- The Diasporic Griot:James Berry and His Fiction for the Young
Mawuena Kossi Logan is a citizen of Togo and has been a visiting professor at the University of Ohio (Athens), a professor of English at the University of Botswana, and is currently a professor in the Department of Literature in English at the University of the West Indies (Jamaica). He is the author of Narrating Africa: George Henty and the Fiction of Empire (1999), and his journal articles have appeared in such publications as Obsidian III: Literature in the African Diaspora, The Journal of African Children‘s and Youth Literature, The Lion and the Unicorn, and The Children‘s Literature Association Quarterly.
So, why do I say the story is the chief among his fellows? The same reason I think that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters—Recalling-Is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story that can continue beyond the war and warrior. . . . It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbors.(Achebe 114)
Caribbean children's literature, like other African Diasporic literatures for the young, is relatively recent—an event embedded in the larger landscape of history. In Europe, until the seventeenth century, children were considered adults in miniature with no specific and special needs.1 Given the history of slavery and colonization, children's literature written by African and Diasporic authors was still in its infancy in the mid-1900's. Of course, colonial children's literature by colonial authors was meant for children in the metropolis and was stereotypically biased: it lauded the deeds of empire and provided a rationale for colonization and conquest. George Henty, R.M. Ballantyne, and W.H.G. Kingston, to name a few children's authors, come to mind. Hence, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, though not initially written for children and definitely not for African and African Diaspora children, became famous with children worldwide. Caribbean literature written for Caribbean children, like African and African-American literature for [End Page 179] children, has its origins in the oral/vernacular tradition: stories in the form of myths, legends, riddles, and proverbs constitute the bulk of this tradition and served as both entertainment and a way of teaching moral and ethical lessons. As Yahaya Bello points out, "the trickster, Anansi the Spiderman, is so much a part of Caribbean folklore that no collection of Caribbean children's literature would be complete without at least one Anansi story" (Bello 249). While Anansi originates in West Africa among the Akan, these animal stories, folktales, and legends in the Caribbean are "liberally spiced with additional elements" from India, England, France, Spain, Holland, and the indigenous Amerindians (250). This trickster figure is characteristic of Caribbean children's literature because its underlying rationale stems from centuries of imperialist history. Yahaya Bello makes the point:
[Anansi] embodies the struggle of the masses of the common people first against the ravages of slavery and later against the oppression wrought by colonialism. . . . [S/he is] the embodiment of the will to resist, through intelligence, guile, and cunning, the will of the slave master.(249–50)
With the Caribbean so recently unshackled from its "legal" colonial status, it is not surprising that these stories of resistance did not see the light of day until the late 1960s, when the vernacular began to gain widespread respectability and official recognition (Bello 251).
My epigraph (and especially Achebe's observation that "the story is our escort") has its counterpart in the writings of Caribbean authors. Jan Carew, a Guyanan, was asked why he rewrites African and Amerindian myths and legends as children's stories:
Because there is a dearth of material for our children...