In the past, the industry of African and Caribbean writing and publishing was a mere dream, a fleeting shadow on a cloudy day. While the theme of slavery was reflected in the writings of 18th century Olaudah Equiano, that of colonialism played a pivotal role in the works of 20th century Chinua Achebe and Walter Rodney. Today, the struggle continues to gain strength and dignity in a world, as termed by Nana Ayebia Clarke, of ‘stories tailored to Western sensibilities and pre-conceived stereotypes.’
Although some may term such themes as ‘radical’ yet as long as the status quo does not change, they will continue to be the light in the life of African and Caribbean writing and publishing. According to Eric Huntley of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publishing ‘to publish is to be radical, to write is a subversive act, and to be a Black writer is by definition to be radical and revolutionary.’ Who would doubt such radicalism in the writings of activists like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Marcus Garvey?
Between the 1930s and the end of World War II, the industry developed the heart of a lion by becoming a light in a sea of darkness. Great minds like George Padmore and Léopold Sédar Senghor ran like the wind when it came to bearing the literary torch of independence, and négritude. Publishers like Aimé Césaire’s Présence Africaine also joined in the race. Even the BBC of the 1940s saw the need to lend voice to the voiceless by providing air time to Caribbean writers. Some were further assisted in the search of publishers.
In the 50s and 60s, African and Caribbean writing and publishing was still besieged by a plethora of socio-economic challenges. This was compounded by the struggle for independence, and the disillusionment of post-independence. The colonialists and their successors could not boast of providing environments favourable to writing, reading and publishing. There were few or no locally sponsored writing awards and competitions. Governments virtually abandoned their writers and publishers at the mercy of foreign influences. For example, the Caine Prize for African Writing, the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. As Ivor Hartmann put it, ‘this means we are looking to outsiders to judge us, with their own criteria …’
Nevertheless, with the dynamism embedded in the industry, it continued to show that even in the midst of adversity, much could be achieved with resilience and passion for the trade. As a result, such relentless dedication and commitment have brought both writers and publishers to the forefront. From Wole Soyinka, Yulisa Maddy, Okot p’Bitek and Steve Biko to V. S. Naipaul, George Lamming, C.L.R. James and Andrew Salkey. In the case of publishers, mention should be made of the Three Crown Series, African Writers Series, Allison and Busby, Bogle-L’Ouverture, Hansib Publications and New Beacon Books. These were publishers who in the 60s and 70s took the financial risk of publishing African and Caribbean writers. Today, others like Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited, Ian Randle Publishers, Adonis and Abbey Publishers and Acton Publishers have become the fragile flowers opening to the warmth of spring; the light in the life of African and Caribbean writing and publishing.
Currently, as in the past, two of the key challenges confronting the industry’s writers are to get an editor, and a publisher. On the other hand, the challenges for the publishers range from the scarcity of editors, distribution outlets, to not being able to break-even in a trade of low profit margins. So, the fact still remains that in order to survive within the industry, resilience and passion for the trade ought to be priorities. Such passion can be seen in the creation of the George Padmore Institute by the late John La Rose of New Beacon Books, in the 2009 Cadbury Fellows Conference organised by the Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham based on the theme ‘New Directions in African and Caribbean Writing’.
It goes without saying that the industry has gone all out to maintain its Pan-African stance pioneered by champions like W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Kwame Nkrumah. This is reflected in the fecund connections being made by those in Diaspora and folks in Africa and the Caribbean. In this regard, organizations like Ayebia’s African and Caribbean publishing, UK Black Writers Board, African Books Collective and Dakar-based CODESRIA are jumping for joy even in the midst of tribulations. Some experts believe that such achievements have partly been possible due to ‘economic liberalization, deregulation and privation’. More has to be done though in terms of financial support for writing and publishing collaborative ventures between Africa and the Caribbean.
