African Literary Theory and Criticism

African literary theory and criticism has emerged out of a discourse of nationalism/continentalism constituted in a political and cultural act of resistance. Ironically the components of African nationalist ideology are often derived from the colonial-imperial discourse against which this nationalism struggles. Thus the language and representational framework within which African literary creation and criticism have evolved, to say nothing of the control of the book market, tends to be determined by the still largely dominant structures of colonial power.

The establishment of Présence Africaine as a literary journal and publishing house in Dakar and Paris under the patronage of Western intellectuals epitomizes the paradoxical relationship of African literature to Western influences. Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya) asserts that

the root cause of the African writer’s predicament [is] historically explainable in terms of the colonial/racist encirclement and brutal suppression of African languages and cultures; that the African writer [is] himself part of the petty bourgeois class which has completely imbibed … western bourgeois education and cultures and the world outlook these carried. (Writers 57-58)

Since the writing and critical reception of the European- language African texts in the years preceding i960 occurred under the tutelage of European and U.S. “promoters,” indigenous African literary practice since then has vacillated between the rejection of and the fascination with Western structures. Critical apparatus and modes of reading and interpretation of African literatures continue to issue out of the Euro-American bloc. In “Out of Africa: Typologies of Nativism” (1988) Kwame Anthony Appiah (Ghana) postulates that “the language of empire—of center and periphery, identity and difference, the sovereign subject and her colonies— continues to structure the criticism and reception of African literature in Africa as elsewhere.” Two opposing currents impede critical balance: “the emphasis on the démonisation of a dominant Europe producing and perpetuating a cultural margin called the Other”; and resistance, “the multiform varieties of individual and collective agency available to the African subject. .. the achievements and the possibilities of African writing” (175).

Given the multiplicity of linguistic, historical, cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, and national differentiations on the African continent, is it not perhaps more meaningful to speak of African literatures rather than African literature? Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) once wrote that “you cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition…. 1 do not see African literature as one unit but as a group of associated units—in fact the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa” (Morning Yet on Creation Day, 1975,56).

Issues of national autonomy, language, ideology, and cultural politics are framed within external and internal hegemonies with considerable implication for African daily existence. There is consensus that the forging of a theory or theories of African literatures has to be generated by African textual practice and texts rather than by external hegemonic interest. In Writers in Politics (1981) Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues pointedly that cultural imperialism under colonialism was “part and parcel of the thorough system of economic exploitation and political oppression of the colonized peoples and [colonial] literature was an integral part of that system of oppression and genocide” (15). A dissident literature of struggle and cultural assertion that predates colonial invasion was consolidated under empire and continues, in the postindependence epoch, to combat neocolonial hegemony exercising itself through an indigenous elite groomed through colonial apprenticeship.

The development of a broadly African (or individual national) literary theory and practice is inseparable from the project of total decolonization. The Cultural Charter for Africa (1976), drawn up by the General Secretariat of the Organization of African Unity, articulates the conviction that “cultural domination led to the depersonalization of part of the African peoples, falsified their history, systematically disparaged and combated African values, and tried to replace progressively and officially, their languages by that of the colonizer.” The Charter notes that

culture constitutes for our people the surest means of overcoming our technological backwardness and the most efficient force of our victorious resistance to imperialist blackmail [, that] African culture is meaningless unless it plays a full part in the political and social liberation struggle, and in the rehabilitation and unification efforts and that there is no limit to the cultural development of a people. (2-4)

The intransigence of apartheid in South Africa bears out this pronouncement; it also contributes to the existence in one country of two literatures that do not speak to each other.

Colonization resulted in the linguistic and political division of Africa into zones based on European languages. For African writers and critics to insist on an identity based on colonial languages is to subscribe to the will to self-fragmentation. In L’idéologie dans la litterature negro-africaine d’expression française (1986) Guy Ossito Midiohouan (Benin) suggests that behind the appellation “Francophone” lies the continued cooperation between African countries and France that is but a not-so-subtle cover for French imperialist ideology. “La Francophonie” is a purely ideological space, an immense mythic territory encompassing all the comers of the world where the French language is used (22). Even later (and probably well-intentioned) critical works such as Jonathan Ngaté’s Francophone African Fiction: Reading a Literary Tradition (1988) and Christopher Miller’s Theories of Africans (1990) pander to the supposed logic of a cultural- linguistic cartography.

