Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes

(This was originally presented to the New York College English Association a dozen years ago. The text is unchanged.)

Once, talking theory of literature in a graduate seminar, I ventured to mention the ancient notion that one end of art is to give pleasure. "We don't," the professor chided, "talk about our personal lives here, Mr. Seaton." That seemed to me wrong-headed at the time, and it still does. I came of age, after all, in the 60s among friends who insisted that theory and practice should be fused and that the personal is the political. For this reason, before approaching African literature, I would like to give some account of how I come to be speaking on this topic. Through explaining the particular appeal of African writing to me I may be able to suggest its value for you and to make some observations about how we all read and why.

I am, of course, anything but original in my practice of subjective criticism. From the pseudo-Longinus through Hazlitt and genteel 1920s PMLA impressionism to the aggressively ironic decentered subject that speaks in some recent critical discussion, most readers have assumed the final authority of their own reading experience. Yet, many of us remain unself-conscious and therefore unapologetic New Critics and, as David Bleich notes, "Those discussing a work [today] usually pretend that they did not experience it in a direct emotional way" (7). I could be grand and invent a new jargon by which we academic homeboys can recognize each other, or grandiose and announce a new school of confessional criticism which holds the potential of catapulting professors to afternoon daytime TV, or I could be familiar and recognize that I simply wish to talk as I would among friends.

It is not for me to delineate the value of African literature for Africans or for African-Americans any more than I would venture to imagine how Wole Soyinka might be received by a Chinese critic or by our great-grandchildren. I could learn from their insights, but in the end the readings I offer can only arise from my own life.

I grew up in a suburb that barred not only black people and the poor, but also Jews and Asians. The Democratic Party was virtually nonexistent while the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade were active. So, like others in similar environments, I listened to a lot of jazz and blues, marched with Dr. King, and supported the Panthers. My brother married a black woman, as did a stepbrother and a stepsister. I worked with the Vice Lords in VISTA, taught in Bedford-Stuyvesant and in the bush of Nigeria's Bendel State not far from old slave forts and new oil refineries on the coast.

What brought me to those humid mangrove swamps? What brought me here today? White guilt or the radical chic that led Langston Hughes' characters, the Carraways, to "go in" for Negroes? (19) Another 60s formula held that liberals act out of charity, feeling pity for the unfortunate, while radicals seek their own liberation. But this may be just self-dramatizing rhetoric for the commonplace practice of seeking self-knowledge in the other: in love across the gender line, in exotic travel (so fashionable among the well-educated), in my field of comparative literature, in cultural studies that address that other we find beneath our noses in Family Feud, bumper stickers, and Donald Duck. Most would agree that one who knows only English literature cannot know literature nor can one who knows only European-American culture know what it is to be human. One must triangulate experience to analyze either oneself or general truths.

Now the multiplication of perspective is inherent in all literature (most of us expect our students to "broaden their knowledge" through reading), but certain texts foreground it. The sharpness of vision available to the well-read and the well-traveled provided they keep eyes and minds open, is not theirs alone. It is inherent in texts from "the other half," and it may be valuable to readers who do not share the author's place in the structure of society. Surely the phenomenon is evident in the prominence of Irish writers in the English literature of the last century, of Jews and, more recently, a whole spectrum of ethnics in America, of writers with a foot in each of two cultures (like Rushdie and Ishigoru), as well as in those who resuscitate versions of the archaic such as Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, and Jerome Rothenberg.

The commonest American form of the other is racial, and Leslie Fiedler was right when he identified the color contradiction at the heart of a long line of American classics. Hegel's master/slave dialectic hovers in the background as the split vision of the Black writer becomes explicit in American culture. The locus classicus is DuBois:

After the Egyptian and the Indian, the Greek and the Roman, the Teuton and the Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, -- a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

In spite of the prophetic implication of second sight and the masterful rhetoric which authenticates the claim, DuBois seems to be describing an illness. More recently Cornel West described the Black writer as "languishing at the interface of Black and white cultures." (hooks 14) But Richard Wright, whose Native Son was also, paradoxically, an Outsider, claimed that his "split subjectivity" placed him "ahead" of white writers (Gilroy 172). The "underground" of Wright (in "The Man Who Lived Underground") and Ellison (in the Prologue to Invisible Man) as well as the "undergrounds" of literary bohemia and political struggle offer a physical image for this dual vision. Baldwin notes the Fanon-like rage he feels when he is seen as a curiosity in Europe, while the Swiss "cannot be strangers anywhere in the world," but proceeds to the insight that "The interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too . . . This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again" (175), while also noting that "the Western world has created me" (Voices, 661). A similar process of racial dialectic, of creative creolization is evident in the formation of jazz which rose out of a mixture of African and European musical modes and grew in the interplay of interpretation between the white Original Dixieland Jass Band and King Oliver, Sinatra and Sarah Vaughn (Jones).

