Literature and the African Public

By Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin

In discussing this or these literatures we need to qualify the role of
the creative writer in connection with his existing realities out of
which background he is born: his faculties, his tools, and more
particularly his commitments. There is hardly an uncommitted creative
writer in any given society, time and condition, since the very
phenomenal of being inspirationally engaged em-bodies the sense of
being spiritually and/or emotionally committed. Committed to what? Of
course to his conscience first, and through his conscience to his art.
Then, through his art to the conscious understanding of the needs,
aspirations, prejudices and limitations of his society: and finally,
through the conscious service of that society's expression, a
commitment to the service of universal art, since all art, after all,
converge at the fundamental human level.

we come to the question of where does "Afri­can Literature" stand in
this body of universality, or even more precisely to the old, hoary
question of what in fact is African Literature, I would like to digress
for a moment and consider it under more detached questions: What in
concrete terms, are the languages that should make African literatures,
and what, in appraising these literatures, is the commitment of the
writer to a given society. Certainly, it is not by avoiding the former
all too well beaten argument of What is African Literature, what
our writers, patrons or critics tell us it should or should not be
concerned in, that we can get close to the heart of the matter, but, by
simply admitting that there is no one single body of African Literature
just like there is no single body of Asiatic or European Literature
with a capital "L" and an excla­mation mark. Yet. perhaps, by once
again trying to define the role and commitment of any writer in any
given .society, or even by at least eliminating that litera­ture which
is not born out of the indigenous African vernaculars, we should be
able to arrive at what makes African Literature or not. Thus, Hausa
Literature is African and Bengali is not, Zulu is and English is not

as to why these trees of African languages were not, so fur, given
enough chance to bear fruit, demands of us, to face certain rigid
factors of history and politics.

was Africa considered to be before the colonial days? The Westerners
had mostly to rely on what their travelers, their ivory hunters and
slave traders reported to them, followed by the information from

and finally through the suppressed echoes of the whip of their colonial
administrators. As such, the first introduction of the black man in the
concept of the Western, was in the image of a humiliated humanity. The
slander to his dignity, to his way of life, to his values, which so
incessantly recur as a matter of fact across the "civilized" world
today, drew breath, then. Although his social systems were almost,
destroyed although condemned to grapple with these world wide historic
and current realities which negate his values, yet, it is still not by
his capacity as an individual, not by his success or failure as a
member of a group reflection, but the color of his skin and his
physical characteristics appeared to be the core of the element by
which the Western master judged him. He is put on trial by his very
appearance and played the underdog of his country's class structures.

of these and against these, the African was taught to protest in his
master's ways, in his master's values, in his master's language. Yet
Africa was never mute in her own heritage of self expressions before or
after the colonial days. The problem is how to record her abun­dant
oral literatures in her own languages and preserve them for her
children, how to record the very social traditions both in their
similar and contradicting shades and evolve them in a harmony of
oneness through the taste of time and the criteria of their own humane
level, since any language should be given a chance to develop its
potential of literature.

writer-sons of those who yesterday had to in­terpret their ways of life
to their masters under the point of the colonizer's gun and under his
conditions, should be the ones, whose commitments it is, to reincarnate
these languages.

challenge is not whether they could or could not, but whether they
should at all and there is a double edge to this "should."

first is, should Africa (a) who must face the hard reality of her
political and economical main languages being English and French, (b)
who must face the obvious multiplicity and limitations of the mother
languages presenting the paramount problems of insufficient
ex­pressions, and that one cannot fuse these vernaculars overnight into
one hugs literary common-denominator, (c) who must face the reality
that the two inherited English and French languages have successfully
proved to Africa, and through her to the world, having brought her
standard of higher education side by side with that of the Western
academic scale, (d) who must face the reality that her appeal through
these two wold wide lan­guages had, or should have ticked a dialogged
of under­standing between the "mass" of the outside world and the
African Public, and that, considering herself "lucky" for being the
inheritor of these major languages: Should Africa abandon these useful
tools of communications and literatures which history so inevitably put
at her service?