In their controversial Toward the Decolonization of African Literature (1980), Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Ihechukwu Madubuike raise the issue of defining the “Africanness” of a literary text, an issue already tackled in a 1962 conference of “African Writers of English Expression” at Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda, with the theme “What Is African Literature?” Ngugi wa Thiong’o recalls that “the whole area of literature and audience, and hence of language as a determinant of both the national and class audience, did not really figure: the debate was more about the subject matter and the racial origins and geographical habitation of the writer” (Decolonising 6).

The language debate was first foregrounded by a Nigerian critic, Obiajunwa Wali, who in 1963 published a controversial article, “The Dead End of African Literature?” in which he observed that “African literature as now understood and practised is merely a minor appendage in the main stream of European literature. … The w’hole uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium for educated African writing … has no chance of advancing African literature and culture” (Transition 10 [1963] 14). The elitist association of literature with academic education in European languages led Kwame Anthony Appiah to lament that “modem African writing” usually denotes what is taught in high schools all around the continent:

The role of the colonial [and postcolonial] school in the reproduction of Western cultural hegemony is crucial to .African criticism because of the intimate connection between the idea of criticism and the growth of literary pedagogy…. the role of literature, indeed, the formation of the concept, the institution of “literature,” is indissoluble from pedagogy. (“Out of Africa” 156)

Albert Memmi (Tunisia) argues that even where bilingualism obtains, the mother tongue of the colonized gets “crushed” in the conflict of power with the colonizer:

Colonial bilingualism is neither a purely bilingual situation in which an indigenous tongue coexists with a purist’s language … nor a simple polyglot richness benefiting from an extra but relatively neuter alphabet. … [The colonized writer] incarnates a magnified vision of all the ambiguities and impossibilities of the colonized. (The Colonizer and the Colonized, 1967,107-8)

Interestingly, the West and its adherents continue largely to ignore traditional oral literatures and written literatures in African languages.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o/Steve Zylius University of California, Irvine

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been the foremost champion of writing in African languages as an extension of the historical cultural struggle between the national and the foreign. In language that echoes Amilcar Cabral’s theme of “return to the source,” Ngugi has submitted that “only by a return to the roots of our being in the languages and cultures and heroic histories of the Kenyan people can we rise up to the challenge of helping in the creation of a Kenyan patriotic national literature and culture” (Writers 65). “Orature,” a term coined by Pius Zirimu (Uganda) to denote oral texts, constitutes the primary source of literary creativity in Africa. The privileging of (written) literature over orature is increasingly discredited in view of the continual flux between orality and literacy. In most of Africa orature already provides exemplary texts of resistance and discursive contest. Ngugi and Kwame Appiah concur in characterizing as Afro-European (Europhone) literature that literature written by Africans in European languages. Ngugi insists that “African literature can only be written in African languages . .. the languages of the African peasantry and working class, the major alliance of classes in each of our nationalities and the agency for the coming inevitable revolutionary break with neo-colonialism” (Decolonising 27). The intertextuality between orature and the printed text is a recurrent theme in literary debate and practice in African letters; witness, for instance, Mahamadou Kane’s Roman africain et tradition (1982) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind (1986). This intertextuality becomes the nexus of resistance and self-empowerment: the appropriation of a certain specific Western set of tools— language, theories, textual practice—affords African literary practice a means by which to counter the alienating effects of Western assault.

Quite predictably, nativism, the idea that “true African independence requires a literature of one’s own,” that is, a literature or literatures in indigenous African languages, has been contested. The multiplicity7 of African languages, the limitation of the audience, and questions of orthography have been cited as impediments to the generation and continuity of literatures in African languages. Nevertheless, the identification of indigenous African languages with programs of effective decolonization has held sway, given that European languages were (and are) the synecdochical instrumentality for cultural hegemony. Howe\rer, such a projection may sometimes assign a fetishlike character to a common language and a common ethnic or national provenance. In “Ideology or Pedagogy: The Linguistic Indigenization of African Literature,” Al-Amin M. Mazrui posits that the equation of indigenous language(s) with national identity has no validity “without a concomitant struggle for the nation to determine its own politico-economic destiny” (Race & Class 28 [1986] 66). For Mazrui, the linguistic indigenization of African literature becomes meaningful and attains its greatest importance only in relation to the revolutionary function of literature.