White artists have long been aware of the value of Africa for their own work. Picasso's appropriation of African sculpture, the dadaist modohojo mumbo-jumbo (Huelsenbeck), Josephine Baker and the Revue Negre, 30s leftist use of Black materials, and the embrace of jazz exiles as well as of writers like Wright and Baldwin, all testify to Europe's long acceptance of African aid while seeking for ways to be modern. Gilroy's The Black Atlantic details more of the connections than I can mention here.

The radical potential of Black art I wish to establish, though, comes not from sources free of European contamination (if such a thing exists). I say nothing here of traditional art in which the double consciousness of which I now speak is replaced by the bipolar oppositions traced by Levi-Strauss or of the poets of oral literature, those funambulist tricksters on the taut rope of irony and contradiction. Examples of how such texts can challenge the European reader's imaginative stretch and reward with rich misprision abound in the back files of Alcheringa.

The first significant notice European readers gave African authors came with the publication in 1948 of Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre et malgache. A central text for the European appropriation of African literature is provided by Jean-Paul Sartre's introduction.

It is because [the African or African-American poet] is already exiled from himself that he feels this need to declare himself. So he begins with an exile, a double exile. To the exile of his heart, the exile of his body offers a magnificent image. He is most of the time in Europe, in the cold, amid grey crowds; he dreams of Port-au-Prince, in Haiti. But that is not all: at Port-au-Prince he is already in exile. The slave-dealers have snatched his fathers from Africa and scattered them. And all the poems of this book . . .offer us the same mystic geography. A hemisphere; far down, making the first of the three concentric circles lies the land of exile, colourless Europe; then comes the dazzling ring of the Islands and the childhood that dances in circles around Africa; Africa makes the last circle, navel of the world, pole of all black poetry, Africa bright, burning and oily like a snakeskin, Africa of fire and rain, between being and becoming, more real than the endless boulevards of pleasure, but destroying Europe by its black invisible rays, beyond arrest, Africa, imaginary continent. . .

Sartre accurately notes that this Africa is imaginary, a continent viewed through the refracting lens of the critic reading its poets. But yet, to use the terms of Aristotle's Poetics, for that very reason the textual Africa is more real ("more philosophical and higher") than history. Of course the information it contains describes not the Black poets but the French author in mid twentieth century. Still, Sartre was correct in calling Black poetry "the true revolutionary poetry of our day" (in Black Orpheus), not because of its essential African qualities, but because of its relation to twentieth century European thought. A revolution, after all, requires two sides.

While Richard Wright was socializing with the existentialists, Norman Mailer, a spiritual son of Sartre in the U.S.A. prophesied that Black Americans would inspire "a psychically armed rebellion" against which the "mean hypocrisies of mass conformity will no longer work" (356). Kerouac said he wished he was a Negro (Baldwin Price 297) and delighted in the birth of bebop emerging from artists "misplaced in the white nation."

From the start, then, from both Black and white perspectives, the significance of the American racial experience lies in structural relations, in encounters; it is a radically mulatto phenomenon. The same rich intellectual and artistic miscegenation is evident in colonial and postcolonial literatures.

To encode the simultaneous multiple perspectives of such experience in literary texts, a whole array of possible forms is available. The double consciousness of the author means that every convention implies its own reversal, ironic use, and doubly ironic return to sincerity, to mention only a few of the possibilities. I have elsewhere suggested a systematic taxonomy for these transformations. Here I can only sketch the outlines of the system by pointing out a few examples.

One inevitable type of African writing would be the inadequate imitation of European models. These works in form and content would submit to colonialist assumptions. There are ample African parallels to Phyllis Wheatley's "'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land." But the most available information offered by texts of this sort is simply a paler repetition of the culture of the more powerful people, offering little of value beyond the simplest historical propositions for either Africans or Europeans.

