced onto the slave ships never made the passage onto the other side. These ones were thrown overboard for reasons of health as their rotting bodies would pose a risk to those ones that they were packed together with in the confined spaces of the ships’ holds. Those that died were given these burials at sea without ceremony; the sharks would do the honour of reciting the final rites to the cadavers thrown overboard. The passage took several months at first, but ended up requiring a mere six weeks to complete. Out of the more than 60 million Africans sold into slavery, close to half of them did not make the long passage, their bodies thrown to the sharks and their souls now wandering the vast expanse of the Atlantic, leaving the following generations of Africans that crossed and those that remained at home wondering exactly what happened. This led to the birth of literature that poses questions as to the real end and fate of the Africans that were sold into slavery. It has become a constant practice of memory and rememory explored over the years since the first Emancipation of the coloured peoples in America. From Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa), to Samuel Adjayi Crowther, to Frederick Douglass, there was a genuine literary effort not only to recount the horrors of the long passage, but to give room to new voices that speak out against the continuing enslavement of the black folk and also to remember not only as a people but as a race. New voices such as W. E. B du Bois and Marcus Garvey acted as a bridge into the era of black modern writers of the African Diaspora. Diaspora in this instance refers to the act of dispersion that led to the scattering of Africans all over the western world through slavery. Constantly oppressed and worked to the bone on the sugar plantations and cotton fields, the memory of the black folk of African descent is filled with the sadness of Toni Morrison’s classic, Beloved. A tale that not only recounts the horrors but also a story of how the blacks can free themselves from the slavery by constantly remembering to enable them to remember exactly who they are, the story of Beloved is one that gets one wondering exactly how cruel and conveniently amnesiac the world is when it comes to addressing the history of those Africans scattered to the far corners of the world through bondage. Some of us still living on the continent would not understand the connection with our brothers across the seas was it not for the field of literature name Literatures of the African Diaspora. The struggles for the independence of the African continent from colonialism were cut on the outline of the literature of the African Diaspora. It is an ironic twist to the tale that those that were sold into slavery across the Atlantic were actually the first ones to teach the African who stayed behind how to speak against the oppression of colonialism. It was in the late 1700’s that Olaudah Equiano spoke these words in the preface to his autobiography: My Lords and Gentlemen, Permit me, with the greatest deference and respect, to lay at your feet the following genuine Narrative; the chief design of which is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen. By the horrors of that trade was I first torn away from all the tender connexions that were naturally dear to my heart; but these, through the mysterious ways of Providence, I ought to regard as infinitely more than compensated by the introduction I have thence obtained to the knowledge of the Christian religion, and of a nation which, by its liberal sentiments, its humanity, the glorious freedom of its government, and its proficiency in arts and sciences, has exalted the dignity of human nature. In a sense, they could have been the first words uttered against the continued enslavement of the people of African descent on the plantations and cotton fields of the Americas. Humble in their demeanour, they however laid the foundation for movements such as the Emancipation Proclamation uttered by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and would culminate with the Civil Rights Movements in the 1960’s and would put the name of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech on history books. This is not simply a history of the African people on the continent of America, it is also a song handed from generation to generation, bearing with it the memory of a continent lost recounted by not only Langston Hughes, but is also heard in the words of Bob Marley’s lyrics. It is a stream of words at whose core is the pain of longing by the African sold into slavery as recounted in Langston Hughes’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers: I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. The peroration to the poem, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers…” is a declaration of the refusal to forget the continent that gave birth to the “Negro” who at the point of Langston Hughes’ writing the poem in 1921 was facing constant harassment and subjugation despite being declared as ‘emancipated’. The refusal in a sense reveals a reawakening of the black man’s questioning of his position in society and by giving an account of his origins, the poet establishes not only his position in society but reveals an awakening of his status as a human being with a history and a place of origin somewhere.   