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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 361-362
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Keith Cartwright. Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 2002. 270 pp.
In this book, Keith Cartwright explores the "historical routes and semiotic systems by which Africa may be recognized as a foundational source" in American literature. Contributing to the growing number of works on the meaning of Africa as a semiotic system in the American literary imagination, this book stands apart from such works because it refuses to take the continent as a monolithic structure. Rather, Cartwright focuses his study on a specific region in Africa: the Senegambia and its Mande peoples and their rich artistic and aesthetic repertoire. This relatively narrow scope of the book allows for a sustained inquiry that focuses on neglected discourse models, such as the "Senegambian bodies of epic, folk, narrative, and scripture to develop lenses through which we read American literature." Bringing an archaeological logic into literary analysis, Cartwright burrows in the Senegambian region for cultural/linguistic forms (or what he calls "African models") that yield a gold mine of genres, narrative schemas, and themes that he situates in texts by black and white American writers. Perhaps, more importantly, Cartwright, throughout his analysis, uses as a central motif the ubiquitous agency of Nyama which, in Senegambian lore, stands for "energy of action," an elemental force that is simultaneously creative and destructive, articulatory and signifying.
Part 1, "Epic Impulses/Narratives of Ancestry," examines the "epic-like narratives of African ancestry by Americans of African descent" that Cartwright traces to the urtext of Senegambian lore and art, the Sunjata epic and its narration of origins through song by the bard of Mande storytelling, the griot. Cartwright explores the epic possibilities of African-American literature through the indestructible Nyama of song as performed by the griots of black America such as Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk, Toomer in Cane, Hurston through her folk character John de Conquer, Ellison in Invisible Man, and Morrison in Song of Solomon. Cartwright further examines the epic possibilities of the griotic tradition when used for a radical politics of self-definition as Alex Haley demonstrates in Autobiography of Malcolm X and in Roots, whose Senegambian figure, Kunta Kinte, symbolizes the heroic struggle of legitimating black ancestry. These writers as griots, Cartwright observes, use song as literary capital to construct a black aesthetics and philosophy.
Part 2, "Bound Cultures/The Creolization of Dixie," examines the "folk-infused, fabulous narratives by white Americans revealing [End Page 361] [an] Afro-Creole cultural descent." Cartwright posits that Africanisms, specifically Senegambian modes of significations, which survived transplantation from Africa, helped define American/Southern literature as a creolized discourse. Senegambian fables on justice, moral responsibility, and communal obligations became the Nyama white writers used to comment on the creolized racial identities of the South. In particular, writers like Joel Chandler Harris and his Uncle Remus figure, Julia Peterkin and her Gullah (African) influenced tales, and the vernacular tales of southern folklore, such as the Brer Rabbit and trickster narratives, appropriated motifs and forms, morals and ethics that are Senegambian in origin. This creolization, made possible by the presence of Africanisms, questions the premise of an American/Southern literature with a singular, predominantly European, origin. Senegambian fables, Cartwright argues, were central to the representation of the creolized identities of America, whose cultural products—literature and music, for example—have been tremendously influenced by African models.
Part 3, "Shadows of Africans/Gothic Representations," explores the "Africanist, gothic-historicist narratives by Americans responding to the literacy and scriptural religion of Senegambian Muslims." Because Cartwright locates American gothicism within the shadows of Africans that he traces to Senegambia, this focus on African Muslims and their Arabic texts in the slave society of the South stands out as the book's major contribution to Africanisms in American literature. Cartwright situates in the works of early writers such as William Alexander Caruthers, Thomas Bluett, and Francis Moore the "shadow" of Senegambian figures and their gothic possibilities to the white imagination of...