“Négritude” has been a recurrent motif in the criticism of African literature, both internal and external. Paulin Hountondji (Benin), Stanislas Adotevi (Senegal), Félix Eboussi Boulaga (Cameroon), and Marcien Towa (Cameroon) are among those who have undertaken a serious critique of the movement and concepts of Négritude. The dividing line between French-speaking and English-speaking practitioners and critics of Négritude is more apparent than real: South African Ezekiel (Es’kia) Mphahlele in “The African Personality” sees no distinction between “the African personality” and Négritude, because “each concept involves the other. They merely began at different times in different historical circumstances. … Négritude claims the whole of the black world, the African Personality refers only to Africa” (The African Image, 1962, 67).

Négritude has been recognized broadly as a strategic moment and movement that had to be surpassed before the political kingdom could be reached. At a 1965 writers’ conference, Sembène Ousmane (Senegal) acknowledged the historical strategic necessity of Négritude but disparaged the “African” essentialism inherent in certain definitions of Négritude, seeing no future in it “because négritude neither feeds the hungry7 nor builds roads” (Killam 149). Cheikh Hamidou Kane (Senegal) argued for the utility of Négritude as anti-imperialist discourse: “We had, at some point, to make ourseh’es felt, if we were ever to make ourselses known and refuse cultural or political assimilation, especially at a time when, politically speaking, we had no prospects of an early liberation” (Killam 152). But Négritude has been faulted for often being complicit with the ethnocentric discourse of the West concerning Africa, confirming the West’s stereotyping of Africa. Léopold Séder Senghor’s typical opposition of “the negro” to “the European” constantly commits this blunder: “Classical European reason is analytical and makes use of the object. African reason is intuitive and participates in the object” (Prose and Poetry, 1965, 34).

Despite its limitations, Négritude construed itself, at least in part, as constructing a bridge betyveen Africa and the black diaspora. In “Négritude,” Senghor slews Négritude as constituting “a weapon of defence and attack and inspiration” that, “instead of diyiding and sterilizing, unified and made fertile” (Prose 99). In his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a return to the native land], first published in 1938 and considered by many to be the pan-Negritude text par excellence, the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire projects the poet’s role as that of a spokesperson for the inhabitants of

this impossibly delicate tenuity separating one America from another; and these loins which secrete for Europe the hearty7 liquor of a Gulf Stream, and … Guadeloupe, split in two down its dorsal line and equal in poverty to us, Haiti where négritude rose for the first time and stated it believed in its humanity, and … Florida where the strangulation of a nigger is being completed, and Africa gigantically caterpillaring up to the Hispanic foot of Europe. (47)

In Les Fondements de L’Africanité, ou Négritude et Arabité, Senghor sees “Négritude” and “Arabness” as overlapping in the African context, rejecting the facile separation of the “Arab” from the “African”: “I ha\’e often defined Africanity as the ‘complementary7 symbiosis of the [cultural] values of Arabism and the \7alues of Négritude.’ ” Senghor endeavors to demonstrate that “this symbiosis is achieved through métissage (mixing of races and ethnics) and through the cony’ergences of Arab and Negro-African cultures” (10). Concerning the founding of the Organization of African Unity, for instance, Senghor points to the danger of an African identity conferred by the European imperial imagination. Writes Senghor: “To found a common organisation whose sole motiye force is anti-colonialism is thus to build on shaky ground. The colonial past has characterised us only as Africans. We have much in common with all the other peoples of Asia and America” (9-10).

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, among others, has advocated the study of the global dimensions of the African diaspora, in particular “our essentially colonial situation, our struggle [to achieve] a kind of homecoming.” In Homecoming (1972), Ngugi laments the utter neglect of Caribbean studies in African departments of literature. “We forget, or have been made to forget. .. that the West Indies has been very formative in Africa’s political and literary consciousness: Marcus Garvey, C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon: these are some of the most familiar names in Africa. Yet we ignore their work” (81). In addition, the ideological-cultural links between the peoples of Africa and Asia find their literary expression in Lotus: Journal of Afro-Asian Literature. The links binding the common political-cultural histories of Africa, Asia, and Latin America find common expression in terms such as “resistance,” “commitment” (or “engagement”), and “solidarity.” Within Africa itself, a literature of solidarity takes sides in the struggle against neocolonialism. As Guy Ossito Midiohouan writes,

The fact remains that on our continent neo-colonialism knows no borders—nor do hunger, poverty, totalitarianism. … Our role, today, should not be to cultivate our difference and legitimize borders but rather, as the writers themselves have done, it must be to assume responsibilities to confront our common reality and our common destiny. (“The Nation-Specific Approach to African Literature,” in Harrow 3-4)

Marxist/socialist theoretical approaches, while broadly popular as anti-imperialist praxis, have been found unfit for articulating an African reality. For Chidi Amuta, the historical determination and theoretical orientation of Marxism renders it “impotent when it comes to the elaboration of societies, cultural manifestations and historical developments that did not form part of the cognitive universe of Marx and Engels” (The Theory of African Literature: Implications for Practical Criticism, 1975, 73-74).

