Reading List: Akin Adeṣọkan

The author reflects on books that offer a long-historical perspective on African literature and history.

Senegal, 2008. Image credit Vix Mørá via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Eloquence of the Scribes (Per Ankh, 2006) was a revelation. I discovered this semi-autobiographical book purely by accident while looking to purchase a copy of Armah’s 1995 novel, Osiris Rising, for my class on African Literature and Other Arts. I had not read a book of its kind in modern African letters, and I would be happy to know of any, if they exist. As soon as I finished reading it, I made several of my friends buy and read it, and it became a cult classic among us.

I wrote a long review of it not long after , and I have found it indispensable to my thinking about a long-historical perspective not just about African literature, which is just one of the author’s intellectual interests, but about African history, from Old Egyptian (Kemet, Kemt) times. One unique perspective from this book is Armah’s assertion that the djeli (the griot of Africanist veneration, though the word denotes “blood” in Bambara) has been misrepresented, but that that misrepresentation can be reversed if scholars come to appreciate the careful training griots undergo. In the face of a supposed lack of alphabetical literacy, their skill and standing have been susceptible to manipulation to distort important episodes in African history.

It was while re-reading The Eloquence of the Scribes that I stumbled on a parenthetic remark by Armah that he translated Boubacar Barry’s Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge, 1998) into English. I read that book for an additional African perspective on the Atlantic slave trade, and especially in terms of the roles played by African rulers and elites in that historical episode. The book’s ideological orientation owes much to the Pan-African vision of African intellectuals, such as Kwame Nkrumah and Cheik Anta Diop, but what I found useful, at least for the book that I was writing, was Barry’s critical depiction of the ceddo, so-called unconquered Africans who refused Islamic conversion. This social group formed the focus of the 1977 film Ceddo by Ousmane Sembene, where a surface treatment might be mistaken as endorsing their modes of operation, which included hunting vulnerable groups to sell into slavery. With the benefit of Barry’s critical take, even Sembene’s creative deployment of the ceddo as a figure of resistance acquires more depth.

Readers are likely to overlook an observation in the preface of Barry’s book, or simply disregard it as an inconsequential anecdote. But I had no idea that he was close friends with Walter Rodney, the Guyanese historian and activist, and author of A History of the Upper Guinea Coast: 1545-1800 (Monthly Review Press, 1970). This book is not as well-known as Rodney’s provocatively titled How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, but it is just as important, and provides clues to many of the claims in Rodney’s more famous book. I can see why he and Barry are intellectual soulmates; both are intensely critical of African elites as class collaborators with Europeans in jointly preying on vulnerable African populations. Working with largely Portuguese archival evidence to advance a revisionist history of an important region of the same part of the continent as Barry in the era of the slave trade, Rodney, makes a penetrating but often overlooked observation. He writes:

In terms of the ancient influence from the interior, new intrusion usually meant change at the level of leadership, that is to say, the Mande and Fula were partially able to replace the ruling class of the littoral. But even more important, in its contacts with the Europeans, the African society of the Upper Guinea Coast did not present itself as an undifferentiated entity. The patterns of trade often transcended tribal divisions, but never the distinction between fidalgo [noble] and plebeian.

The fourth item is not a book but an essay, by Wọle Ṣoyinka. Titled “Theater in African Traditional Cultures: Surviving Patterns,” the essay was probably the report that the Nobel laureate submitted for the Rockefeller grant he received to study African dramatic forms in the early 1960s. First published in 1981, the essay was later collected in Art, Dialogue and Outrage (New Horn, 1988), Ṣoyinka’s second volume of critical writings. His objective is to show how performance modes rooted in religious festivals have been transformed through secular performances, often as resistance to religious persecution by Islamic and Christian clergy. Ṣoyinka also provides a more theoretically rigorous definition of drama, and manages to stretch that definition to cover different aspects of the performing arts in various parts of the continent.

The late Benedict Anderson wrote somewhere that tradition, properly understood, is “a way of making connections in separation, of acknowledging by not repeating.” One lesson I took away from working on the project that resulted in the book Everything Is Sampled is the nature of fragments in history as well as in art. If the arts are envisioned as a means of reconstructing some things—Africana history, economic relations, or of coming to terms with some others, such as unequal exchange, uneven development, and cultural restitution—appropriate attention ought to go to what exists in fragments or provides partial accounts.

Further Reading