In the future, I see African and Caribbean writing and publishing being more able to capture the complexities and diversities of their 21st century experiences. In the drive for lower costs and more audience, the industry will join the digital revolution in the quest for self-publishing, print-on-demand, and Internet publishing. More talented writers will emerge from Africa in the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aminatta Forna and from the Caribbean, Barbara Jenkins and Diane Browne. Publishers will continue to search for writers, editors and markets. Who knows in the next decade, the industry of African and Caribbean writing and publishing will be rolling in dough and no longer a fleeting shadow on a cloudy day.
About the Author
Bakar Mansaray is a budding Sierra Leonean / Canadian writer. His debut narratives, Mud House Thatched Roof, 7:20 in the Morning, The Angel of Death, and The Escape were published between 2007 and 2009 in the Vancouver-based online news portal The Patriotic Vanguard. He co-authored Strategies Application in Project Evaluations – The Case of Bumbuna Hydroelectric Project (BHP), Sierra Leone, published in the academic journal Problems and Perspectives in Management #1/2007. He is a member of the Writers Guild of Alberta and at work on a debut anthology of short stories, A Suitcase Full of Smoked Fish as part of his entertaining Mandingo scrolls series.
© Bakar Mansaray 2011
James Baldwin once said the black individual, in every corner of the western world, exists in a society which ‘spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you are a worthless human being.’
Last month, 18 year-old Claudia Aderotimi boarded a plane to the USA hungry to transform her image with cosmetic surgery so she that she might appear in rap videos. Her friends revealed her confidence had slumped after she was dropped from a rap video promo because her ‘booty’ was too small. Claudia was to meet an agonising death while chasing this misguided reverie, a decision she viewed as an achievable career move. Claudia died at the hands, not only of the surgeon who administered the perilous operation in a bedraggled hotel room, but at the hands of the industry that had crammed her mind full of misogynist imagery until she imploded and unwittingly gave her young life for a cause defined by a reckless rap agenda. She had been hoodwinked and had her identity mindlessly constructed, on her behalf, by a medium that profits from her annihilation.
A crucial dimension to the development of our sense of identity, established during infancy, is the nurtured sense of self, humanity and continuity. In years to come, a major theme of this present century will be the desperate pursuit of our collective identity. Movies, media campaigns and music, all bellow from billboards and plasma screens that we are on a clamorously diffident quest for who we are. In centuries past this pursuit would have been easily remedied since, in centuries past, it was accepted that this question requires neither self-help books nor imagination; it requires only an accurate knowledge of our heritage, and an awareness of the natural ties we possess to our composite pasts. In centuries past, cultures were aware that without knowledge of self, of history, of culture, we remain as desolate as brooks without a source, as trees without roots, as bodies without souls. We have long been disjoined spiritually, psychologically, and conceptually from the larger historical and current world linkage that have determined our destiny, and to which we have always been important contributors to our actions.
We have long been washed ashore in societies that relentlessly immerse us in anti-African rhetoric. It is in this blood -soaked mise-en-scène complete with gang killings, knife crime, gang rape, domestic violence, academic deficiency and STD’s burgeoning, that we must ask what is the purpose of Gangsta Rap? This medium that towers tyrannically wielding bludgeons at our youth and browbeats them further into the abyss. What need is there for self-proclaimed pimps and real life gang members to lyrically lull us into their own definition of ‘champion’ when we are basking so finely in this Obama-esque hour? This medium that labels our young men Gangsters, Pimps and Niggas and brands our young women Bitches, Tip Drills and Hoes? It is in this vein that I have written this book [Masquerade Music: Unearthing Gangsta Rap], this expose of the relentless and complex over current of hatred that is adversely permeating the eardrums of our amalgamated pneuma.
If the voice of Claudia Aderotimi who so puerilely and blindly walked the plank, if the vast voice of spiritually sullied women raised in protest cannot, and will not, be heard over the torturous beating and thumping of the commercial Gangsta Rap machine, then it is time to lower the volume and acknowledge this backwards, savage medium for what it really is; an extension of an archaic patriarchal colonialist tradition designed to conquer and divide, amputate and annihilate a people. So let us for a moment press mute… and lend an ear to the agenda behind the beat.
