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Reading Africa into American Literature

Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales

Keith Cartwright
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Reading Africa into American Literature
    Book Description:

    The literature often considered the most American is rooted not only in European and Western culture but also in African and American Creole cultures. Keith Cartwright places the literary texts of such noted authors as George Washington Cable, W.E.B. DuBois, Alex Haley, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Joel Chandler Harris, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, and many others in the context of the history, spiritual traditions, folklore, music, linguistics, and politics out of which they were written.

    Cartwright grounds his study of American writings in texts from the Senegambian/Old Mali region of Africa. Reading epics, fables, and gothic tales from the crossroads of this region and the American South, he reveals that America's foundational African presence, along with a complex set of reactions to it, is an integral but unacknowledged source of the national culture, identity, and literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5833-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction. Tropical Trees: Towards a Hippikat Poetics
    (pp. 1-22)

    A strong body of scholarship from Melville Herskovits (1940) to Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (1992) has shown that enslaved Africans were among the primary shapers of emergent American cultures. But as Eric Sundquist argues inTo Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature(1993), “it remains difficult for many readers to overcome their fundamental conception of ‘American’ literature as solely Anglo-European in inspiration and authorship, to which may then be added an appropriate number of valuable ‘ethnic’ or ‘minority’ texts, those that closely correspond to familiar or semantic paradigms” (7).¹ Even contemporary multiculturalism often works to keep the...

  4. Part I. Epic Impulses/Narratives of Ancestry

    • 1 Imperial Mother Wit, Gumbo Erotics: From Sunjata to The Souls of Black Folk
      (pp. 25-47)

      Following Fa-Digi Sisòkò’s narration of a royal search party’s journey to foreign markets to locate the exiled Sunjata, I will be bringing some of the occulted signs and semiotic systems of Senegambian cultures into the marketplace of American literatures in an effort to discover telling moments of recognition. Deep Senegambian/Mande “soul” signs such as okra (and the thick “gumbo” of griot performance traditions) may help Americans to bear more articulate witness to how a community of sharedbadenya(mother-child-ness) identity has remembered Africa out of diaspora and exile.¹ Whether we are exploring provocative analogies to Senegambian traditions— as in Eric...

    • 2 Of Root Figures and Buggy Jiving: Toomer, Hurston, and Ellison
      (pp. 48-67)

      Amidst the many banjo and fiddle songs from an American repertoire shared across the color line were others, such as “Guinea Gall,” that turned to valorized traces of Guinea—or more likelySenegal—to elicit a doubly conscious critique of American realities. In “Guinea Gall” the old imperial memories have been reduced to a metathetic confusion of place; nevertheless, the old place’snyamashows its vitality in the song’s banjo instrumentation and “soul” semiotics.¹ Songs like “Guinea Gall” and Du Bois’s “Mighty Myo,” as Ralph Ellison explained in an interview with Hollie West, often contain words or concepts that “have...

    • 3 Myth-making, Mother-child-ness, and Epic Renamings: Malcolm X, Kunta Kinte, and Milkman Dead
      (pp. 68-90)

      If Du Bois, Toomer, Hurston, and Ellison, in their narratives of immersion in an incredibly “open-eyed” Afro-Creole culture, often seemed to be seeking articulation of an underground “mumble” (leading in Ellison’s case to an embrace of invisible namelessness), then we can understand how the civil rights era’s resurgent Pan-African spirit might call for more concrete, more explicitly nameable epics of African patrimony. Efforts to narrate continuities between Africa and America forced a confrontation with what Melville Herskovits termedThe Myth of the Negro Past(1941): the idea that Africa was a cultural tabula rasa and that American slavery had erased...