If male writers and critics dominate the arena of writing, patriarchal attitudes also often influence the literary representation of women and the reception of women’s writing and criticism (especially feminist). In the preface to Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves’s Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature (1986), Graves states the book’s objective as an attempt “to redress the relative inattention to women in African literary scholarship.” The essays in the text aspire to address “the absence of a feminine perspective or the stunted characterization of women,” issues that are “as demanding of critical attention as is the more complete presentation of feminine presence” (vii). Molara Ogundipe- Leslie (Nigeria) shares these sentiments in “The Female Writer and Her Commitment,” in which she posits the woman writer’s major responsibilities as being “first to tell about being a woman; secondly to describe reality from a woman’s view, a woman’s perspective.” Ogundipe-Leslie attributes some women writers’ and/or critics’ lack of “[commitment] to their womanhood” to the successful intimidation of African women by men over the issue of women’s liberation and feminism and to male ridicule, aggression, and backlash, which assign a stigma to the term “feminist” (African Literature Today 15 [1987] 5,10-11).

Susan Z. Andrade also notes that “the [literary] history of African women has gone unnamed, its absence unnoticed.” According to Andrade, African feminist criticism must build beyond “its historical links to white feminist and male cultural critics,” with which it intersects (“Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women’s Literary Tradition,” Research in African Literatures 21 [1990] 91). Andrade, like an increasing number of women writers and critics, insists on an intertextual reading of women’s narratives and on the intersection between race and gender, which is often elided in much Western feminist writing on Africa.

African Novels and Novelists

Postcolonial (Cultural) Studies

African American and Post-colonial Studies

Black Feminisms


Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Out of Africa: Typologies of Nativism,” Yale Journal of Criticism 2 (1988); Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (1961, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, 1976); Kimani Gecau, “Do Ethnic Languages Divide a Nation?” African Perspectives 2 (1978); Kenneth Harrow, Jonathan Ngaté, and Clarissa Zimra, eds., Crisscrossing Boundaries in African Literatures (1991); G. D. Killam, ed., African Writers on African Writing (1973); Locha Mateso, La Littérature africaine et sa critique (1986); Emmanuel Ngara, Art and Ideology in the African Novel: A Study of the Influence of Marxism on African Writing (1985), “The Role of the African Writer in National Liberation and Social Reconstruction,” Criticism and Ideology (ed. K. Petersen, 1988); Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), Writers in Politics (1981); Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976). Chinua Achebe, “African Literature as Celebration,” African Commentary: A Journal of People of African Descent 1 (1989); Ayi Kwei Armah, “Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis,” Présence Africaine 131 (1984); Albert Gérard, African Language Literatures: An Introduction to the Literary History of Sub-Saharan Africa (1981); Georg M. Gugelberger, Marxism and African Literature (1985); Russel G. Hamilton, “Lusophone Literature in Africa: Lusofonia, Africa, and Matters of Language and Letters,” Callaloo 14 (1991)/ Voices from an Empire: A History of Afro-Portuguese Literature (1975); Janheinz Jahn, Bibliography of Creative African Writing (1971); Adeola James, ed., In Their Own Voices: African Women Writers Talk (1990); Eldred D. Jones, ed., African Literature Today 15 (1987, special issue on women); Penina Muhando Mlama, “Creating in the Mother-Tongue: The Challenges to the African Writer Today,” Research in African Literatures 21 (1990); V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (1988); Emmanuel Ngara and Andrew Morrison, ed., Literature, Language, and the Nation (1989); Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972); Lewis Nkosi, Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles in African Literature (1982); Emmanuel Obiechina, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel (1975); Isidore Okpewho, “Comparatism and Separatism in African Literature,” World Literature Today 55 (1981); Sembfene Ousmane, Man Is Culture / L’Homme est culture (Sixth Annual Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture, 1979); Wole Soyinka, “The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy, and Other Mythologies,” Black Literature and Literary Theory (ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1984), “The Writer in a Modern African State,” The Writer in Modem Africa (ed. Per Wastberg, 1968); Peter Sultzer, Schwarze Intelligens: Ein literarisch-politischer Streifzug durch Snd-Afrika (1955).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: African Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Postcolonialism

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