About the Author
Daniella Maison is the unswerving Womanist writer who first caught the world’s gaze after her groundbreaking internet commentary on the negative portrayal of women at the hands of Gangsta Rap. Maison was hailed by many as a ‘modern Greer’ due to her unflinching voice and was quickly snapped up by former MP Lee Jasper who appointed her Editor of Research and key advisor to his African Academy education incentive. Masters graduate Maison has at last responded to the constant flow of requests from academics, writers, activists and young supporters with the completion of her inaugural book, an unrelenting exposé on the reality behind the genre that has consumed an entire generation: Gangsta Rap. Maison has said of her first release ‘I write because I dare to believe I am of a generation of people who are interested in enduring energy, spirit and creativity. The symbolic power of Obama’s presidency has awakened a new vigour, raised our inter-mutual bar, and yet we are deep in the thick of a Gangsta Rap ideology that profits from, and thrives on, our demise. I feel now is the time to speak up. We have in our midst a fearless matriarch and laudable pioneer in Nana Ayebia Clarke MBE and it is with the privilege of her endorsement that I step forward to do so.’
By Daniella Maison
With this being my follow up blog to Crossing the Mangrove, it should come as no surprise when I say that I absolutely “heart” the work of distinguished writer, Maryse Condé. Although not the subject of this blog, I am appreciative, amused, and at times, astonished about the feedback which I received from friends and family regarding my initial piece on Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove. The most interesting comment is from a friend, who after reading the piece, adamantly exclaimed, YES YOU CAN CROSS THE MANGROVE! She is of the opinion that there is too much emphasis on the diversities amongst groups with similar cultural characteristics and histories. Rather than being constructive, this emphasis is divisive and delusive. To some measure, I support her thesis but I am also wary of the convenience of ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water.’ An emphasis on multiculturalism, as evident by England’s social experiment in recent years, may lead to occasional incidents of ethnocentrism and isolationism or Samuel Huntingdon’s premonition of the “Clash of Civilizations.” However, an accentuation of the doctrine of assimilation and reductionism will result in incidents of racism and ethnically-based acts of discrimination as one group ascends to the throne of social hierarchy in order to assert itself as the ideal or normative group which other groups must aspire to or model. My compromise is, let’s keep the baby and discard the baby water. Although a difficult balance to achieve, it is not an elusive or empty quest.
That being said, I shift my attention to the blog-at-hand, which is concerned with relationships. I am particularly interested in relationships between the black woman and the black man. Yes, I can almost hear the chorus of accusations: another angry, grieved or scorned black woman seeking to exercise vengeance on black men by taking advantage of the popular adage that the pen (or laptop keyboard) is mightier than the sword. No, I am not; at least not today. Today, I am in a good mood and will be more sympathetic to black men than the former slave plantation system and the current penal system. Today, I explore Maryse Condé’s novel, I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, which is a literary account of the historical Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. The novel narrates the story of the Salem trials through the voice of Tituba. Although there is controversy surrounding the race and ethnicity of Tituba, Condé reincarnates Tituba as the daughter of a fearless Ashanti slave, Abena. Condé describes Tituba as “a slave originating from the West-Indies and probably practicing ‘hoodoo.’” I focus on Condé’s representation of relationships between women and men during the 17th century period of religious extremism, slavery and perversion of justice, which incidentally sounds a lot like the 21st century. Without ruining the storyline, especially for those who have not yet read it, Tituba is the product of the savagery of the Slave Trade. Abena becomes pregnant with Tituba when she is raped on the slave ship by a white captor. As a young child, Tituba witnesses her mother’s death for wounding the slave master in a courageous act of defense against rape. Like her slain mother, Tituba grows up to be a self-affirmed, strong and self-sufficient woman. She derives strength from the link that she maintains with her West-African roots and traditions by means of consorting with her ancestral spirits Mama Yaya and Abena. However, it is her love for the slave John Indian that leads her into slavery and consequently results in her wrongful imprisonment for witchcraft in Salem.
