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Black on Black:
Twentieth-Century African American Writing About Africa
John Cullen Gruesser. Black on Black: Twentieth-Century African American Writing About Africa. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 2000. xiii + 205 pp.
In his earlier work, White on Black: Contemporary Literature About Africa (1992), Gruesser identified as the primary convention of Africanist writing by AngloAmericans the tendency to depict "Africans as lagging behind Westerners in terms of moral, intellectual, and/or material development." In Black on Black, the companion volume to White on Black, Gruesser considers the way that nineteenth- and twentieth-century African-American authors have reacted both to this dominant, myopic view of Africa and to the concept of Ethiopianism, "the teleological and uniquely African-American view of history" that was inspired by the biblical verse "Princes shall come out of Egypt, Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God." Beginning with a discussion of evangelist Maria Stewart's 1833 endorsement of a cyclical view of history that positioned African Americans as a chosen people destined to return Africa to former glory and concluding with Alice Walker's resounding rejection of this schema in her novel The Color Purple (1982), Gruesser chronicles, in a detailed and convincing manner, the evolution of black American literary responses to the consequences of the African Diaspora.
If any one prominent literary figure stands out in Gruesser's study as an embodiment of this evolution, it would be W. E. B. Du Bois, whose [End Page 1029] early writings, most notably the 1897 article "The Conservation of Races," reflected what Gruesser terms "African-American exceptionalism," the belief that US blacks, by virtue of their schooling in Western politics and technology, were best positioned to reclaim for Africa its legacy as an influential and sovereign land. However, by 1936, with the fall of Ethiopia to the Italians, Du Bois asserted "the interconnectedness of black American and African-American freedom," by denouncing even the most benevolent, Afro-centered colonialism, a view that he would expand upon in 1961, when he admitted that while "American Negroes of former generations had always calculated that when Africa was ready for freedom, American Negroes would be ready to lead them [. . .], the event was quite the opposite. Indeed, it now seems that Africans may have to show American Negroes the way to freedom." Gruesser privileges Du Bois's decision to eschew Ethiopianism, a philosophy that he feels placed a barrier between African-American artists and the contemporary Africa that they sought to depict.
Ultimately, Gruesser singles out Melvin Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) and Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs (1965) as the most successful African-American representations of Africa, precisely because their authors chose to incorporate "African methods to tell an African story." Gruesser argues that this type of generic hybridity is best suited to "revise the dominant discourse" on Africa and to create a complex, anticolonial treatment of Africa. Thus, Tolson's interweaving of "modernist techniques most often associated with T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland" and African proverbs and parables adds a richness and a verisimilitude to Tolson's poetic record of Liberia's tribal heritage, colonial struggles, and postcolonial future. In a similar manner, Gruesser praises Les Blancs because of Hansberry's decision to rewrite, in dramatic form, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, "making the falsehood at the heart of the missionary impulse on the continent a central theme, and like Tolson before her," using conventions of African folklore and African music to tell a uniquely African story.
Gruesser's detailed study, which also includes a thorough explication of the works of lesser known African-American writers such as Sutton Griggs, John E. Bruce, Shirley Graham, and George Schuyler, sets the stage for further scholarly work on African-American depictions of Africa. Gruesser devotes one chapter to post-1950s authors, enabling [End Page 1030] him to touch only briefly upon the increasingly complex manner in which African-American, Afro-Caribbean and African authors have revisioned and remade...