Enslavement for the black peoples of the Americas in a sense erased most of their history in a physical and psychological sense. Forcefully uprooted from their villages by slave traders and shoved into slave ships, the Africans lost their footing in the world, uprooted from the soils in which their navels were buried. Given new names and assuming new identities forced on them as a subhuman class in the lands where they were auctioned, it means that the slave ship never stopped floating on the waters of the Atlantic for the black. Without a place of origin and a name, the black in America would only later understand who he exactly was through the writing of literature that addressed his daily struggles on the plantation. The 1857 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper poem, The Slave Auction, recounts the cruel simplicity of how human beings can be reduced to mere goods that can be peddled off like garage sale furniture. The practice had begun with their packing into the slave ship for the voyage across the Atlantic: the more slaves a trader could pack into his ship, the more money he would make at the auctions on the other side. Of the sadness of being reduced to a commodity the world of slave trade never actually gave a whit about. Ellen Watkins’ poem’s first four stanzas capture the full sadness of the deed of selling human beings by other humans that considered themselves an upper class: The sale began—young girls were there, Defenseless in their wretchedness, Whose stifled sobs of deep despair Revealed their anguish and distress. And mothers stood, with streaming eyes, And saw their dearest children sold; Unheeded rose their bitter cries, While tyrants bartered them for gold. And woman, with her love and truth— For these in sable forms may dwell— Gazed on the husband of her youth, With anguish none may paint or tell. And men, whose sole crime was their hue, The impress of their Maker’s hand, And frail and shrinking children too, Were gathered in that mournful band… One finds a similar vein in the 1922 published Claude Mc Kay poem written in 1917, The Harlem Dancer, published in The Book of American Negro Poetry and edited by James Weldon Johnson. The character in the poem is objectified, in fact, ‘exoticised’ to a level oriental by the audience of drunken black revellers gathered in spectacle around her: Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway; Her voice was like the sounded of blended flutes Blown by black players upon a picnic day. She sang and dance on gracefully and calm, The light gauze hanging loose about her form; To me she seemed a proudly swaying palm Grown lovelier for passing through a storm Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise, The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls, Devoured her with their eager, passionate gaze; But, looking at her falsely-smiling face I knew her self was not in that strange place. It seems the literature of the African Diaspora reveals an element that could have been ignored by literature on the African mainland. There has always been a transaction in human lives going on in the background all over the colonised world, the only difference is the degree of subtlety with which the sale in human lives is going. The Americans of the slave trade era were not as subtle about the sale; they actually had auctions going on! One could have thought the practice ended with the end of the slave era, but the reality is that it went on until blacks started watching each other on a buyer and commodity sale. The practice still goes on to the present day what with the advent of the music video and continued objectification of women and other figures of interest. What the literature reveals upon close analysis is that the practices of the slave trade era have not stopped but have just found a new form. Hiding in plain sight, the trade in human countenances still goes on in a different form, and the illusion created is that people are flaunting what they have when they are in essence displaying the chains they chose to wear. In simple terms, human trading may just prove to be a practice that will last until the end of time. Never mind the presumptuous ‘agreements’ drawn between parties when it comes to the provision of any type of sale; the party with the lesser power or social standing is bound to be sold at some point. The big issue seems to have been time that has passed since the event, but the reality is that some events are hard to forget, especially if the joy or the pain they brought is still around or still clear enough to be remembered. On speaking about time and rememory, Toni Morrison states that: “I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.” This is the fact of the literatures of the African Diaspora, there is the reality of the constant search for a place that is gone but can still be remembered. Africa remains a tangible memory despite the travails that came in between the moment they passed through the point of return onto the slave ship and on to the slave auction where they would be sold to some plantation owner or slave trader in America. The point of no return at places like Elmina in Ghana means nothing to a literature that sets out to reconnect a people sold into slavery with the land where their forefathers built the first huts of one village deep in the past mists of time. It is a literature that in its endeavour to reconnect with the land of the author’s origin ends up reigniting the fire of finding one’s identity in the mind of those children of Africa that stayed behind. The dispersion of the seeds of Africa did not mean that they would forget the place where the tree that gave life to them stands. The literature of African people dispersed by slavery seems only to have reignited a sense of yearning in their children to know and understand the place where they really come from: Africa. Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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