second edge is, should Africa, (a) who must face the reality of the
cultural bastardization that has been and is being forced down the
throats of the existing human conditions of her societies, (b) who must
face the time honored reality that the language any "native" dreams in,
is the one nearest perfect tool to record or recount his experiences
in, and that no full grown culture or healthy tree, can, (without
losing a good part of its . nuance essence or destroying that of its
counterpart), be transported, transplanted, translated, or
trans-anything on to another root or tradition, (c) who must face the
responsibility that Africa's own cultural trees should be given chance
to bear fruit for their own consumers, the quality and content of the
fruit to be enjoyed or de­nounced by those societies out of whose
background conditions, settings, experiences is born the urge of
in­spiration that carry the scar and laughter of their life, and, by
the criteria of those who have developed a conscious taste for their
vernaculars, and are now awakening into a new blood of national
characteristics and historic awareness; (d) who must realize that there
shall always be an obvious and understandable French and/or English
cultural prerogative in all those African writings of these
expressions, and that as a contrast result, a gradual shrinkage and
eventual extinction of the vernaculars is inevitable, (e) who must
realize, that the creative offsprings from these French and English
cultural prerogatives (however localized they might have been made to
appear), are bound to tag Africa's values on to their own priorities,
thereby exposing a bastardized culture of an Anglo-French well
calculated mid­wifery : Thus, should Africa, at this point take heed
and peel away any lumping up of colonial cultures which shatter her
authentic heritages, under the cover of "hard realities?"

they both are: a dilemma of realities. Yet, by the use of English and
French, the nearest we achieve would be an Africanised English or an
Africanised French, but not an African Literature, since the imported
languages do not spring from the life-root of the peoples expression.
This too is reality. Is it not because Shake­speare originally dreamt
in English that he had the courage to refrain from playing his talent
into the lure of Greek and Latin which held the platform of
inter­national repute then? Do young African talents, unlike
Shakespeare and his colleagues of that era, afford to play their gifts
into the classified columns of Paris and London literary papers, and by
so doing, afford them­selves to live apart and above the needs and
realities of their societies? We have already said that these very many
vernaculars are all too limited in scope to accom­modate sufficient
expressions for a modern thought. But however much effort and will has
been exerted in them so far, was more in the line of the research of
language sciences, and not in helping them develop as possible tools of
literary mediums. Besides, "limitation" had once been the big challenge
at the root of all the major languages of today.

is by recording ideas in the very language one dreamt in, first, and
then having the same translated into other foreign languages second,
that the recogni­tion and growth of vernaculars into wider instruments
of literature is guaranteed; that is, the language of conception is the
one given priority to express in, how­ever limited its scope happens to
be at the beginning. Because, the best one does in translating ideas
from its original concept into another tool of expression, is to get
the nearest possible meaning of the vernacular copied into its closest
equivalent of the foreign language. In other words, the work is more
complete when recorded in the language of its original conception, even
though it might appear limited in the extent of its expression. Having
dreamt or conceiver an idea in one's own language and then depicting
the same into the written words of that same language, is not an all to
simple process, let alone having to translate or adopt the origi­nal
idea or dream into the idiom of an alien tongue whose approach, warmth
and attitude of thought is a far cry from that of the conceiver's
dream. It is a generally accepted fact, that the very sense of a
translated idea in literature disallows the thought of a full blooded
com­pleteness in the work concerned: the focus would distinctly be
concentrated more on the skeleton and theme only, and less on the form
and quality of the content.


