Post Number: 21
|Posted on Wednesday, October 11, 2006 - 11:01 pm: |
The World of the African Writer and Artist Fifty Years After the 1956 Conference
A speech by Molefi Kete Asante
September 21, 2006
Molefi Kete Asante at Unesco in Paris:
I want to give praise to the diligence of the Harvard University W.E. B. Du Bois Center and the UNESCO cultural committee for recognizing and commemorating the 50th anniversary of the l956 Paris meeting of Negro and African writers and artists.
However, since James Baldwin, a participant-observer, wrote 50 years ago in his reflective essay "Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” that:
“They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years--an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening's good-will, too heavy and too double-edged ever to be trapped in speech…” much has been captured that not even the brilliant Baldwin could have appreciated or anticipated at the time.
One evening in the l980s months before his death in December 1987, I sat with him, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and the literary theorist Houston Baker in a penthouse on Washington Square in Philadelphia where after complaining about the racist nature of the American literary award system, Baldwin finally heard me and Houston and Gwendolyn, and concluded along with us that the reward for writers and artists is to be written in the hearts of the people they serve. So who are the people of the African writer? Who were the audiences 50 years ago and who are those audiences now?
Today we have arrived at a vastly different point in history where the “Negro” has almost disappeared except in the imagination of a few die-hards, or in the reactive Negro Movement of disgruntled and fearful intellectuals, or the raps of some nostalgic old hip-hoppers. The Negro is a museum relic. We are no longer Negro and African; we are African or we are nothing.
A lot has changed since 1956. Ghana became independent and a whole train of countries followed. We have had coups and rumors of coups in more than a handful of nations on the African continent. Congo became Zaire and Congo again and lost nearly three million lives in the Great War of African Nations. Haiti, a land of heroes, has seen its light smothered once again by international intrigue. Africans in the United States have raised their heads from the muck of daily struggle to see that there are other Africans in the Americas. Africans in Brazil have exercised the power of their numbers and have started to demand that the country repay them for the many years of service. The islands of the Caribbean are leaping to catch the spirit of Marcus Garvey as self-initiative and self-reliance become capstones of contemporary history. Developments in Venezuela have ignited an African consciousness among Africans in South America. The revivification of African culture in the United States, however truncated, during the l960s changed the way we spoke of ourselves and thrust us onto the pages of world history in the role of critiquers of domination. Maulana Karenga, the most far-reaching philosopher of African culture in the United States, has articulated a view of cultural reconstruction that is at once transformative and revolutionary. But such reviviscence does not have to be cyclical; it must be persistent if we dare to speak for ourselves.
If an African writer is not critiquing and condemning domination and Eurocentric imperialism and triumphalism, then that African writer has not sufficiently understood the great legacies of Cesaire, Alioune Diop, Cheikh Anta Diop, Hurston, James Baldwin, and others. Each generation stands on the plinth of the preceding one until the foundation for freedom is impregnable.
I have come to you as Molefi Kete Asante, a name bearing two heritages, Sotho and Akan, born in Valdosta, Georgia, in the United States where I was first misnamed Arthur Lee Smith, Jr., a rather English name. But the science of DNA says that my father’s great great grandfather was Yoruba from today’s Nigeria and that my mother’s great great grandmother was Nubian from today’s Sudan. My wife is Ana Yenenga, an African woman born in Costa Rica with Akan ancestors through her Jamaican forebears. My son, M. K. Asante, Jr. was born in Zimbabwe. I am enstooled as a king, the Kyidomhene of Tafo, with the name, Nana Okru Asante Peasah, in Akyem Ghana. I was adopted by the Senegalese and carry a Senegalese passport. And while I am a citizen of the United States, I identify as African, period.
Fifty years after the black writers first met in Paris we have witnessed the expansion of African consciousness despite the coalitions of fear established by strong anti-African elements within and outside of the African community. There is an inexorable movement of agency, an Afrocentric awakening, coming in revolutions of attitudes and actions.