  5. Part II. Bound Cultures/The Creolization of Dixie

    • 4 “Two Heads Fighting”: African Roots, Geechee/Gombo Tales
      (pp. 93-113)

      It took long months after my arrival as a Peace Corps fisheries volunteer in Senegal before my Wolof language skills began to coalesce enough for me to understand some of the tales told after the evening meal. But the narrators’ performances had me listening even before I could follow the plots, which began to resonate with old cartoons likeRoadrunnerandBugs Bunny.One night I described these cartoons, moving by association to the Macy Parade’s giant cartoon balloons, and responding to questions about America’s upcoming feast day, I vaguely described the family homecoming I would miss for the first...

    • 5 Creole Self-Fashioning: Joel Chandler Harris’s Other Fellow
      (pp. 114-129)

      Born of a syndicate of African and African American tellers of tales, born of particular men and women on the Turnwold plantation in Putnam County, Georgia, born of staged minstrel sketches and a white Southerner’s postbellum nostalgia, Uncle Remus entered the national consciousness as the artistic, nurturing “other fellow” of Joel Chandler Harris’s intensely Southern double consciousness. Careful reading of the Remus tales may move us away from “either/or” principles of cultural and racial polarity so that we might see creolization as an antiphonal continuum operating between and within black and white communities to shape a shared national culture. Harris...

    • 6 Searching for Spiritual Soil: Milk Bonds and the “Maumer Tongue”
      (pp. 130-154)

      It was only after the fall of the Confederacy that white writers felt much compulsion to lay claim to the deeply racialized erotics and Africa-informed vernaculars that were at the very core of their collective consciousness. Postbellum Southern writers nostalgic for the Afro-Creole world of childhood milk bonds seem to have sought “by means of a language that ‘musicates through letters,’” to do what Julia Kristeva feels post-Renaissance Western writers were unable to do until the arrival of James Joyce; that is, to “resume within discourse the rhythms, intonations, and echolalias of the mother-infant symbiosis—intense, pre-Oedipal, predating the father”...

  6. Part III. Shadows of Africans/Gothic Representations

    • 7 The Spears of the Party of the Merciful: Senegambian Muslims, Scriptural Mercy, and Plantation Slavery
      (pp. 157-180)

      In chapters 1–3 we have examined some of the epic attractions posed by a monumental, scripturalist Senegambian patrimony, and have traced some of the means by which Senegambian cultures imparted something of their energy of action to emergent African American cultures. And in chapters 4–6 we took stock of how Senegambians were positioned (by their own African experiences/repertoires, and by Southern planters’ needs and speculative desires) to be trusted drivers, house servants and—most significantly—the nurses or “maums” who were such strong creolizing agents upon the master class. But at a crossroads between these epic claims to...

    • 8 Babo and Bras Coupé: Malign Machinations, Gothic Plots
      (pp. 181-202)

      As startling to American readers as the Raven’s one word, “Nevermore,” Arabic texts produced by enslaved Senegambians offered unrelenting, hard-to-avoid assertions of African dignity/spirit/reason, backed by an Afro-Muslim classical past and backed as well by shades of Haiti’s own violent assertion of “Nevermore” to slavery. Still there has been a reluctance to face the full power of these forces in America, just as there has been a reluctance to read the most quotidian hauntings of Poe’s native Virginia into his “classic” poem of haunting. In aPMLAarticle entitled “The Raven and the Bust of Pallas: Classical Artifacts and the...

    • 9 “Never Once but Like Ripples”: On Boomeranging Trumps, Rememory, and the Novel as Medium
      (pp. 203-230)

      William Faulkner was the most powerful American writer of a generation whose grandparents once fought in the bloody battles of the Civil War. African slavery was not yet was to Faulkner’s generation of Southerners. His grandparents had owned slaves.¹ Narratives of slavery and even of Africa were handed down by family members and acquaintances, by both slaveholders and ex-slaves. Tied like Quentin Compson to “garrulous outraged baffled ghosts . . . telling him about old ghost times” (Absalom9), Faulkner’s generation was also the generation of Southerners that came of age during World War I, expatriated to Europe or New...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 231-240)
  8. Works Cited
    (pp. 241-258)
  9. Index
    (pp. 259-272)