enough has not been said yet, about the dilemma of these realities one
is supposed to challenge. The language, or even particularly the social
dilemma of the African Public, (both being the close concern of the
writer), arises not only from the multiplicity of tribal vernaculars
which greatly hinder both inter-African and inter-State communications,
but, also from the fact that to a major extent, the Continent being
born out of traditionally humane communal societies of collectivism is
now bordering on the problem of how to bring about a modern image of
the Africanist thought, without having to succumb into the
materialistic hands of a technological civilization, or, without having
to gamble with the possible contamination of a Marxist ideology; on how
to bring about a modern image of the Africanist thought, acceptable by
all concerned and adoptable into their own particular variations while
at the same time the core of their value judgments would converge into
a historic solidarity of an African purpose. Between these hard
realities we are confronted with, and the survival of our cultural,
language, and social values which we cherish, lies the conflicting
African image. Our conscious question then, is how to bridge this
inevitable transitional precipice for a modern Africa. Since free
Africa is an Africa politically torn between the forces of these world
patronizing ideologies, each force pulling her way from the "isms" of
their disfavor; Washington pulling her away from "the menace of
Communism," Moscow/Peking pulling her away from "the menace of
Capitalism," (i.e., whether she likes it or not), it merely accelerates
the dilemma of the creative artist who must at least live with the
wishful thinking that his gift is a vehicle of free thought and not a
battlefield for the game of dogma-wrestlers. Added to these, new
African governments already under politicians and militarists run amock
with power greed, and cutting as many images of the Africanist concept
as their egoes lead them to feed upon, and mystifying the questions
which the artist looks for behind the ready made answers fabricated to
blunt the thrust of his sincerity. Coupled with this, is the old world,
which, on one hand, like the toothless terror of a deadly wounded god,
plagues and exasperates the modern ideals of the writer into a host of
complexities; into a sense of guilt for the role he affects as the
sensitive medium where the timeless old values conflicted with the
inconsistent and untested new; into a sense of incapacity for his lack
of knowledge concerning what exactly each tribal tradition and
re­ligious custom imposed in a similar or contradicting manner to one
another; into a sense of defense against the dangerously sensational
misinterpretation of the Western film consumers' outlook of Africa;
into a sense of awareness (and acceptance with a pinch of salt) of a
seemingly "civilized" technological world which uprooted man and his
centuries of efforts during two major wars, presenting Africa with a
fait accompli and still threatening life with a third and fatal if not
a total one. On the other hand, the heritage of his fathers which his
"civilizer" almost afaced and which the artist selects on his own
discretion to keep the bridge for a future African generation framing
it into a form of modern angry expression, would add to his mental
exasperation, whenever the questions raised by his ideals fail to gain
corresponding answers under the test of intriguing re­search.


of these, each forms a theory, an image, each in his own Africanness;
differing in the interpretation of his national or local heritage and
experience; and each expressing the self and society inside the
uniform-cut black-cloth, (which is but a pigment cover of the self).
Several theories have already been formed, either out of well-meaning
intentions like Negritude, Pan Africanism or out of sinister motives,
like Apartheid. Yet, the image of the Africanness which we indigenous
Africans have in common, (however much it might have been interpreted
or distorted to fit into the manner and motive of each politician,
writer, critic or racial supremacist), cannot be based on any of these
new adventures of theories, be it Negritude, African cultures of
English Expression for Commonwealth Members, Apartheid or Black Power
for that matter, but, on the predominant basis of a traditionally
humane society whose existent geographic, or even particularly the
glaring historic factors, that have necessitated the birth of these
theories, and perhaps of more to come. The factors, in which and
because of which Africa suffered and still suffers a psychological,
moral, physical, and economical disalig-nation. Disregarding those
degenerate theories of sinister motives for a moment, that's, the
theory of the Apartheid's Clan or its extreme counterpart for a moment,
and considering these theories of healthy intent which are born out of
Africa's indigenous interest. Whatever differences they appear to have
had so far in their supplement towards a total African image, are
differ­ences by degrees and not fundamental differences. This is
because, both Negritude and the theories that are expressed in its
disfavor, often from the British Ex-Colonies, arise from the same
historic backbone of an Africa Lost and Regained. Regained in a
historic factor of violent engagement and still facing a constant shock
of disalignation, still living in the oppressed-oppressor ring of
combatant in protest and jailor in guilt. It is in the regaining of
this total Africanness that her sons cannot afford to prostitute her
traditional sensibilities: sensibilities which are at the core of her
identity and are at the same time both age-bound and current; current
because her die-hard sensibilities are still challenged and influenced
by East-West values; age-bound because these sensibilities which we
treasure have their own established governing values and should awaken
into transitional context by her own right and not by being bogged down
into these threatening forces of doubtful motives. The threat lies
within, (a) the exodus to the cities, mainly because of the centralized
economic oppor­tunities, leaving the communal background, family
concern, language, and values behind, creating a vacuum whose
substitutions are usually elements that sap at the energy of the
traditional ideas resulting in a total altera­tion of the personality;
it lies within, (b) the tendency of the African conscious writer, being
lured and drained in government services out of necessity for his
liveli­hood, and from where he dare not make objective statements in
variance with the existing political thought of his state; it lies
within (c) the avoided ugly question of how British certain
Commonwealth African States, or how French the Senegalese have become
culturally, (however much they might hate or love themselves for it),
it lies within (d) the evaluation of the thrill and fear ridden
god-masks who shall have soon lost their terror but not their
traditional significance and social timelessness in the forming of a
peoples' national characteristics, since out of all religious cult
evolves a peoples' cultural backbone, and out of the craft of the
carver, a nations art; it lies within (c) the realization and
acceptance of the fact that we cannot afford to concentrate literatures
on the aristocracy of the speech making intellectuals and on the
exportation of the same to the patrons' news­papers, but must embrace
and involve all groups of tribe or clan societies and the only way to
do so is by using their vernaculars.