The black world has changed physically and territorially in fifty years, but mostly we have become far more expansive because of the Internet and travel. These new resources give us more access to the enormous capacities in the Black World. We travel from Ethiopia to Brazil, from France to Mexico, from Jamaica to the United States, from Nigeria to Britain, and from Guyana to Peru, and an endless number of places where we see the African presence and take notice of the continuum of our history, the trajectory of our liberation, and the openness to humanity.
In all of these societies the exploration of arts, sciences, nuances of culture, proverbs, and kinship bonds create a fabric of rich historical texture attaching us to the general revolution of a collective consciousness. We are not what we were in l956 and fifty years in the future the African community will be even more conscious and more complex than now.
Everywhere in the African world we confront the vestiges of the doctrine of white racial supremacy, in all of its guises, under all of its banners, and we are winning the struggle country by country and community by community. South Africa is free today when in l956 the bleakness of the future was ingrained in the posture of the people of Soweto. They had not yet seen the courage of young Hector Pietersen. It would be twenty years before his courage inspired the African world. The participants of that conference in l956 did not know the sacrifice of Steve Bantu Biko or the endurance of Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King, Jr., had not yet given his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Even with the progress that has been made in the rise of black consciousness, there are still those among us who seek to destroy themselves. They are the self-haters, casualties of race wars and ethnic chauvinisms; they are the victims of mentacide, the destruction of the mind. They have no clue of what we have lost in five hundred years or what we have regained in fifty years. The Guadeloupean scholar Ama Mazama claims that “Afrocentricity is a fundamental part of the decolonization process.” Such an awareness is a necessary part of regaining our feet.
If an African politician cannot wear African clothes in an African legislative assembly as in Kenya or praise the ancestors with libations in a public place as in Ghana, have we not lost, at least, a part of our mind?
If an African writer cannot write what he or she wants without shame, trepidation, or fear of one’s own government, or fear of the keepers of gifts, then have we not lost before we have begun? Tackling Langston Hughes’ mountain one comes to understand the contemporary resonance of M. K. Asante, Jr.’s choice of a title for his book, the Beautiful and the Ugly, Too, because, as people and writers and artists, we are indeed “Wonderful and Terrible, too.”
Europe rarely honors African writers who critique its domination of African culture. It is left to us to honor those writers and artists who express resistance to domination, which is the highest form of art, because it seeks to create a space for human life. Actually the gift of the African writer is not art for the sake of art, but freedom and justice for the sake of life.
The emerging threat of the Arabization of Africa and the de-Nubianization of Egypt and Sudan will have a tremendous impact on the way we critique domination in the next fifty years. Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan and other places on the African continent must not be allowed to escape under the guise of religion or custom; it must be condemned alongside all forms of domination and hierarchy. I shudder every time I hear that Darfur is attacked because I know how ugly and terrible we humans can be to each other.
The names of the greatest writers on earth must be preserved in the memory of our children and we must refuse to co-sign the warrants for their historical invisibility. The names of Diop, DuBois, Wright, Cesaire, Morrison, Angelou, Hughes, Senghor, Addoo, Hurston, Soyinka, Nascimento, Achebe, wa Thiong’o, Baldwin, and others must be heard and their works read and studied for our own advancement. The intellectual ideas of our writers ought to receive a welcome in our colleges and universities and publics; they must be validated by the people themselves. If our thoughts lack validation it is because we have not validated our own experiences. Controversial writers, those who appear "controversial" to Europeans and Arabs, and some Africans, must have their voices raised as well. Chinweizu, Ayi Kwei Armah, and Kola Boof have audiences outside of the boundaries of the European journals.
The Black World today is not a North Atlantic or Atlantic world it is a global world, and where it touches the West African Ocean it is an African world of both North and South America.
Venezuela, Surinam, Guyana, and Colombia have higher percentages of Africans than the United States. Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico have historical populations of Africans who have significantly enriched those societies. Of course, the countries of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, so-called Central American nations, have large African populations.
Brazil, with more than half of its population African, has moved under the influence of Abdias do Nascimento, Gilberto Leal, Leila Gonzales and others to assert its African presence in political, cultural and economic terms. In a dramatic exercise of solidarity the Senegal government with the leadership of President Abdoulaye Wade and Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio have articulated a policy of engagement with Brazil that has resulted, among other things, in an air link between Dakar and Forteleza, a four-hour flight across the ocean.