At first read, the novel appears to have the literary ingredients of a romantic drama or love-trap: strong assertive black woman meets black man and finds herself in human servitude for the rest of her life. Instead, I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, is to some measure, a story about the unique and sometimes, complicated love-relationship between the black woman and her black man. It acknowledges that the black man, like the black woman, struggles to free himself from the shackles of racism and discrimination. Accused of and imprisoned for witchcraft, Tituba befriends a white woman named Hester, who is charged with adultery. However, Hester is critical of Tituba’s relationship with men, in particular, John Indian. She exclaims to Tituba, “You’re too fond of love, Tituba! I’ll never make a feminist out of you!” Hester’s comment reflects a widely accepted view that feminism is anti-men. Such a view is touted as universal but, in fact, represents a myopic definition of feminism that alienates and undermines the merit of several women and men. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gerbert in her article “Decolonizing Feminism,” remarks on the incongruity of rooting Caribbean women’s movements and literature within U.S. and European theories developed to analyze different sociopolitical realities. Hester’s comment characterizes a westernized view of feminism which negates Caribbean women’s struggle against sexism and misogyny. It is this desire to give expression to the uniqueness of African women, specifically African Diasporans’ experiences, that manifests in the ideals of Africana womanism. In the article, "What’s in a Name? Womanism, Black Feminsim, and Beyond;" Patricia Collins describes Africana women’s rejection of the term “feminism” as a direct result of the word’s historical association with the “white women’s cause.” Rather than seek to conform to universal ideals of feminism, Africana womanism celebrates the cultural experiences of women in the African Diaspora. In Condé’s Tituba, I find the embodiment of Africana womanism. As a Diasporan, Tituba embraces her culture and employs the traditional religion and medicinal potions that she learns from Mama Yaya to heal the sick and communicate with her ancestors. Her reliance on traditional religion may also be viewed as an act of retaliation against the patriarchal and religious system of the slave plantation that sought to demonize African cultures and bring both African men and women under further subjugation through religious indoctrination. Tituba, like her Ashanti mother, fights until her death against the domination of slavery and in particular, white men.
Unlike Hester, Tituba’s enemies are not merely men but white society with its system of slavery and institutionalized racism that physically, socially, economically and politically discriminates against African women and men. Unlike Hester whose crime is that she is an adulterer, Tituba’s crime is that she is black: a black witch. She is black like the clothes one wears to a funeral. She is black like a black omen. She is black like black Friday. And like the black sheep of Salem, she faces the slaughterhouse to pay for her sin of black magic. Although both women face death and share stories of oppression at the hands of a white male dominated society, their socio-cultural, political and economic realities and available methods of challenging and coping with these realities differ. Paravisini-Gerbert describes, “A central feature of U.S. feminist theory [as] the emergence of a fully emancipated woman …an image born of the myths of rugged individualism.” However, the Africana womanist is primarily concerned with the wider struggle for the liberation of all people of African descent, black men included. Yet, allegiance to race over gender is not unique to the Africana woman. The Suffragist movement in America during the 19th and 20th century, sought the constitutional right for women to vote and was marked by two distinct groups of suffragist; those who fought for universal suffrage and those who exclusively fought for suffrage for the white woman. The difference between “for whites only” women suffragists and Africana womanists is one seeks the rights of white women and the continued discrimination of black women and the other seeks the rights of black people (female or male) and the renunciation of white domination and racism. Tituba’s love for John Indian may not conform to traditional ideals of feminism but her commitment to the liberation of her people as well as herself is an act of Caribbean feminine heroism and the epitome of Africana womanism.
By Ria Collingwood-Boafo