should add this, lest I appear merely advocating against the idea of
all "Westernist" or "Easternist" process of assimilation which have of
course already taken us by the heads. My meaning is simple, that we,
like them, should be allowed to preserve our cultural identities,
(language being the most conscious tool of culture), our experiences,
our conditions and needs with the awareness of responsible contribution
towards man's universality at the basic human level. By stressing on
all authentic African settings and the everyday real­ities originating
in an African experience to be first recorded for the African in his
own language, is not to set any form of an imaginary boundary between
the basic and universal human nature expressed in all sorts of
literatures, but to once more underscore the fact that there can be no
true African Literature without the use of her own language. Nor is
this a mere attitude of aloofness in one's Africanness, a nostalgic
defiance in the Motherland's nationalism: it is a matter of need, a
purpose of concern, for the poet-engaged, the painter, critic,
politician and all concerned in the development of a true cultural
personality of the Africans.

Following is, a line from a West Indian novelist, E. R. Braithwaite's from his "To Sir With Love: -"

have grown up British in every way. Myself, my parents, and my parents
parents, none of us know or could know any other way of living, of
thinking, of being; we knew no other culture pattern," and then, "I
realized at that moment that I was British but evidently not a Briton..
. . I would need to examine myself and fellow West Indian in Mr.
Braithwaite's novel. And we ask no less of an appraisal for Africa,
only, she need not wait until she has lost it all; a cultural right
growing side by side with her political right is what she must appraise
before it is too late, as it appears to be for our fellow West Indian
in Mr. Braithwate's novel. And surely, one's own language is the life
blood of one's culture. The Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, whom
Shakespeare well understood, once said "to have one's own language is a
dignity of a people."

it is not the mere assertion, protest, or politics —moralist
declamation in the oppressor's language to the oppressor, but the
mirroring of a society in all her complexities and in the literature of
her own language which expresses her to herself, that exposes her to
her own image, that she is finally absolved, and it is within this
absolution that the duty of the writer artist lies.

priding yourself in your color, (whatever that is supposed to mean),
and exclaiming it out loud English or French poetry, implied, that you
were once taught to be ashamed of the same or made to feel little
because of it, why not record and proclaim the poem in the vernacular
you dreamt it, in order to embrace and involve your own people first,
and then if and when necessary translate it into the foreign idioms,
second, Why not?