The plot soon thickens, however. The first African novelist to gain celebrity was Amos Tutuola whose idiosyncratic Palm-wine Drinkard was praised by adventurous white critics in the 50s (Dylan Thomas describes it on the paperback cover as a "brief, thronged, grisly, and bewitching story"). The same qualities that gave the work success, though, inspired resentment by African critics who saw its celebrity as patronizing because it was the work of a naif. Tutuola was useful to Europeans in the same way as mental patients had allowed Rouault to follow out Romantic assumptions by appropriating their work to create the category of art brut.

In many colonial and postcolonial texts the two cultures are in open conflict. Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which is a sort of narrative museum of Ibo culture, is the best known. A whole genre of first novels by educated Africans concern the plight of a bright young lad who becomes alienated from his own people through his success in school (Ngugi's Weep Not, Child is one of the best). The tone may be nostalgic, tragic, or revolutionary, but Europe and Africa are adversaries and Europe is the victor.

The work of Senghor, who called himself "a cultural mulatto" (Moore and Beier 19), of Aime Cesaire of Martinique, author of the seminal Cahier d'un retour au pays natal and originator of the term negritude, and Leon Damas of French Guinea embraced European racial mythology while reversing the usual value judgments. The same process is evident in Black nationalist theories from Wright's "Blueprint for the Negro Writer" to past polemics of Amiri Baraka and the reassertion of hoodoo by Ishmael Reed. White authors, too, have used non-European peoples to criticize their own cultural values and to privilege irrationality and passion from Montesquieu and Chateaubriand to D.H. Lawrence and recent Africaphiles like Ulli Beier and Janheinz Jahn and such musicians as Peter Gabriel and Mickey Hart. Jahn argues that African poetry is timeless and pure, devoid of historical moment, specifically because such a myth is meaningful to him as a white European (207) just as many in our own country continue to view our aboriginal people as noble savages though the term has become taboo.

Africa before the involvement of Europe is "always already escaped" yet "always already inscribed" to use Derrida's formulae (159, 266) in Senghor where "dark pulse of Africa in the mist of lost villages" (48) is associated with the bush country of the Freudian subconscious more than with any geography. Africa means perfect women, magic, and the ancestors, because of his own alienation (he calls himself "exiled" [Moore and Beier, 49] and says he can only "breath the smell of our dead"). For this member of the Council of Europe and of the French National Assembly as for Ron Karenga and all cultural nationalists, race is fetishized and finally definitive. Thus Senghor speaks of Blacks as a "newer" race and a "luckier" one. Africans possess an Edenic primeval character for him. They are physical, mysterious, strong, natural, "beautiful like the first men that were created by [God's] brown hands." Is this not congruent with the fashionable Carraways satirized by Hughes who exclaim over their Black caller: "He is the jungle" (21)?

Senghor's poem "Totem" describes his need to conceal some "ancestor," some "animal protector," abstract and never-specified, but identified with the author's "faithful blood." Surely both the idealizing and the vagueness are markers signifying not Africa itself but the appropriation of the theme of Africa by French intellectuals, Black and white. It is noteworthy that it is in “New York” that Senghor hears the "distant beating of your nocturnal heart, rhythm and blood of the tom-tom, tom-tom blood, and tom-tom" (57) The concept is so thoroughly European that Senghor insists on the word "tom-tom," a French use of a British version of a Hindi word for which many West African analogues are available.

It is impossible today to explore adequately even a single example of African literature that transcends the contradiction of cultures and produces a new synthesis. The citation of a single line will have to suffice. The composition and criticism of African literature has always been highly political, and the best authors such as Soyinka, Armah, and Ngugi wa Thiongo have been attacked for not asserting the reductive revolutionary thematics Marx himself deplored. Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born includes a series of graffiti expressing popular reaction to the "Mercedes socialists" of Nkrumah's regime: "Money sweet pass all, Who born fool, Socialism chop make I chop, Contrey broke, You broke not so?, Pray for detention, Jailman chop free" (106). The free citizen under a soi-disant revolutionary government wishes to be jailed. Here is neither traditional Africa nor internalized racism nor a Romantic resurrection of tradition nor simple opposition. Yet Armah was condemned for his "unattractive" picture of Ghanaian life and in response produced the markedly inferior but politically acceptable Two Thousand Seasons.