This move is not so much an economic activity or a cultural activity as a statement between two countries of the black world that it is possible to reach across the 1500 miles of ocean and establish a partnership for unity. There are now only fading reasons, fragments of speech and ragged lines of discourse, that stand squarely in the face of the determined character of this new resurgent African world.
Orthodoxies of anti-Africanisms developed on the cauldrons of hatreds, discriminations, antagonisms, brutalities, and murders have now confronted the platinum will of millions of Afrocentrists bent on the recovery and assertion of the African voice. What is the meaning of the attack on African identity, agency, and assertion? If we are meeting to recognize and commemorate the 50th anniversary of a meeting of African writers and artists, how do we determine that they are African, if not by the historical experiences that have conspired to create us as a common group. Why am I here? Why are you here?
In my family we have family reunions each year when over four hundred people get together to celebrate each other. We are not all the same. We have different levels of experiences, diverse educational backgrounds, and uneven economic means, yet we know who we are by knowing to whom we are connected. It is the same with all people. Only those who are unclear about historical experiences or fearful of persecution because of identity choose to abandon their ancestors, their identities, or their culture. The French have no problem with Frenchness. In fact, they regularly say “L’identité de la France indestructible.”
I guarantee you that instead of discussing how to abandon Frenchness the intellectuals of France will discuss how to make it more invincible. The English have no problem with Englishness. Is this a form of essentialism as the literary critics define it? I do not know and it makes little sense to me in the face of the concrete realities of the African world. I think that the dabs of murky thinking that appear from time to time in our works may be responsible for the inability of African writers to determine what the classical African civilizations called maat.
I know that the Afrocentrist has arrived at a point of unspeakable freedom and peace, one of pure simplicity. It is easy to perceive, without much reflection how exciting and rewarding it is to advance truth, righteousness, balance, harmony, order, justice, and reciprocity, in the face of chaos. With the security of our struggle, joined with the international struggle for justice, we fear nothing and we wish nothing more for ourselves and others than maat.
We neither judge others, nor do we fear to be judged. In this regard, as Africans who write and create we are not anxious because we know that there is nothing more correct for us than our own historical experiences.
The Senegalese have a proverb that says, “Wood may remain in water for ten years, but it will never become a crocodile.” I can only say that the African Diaspora, in all of its glory, has never ceased being African even if it has forgotten the names of its earliest ancestors. Like the Jamaicans who honors Nanny, the Brazilians who adore Zumbi, the Haitians who celebrate Boukman, Mariesaint Dede, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, or the Africans in America who praise the names of Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner, continental Africans have thousands of ancestors whose names are called every day in a remarkable example of historical continuity. This is the narrative of an eternal quest for harmony as I have written in my book, The History of Africa.
We are neither blinded by pride nor place of origin, nor are our senses dulled by commitment to Africanity; we see our mission as the resurgence of Africa in the attempt to renew humanity. We may not see it in our day, but the time will come for the rectification of a common sense of justice based on the best principles of a world not trapped in the materialism of a Graeco-Hebraic-Germanic individualism. Neither should this new form of human discourse be dragged into some fundamentalist corner of a religious ideology parading itself as an alternative to the racialist character of Europeanization.
We become victims only if we allow ourselves to forget that blackness is not only color and culture, but is itself is a historical trope of ethical idealism. Thus, to be black or African is not to express simply particularism based on color, but rather to be open to an abiding commitment to truth, righteousness, justice, harmony, balance, order, and reciprocity. In a word, we will have achieved maat in the midst of chaos and that will be an authentic celebration for the participants who assembled here fifty years ago.
Note: Molefi Kete Asante is the author of The History of Africa, The Afrocentric Idea, Afrocentricity, Race, Rhetoric and Identity, Scattered to the Wind, a novel, and more than 60 other books. He teaches at Temple University. Asante is the editor, Journal of Black Studies, and has been a columnist for the Johannesburg City Press since 2003.