February 14, 2022 at 2:17 PM #8885SUCULTUREAdminLondon, United Kingdom
The essence and efficacy of Black literature.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Thankful Poor”; 1894.
Literature is the oldest human activity of storytelling. Medieval African literature, epics, folktales, letters, orature and poems provide an existential link between historiography and culture, the interpretation of the universe, mythology, physical phenomena, moral teachings; and, ‘ethical principles’ according to Chinua Achebe.
Depending on the skill and depth of the author, contemporary literature can provide an escapist genre, may delve into a particular social, philosophical discourse, improves the reader’s perspective of the ‘other’, tells a story from an informed/fact-based/sincere/candid perspective, such as the instructive edification of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; W. E. B. Du Bois‘s The Souls of Black Folk; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child; James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain; Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; Richard Wright’s Black Boy; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi; Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Beloved, Chinweizu Ibekwe‘s Decolonising the African mind; and, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father – very different from an idealized European vision.
Beyond the tragedy of literature, art, film and photography, depicted through the Eurocentric narrative, writers such as Du Bois and Chimamanda Adichie allude to the peril of a ‘single story’ and the importance to refute the simplified representation of a group of people which may become the enduring image of the group, despite its inaccuracies.
Black Literature as mirrors, changes the psyche of the young impressionable child of African descent, provides clarity and affirmation, tells a story of culture and history, serves as a means of transformation, and healing. Black Literature, such as bell hooks‘, acts as a conveyor for others to briefly step into a culture and experience, and creates a medium to teach, provoke enlightenment, alter perceptions, and engender calls for action.
Black Literature also does something else. Toni Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’ provides a reference point and experiment in reverse engineering. ‘Recitatif’ is an ingenious psychological and scientific method that removes all racial codes and cues from a narrative about two characters, creating essentially an academic brainteaser.
The ambiguity of the characters leave the readers to face their own biases and conventions vis-à-vis race, as the reader attempts to determine the characters in ‘Recitatif’. By withholding the assigned races of these characters, Morrison manages to show that race, for many, is a determining measure; merely a unilateral perspective of a rigid mindset.
Blackness, as Morrison imagined it, was a unique experience, and a shared one. To accept as definitive, blackness to be just an unsophisticated/unaccomplished genus, invented within the premise of a prejudicial hegemonic construct, and to accept that this perspective is the fundamental, primordial, and principal organising category of human life, is indeed inhuman.
By removing the defining features of the characters from the story, Morrison reveals the subtle deceptiveness of the “black-white” narrative, as a primary human categorization, and its dehumanizing outcome on human life.
The role of contemporary Black literature, in recent times, have become accessible, illuminating the modern world to the sophistication and allegory inherent within the richness of the Black culture, by dint of specialist Black spaces such as the African American Literature Book Club, Cassava Republic Press, Brittle Paper et-al. providing a gateway into exploring the complex multi-layers of society, and cementing the heterogeneous complexity, and mystery, of Blackness.
Literature, and Black literature, ultimately has the ability to deconstruct the othering and categorisation of the body, reversing the age-old ill of the ‘project of dehumanization’.
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