I base my readings of African literature on two critical moves: the value of the multiplication of perspective and the inevitability of subjective interpretation based on the reader's experience. But both are in fact inherent in all reading.
The very act of reading implies a doubling of perspective since the vision of writer and reader can never be identical. The long critical tradition that associates irony, ambiguity, and polysemy with the aesthetic text appears in such formulations as Mukarovsky's analysis of the constant renewal of aesthetic norms (94-5) and the principle that such norms are "largely effective in their violation" (26-7). This is close to what Lotman calls "creolization" which for him increases semiotic value (24-5) and what Eco calls "ideological code switching" (289-90). And, finally, deconstruction offers its own vocabulary for the same critical fact: writing as trope, as trick, as under erasure, as a hinge, a fissure, as truth and lie at once. Here, too, is the source of those twentieth century poetic trends that intentionally set out to overturn preconceptions: Dada, Surrealism, and their offspring oppose all received ideas regardless of content.

And surely all readings are subjective. In spite of the lingering influence of critics like M. K. Abrams who would maintain the text's unitary meaning and the authority of the writer's intention, most modern readers realize that, to borrow a vignette from Barthes, Bossuet in the hands of Gide as he floats down the Congo (29) could hardly be the same author as he had been in seventeenth century France. If we in the humanities have superseded the aping of the hard sciences that encouraged the collection of quantifiable data and the proliferation of jargon, it is only to attempt to trump physics by impenetrability and utterly detached cool irony. But far from being a liability we should disguise, subjectivity demands attention as our only access to reality. It was not to absorb the exotic so much as to become acquainted with the self that Artaud ate peyote with the Tarahumara and Eco attended the ceremonies of the candomble; this is what led me to Africa and, I think, a part of what led us all to literature. For in fact doubled vision is the tool by which we can best cope with the biases inherent in our own nature and experience, not by trading them for some "better" set and mistaking it for a new-found objectivity, but by being aware that biases cannot be banished to take them into account.

On the wall of my library is an engraving of Asian art from an eighteenth century French book. The draftmanship is neoclassical; the facial expressions belong to Hogarth's characters rather than to Buddha; some figures appear oddly antic and weird as their originals must have done to the artist who likely knew little of the East. One robed figure grimaces and scrapes his ear. So the semiotic signal has passed from a Chinese artist to a European one to a twentieth century critic born in the Midwest and then to you. The truth here may seem to be receding, but in fact, of course, all culture is transmitted through inexact and mutating imitation every day. What distinguishes this artifact is that several levels of inscription, several takes and mistakes in reading are evident. Comparative studies call attention to the leaps between minds, the critical moments of interpretation when the spectator suddenly sees the palimpsest for what it is. We never read a simple text, for it always can only be a text upon a text upon a text leading toward, but never reaching, the original and purely naked truth in glory. And we continue to read and write and teach, led always by the reflected mirage of that same beautiful truth on ahead, a truth which may at times be proclaimed by the African hipicat, which, if one can believe Dillard, is a Wolof word meaning "man who is aware or has his eyes open" (119). If it is dark underground, outside is only "deeper darkness," and we must "learn a way of seeing in the dark world" (Wright in Voices, 147).


Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. London: Heinemann, 1969.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 1965.

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. trans. by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Bleich, David. Subjective Criticism. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1978.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins, 1976.

Dillard, J. L. Black English. New York: Random House, 1972.

DuBois, W.E Burghardt. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: NAL, 1969.

Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. trans. by William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge:
Harvard, 1994.

hooks, bell. Postmodern Culture. vol. 1, no. 1. Sept. 1990.

Huelsenbeck, Richard. "Tree." trans. by William Seaton. Chelsea 59, 1995: 125.

Hughes, Langston. "Slave on the Block." The Ways of White Folks. New York: Vintage,

Jahn, Janheinz. Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. trans. by Marjorie Grene.
New York: Grove, 1990.

Jones, Leroi [Amiri Baraka]. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York:
William Morrow and Co., 1963.

Lotman, Juri. The Structure of the Artistic Text. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1977.

Mailer, Norman. "The White Negro." in Advertisements for Myself. New York: G.P.
Putnam's Sons, 1959. 337-358.

Moore, Gerald, and Ulli Beier. Modern Poetry from Africa. Baltimore: Penguin, 1963.

Mukarovsky, Jan. Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan, 1979.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Black Orpheus. New York: French and European, 1976.

Senghor, Leopold S. Anthologie de la nouvelle po‚sie n‚gre et malgache. Freeman, 1977.

No comments:

Post a Comment