from among the African nations, Ethiopia is one of those who has been
lucky in this context, in that, the "best that has been thought and
said" to quite an extent have, through the centuries, been recorded and
expressed in the languages of her heritage, in the literature of her
own script since 800 B.C., first in Geez, in Tigre-Tigregna, and
finally in Amharic (all languages of wide scope respectively and not
mere dialects as some Western misconceptionists consider them to be),
and all derivatives of the same Geez root, a most ancient script of one
of Ethiopia's earliest people, the Ag-Azi of the time old Adulis, Beha,
and Amum cities whose ruins still stand depicting the country's
historic and cultural backbone. The Western thought which abandoned
African painting and sculp­ture as crude and primitive has had to
reconsider its cocksure disdain in the words of Elie Faure who wrote of
African art as characterizing "the universe itself " and as reflecting
"the orderliness of the cosmos." Who knows what African literatures
would do, if only given the chance of survival by us, her young
writers, who appear to have abandoned her languages? Certainly, what
our new African language need for their development as possible
literary tools, are the attractions of modern realities adopted into
the roots of their own existing potentials, to attract the realities
outside the boundaries of their circulations and cross fertilize them
into their own circumstance without efacing the essential
characteristics of their cultural inheritance, and at the same time
considering the nature of the new qualities that make themselves newly
acceptable to the African warmth; unless, by refusing a wider range of
accommodation for the newer realities, we invite the dangers of
parochialism that may lag the transitional forces long set in motion,
and by so trying create some sensitively narrow customs edged into
their own rigid sterility. Narrow pro­vincialism or clan sense, would
render us, in literature as in progress, crippled exhibitionists
supporting fall­ing tribal walls against one another, and the energies
we exert, would only hasten our being buried with them.

it is not by allowing our spirit to be hypnotized by the specter of
West-East ideologies or bogged down by their cultural inoculations that
we can help realize a totality of an African image, particularly when
this practical and immediate necessity cannot be solved with our
endless debates of abstractions instigated by the sinister motives of
the selfsame "friendly" pharaohs. The African writer, is not long past
the period of questioning his idea as to what ingredient of his African
totality might have been eliminated in the process of his alien
rehabilitating techniques, and what essentials of language, art and
literature he cannot afford to overlook in the grave responsibilities
he exercises in the guidance and background formation of younger
writers. Although he might not afford to disregard these current forces
which are at work and are in a better position to influence the temper
of the times, it must at least be with the conscious awareness that the
influence cannot be at the risk of mental or cultural colonizations,
as, for instance, in the * go white —go beautiful" degenerate notion
inculcated into certain lighter skinned Negro Americans, of the
back­handed encouragement of Apartheid's (the deadliest wedge thrust in
the soul of our Africanness), glaring at us behind the idle but
calculated silence of Anglo-American incorporated. Within this lies the
core of our conflicting value judgments. We might heed Ben Franklin's
words here, " As we must account for every idle word, so we must for
every idle silence," of, that the same friend cannot be a flatterer at
the same time. Certainly there shall be little or no African art if our
laws of creativity were out of touch with these hideous realities being
played against our cultural values.

it is only the literature that involves all groups to this awareness,
the literature of Africa's expression by right of indigenous birth, in
transcending time and dogma and on the digestion of time and
generations, that would help the writer and the consumer to form a
conscious thought of an African future, no longer disalignated in
determining the pace and direction of a world that concerns her. It is,
therefore, more with

literatures that embrace each and every group who have developed a
conscious taste for this vernacular, in the recalling to life and to
his awareness, the structural backbone of the ways of the colonial and
traditional survivals, in forecasting for him what new realities
Africa's culture is about to naturalize, what social impact this new
naturalization represents in relation to or in conflict with that of
his past or passing realities, in the findings of what it might reflect
on the East-West ideological impact as envisaged through the image of
his Africanness, and, in the depiction of these messages which
unfortunately happen too fast for Africa's pace and in which she is
incessantly ham­strung, that the engagement of the African writer
should first stand. It is more in the literatures of a total African
involvement and less in his contem­porary niche in the temple of fame,
that the commit­ment and excitement of the African man of letters who
stands out as her cultural reincarnate and the embodi­ment of her
literatures, would find himself his rightful and deserving


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