The Assertion of Coevalness: African Literature and Modernist Studies
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The Assertion of Coevalness:
African Literature and Modernist Studies

More than a decade into the shift toward a global modernist paradigm, work putting the extraordinary modern and contemporary output of sub-Saharan African literature in conversation with these new models remains infrequent. When it does occur, it often stops short of confronting the currently unstable, expanding, and contested nature of modernism as a category. This article argues against the longstanding divide between African and modernist literary studies. The distance between these two fields is not only causing mutual harm, but impeding efforts to understand twentieth-century literature and indeed the relationship between literature and modernity more generally. I will survey some of the causes of tension between African literature and modernist studies, showing that this tension often leads—despite the anticolonial political intentions that motivate much scholarly insistence on African literature's distinction from modernism—to surprising instances of what anthropologist Johannes Fabian has famously called "the denial of coevalness"—the tendency to imagine colonized or non-Western peoples as existing in an earlier, less developed historical moment.1 I will then turn to an Anglophone West African work from 1911 that, despite its precisely coeval relationship with the emergence of modernism in the still-dominant European sense of the term, remains outside the purview of modernist studies: Ethiopia Unbound by J. E. Casely Hayford. Hayford's generically hybrid work is typically read for its pan-Africanist political content and, when read as literature, defined as a romance. I will show, however, that Hayford presages, theorizes, and responds in advance to two specific problems in the study of African culture vis-à-vis [End Page 245] "global" modernism. First, he provides a contemporary response to the then-ongoing European removal and reframing of indigenous African art objects, a process that has conventionally framed scholarship on modernism and Africa. Second, by explicitly imagining itself as a globally circulating book, Ethiopia Unbound anticipates more recent turns in "new modernist" or "world anglophone" approaches. My purpose here is not simply to apply the slowly-expanding label of "modernist" to this and other African books from the colonial era, but to examine how these works oblige us to redefine the concept of "modernism" across literary studies.

Appropriation and Periodization: Beyond Primitivism

The relationship between African and modernist literary studies might be described as one of cool distance punctuated by occasional heated conflict. Conventional histories of European and American modernism's relation to the arts and literatures of sub-Saharan Africa leave little question as to why this is. Pablo Picasso's "discovery" of African art at the Palais du Trocadéro stands to this day as an emblematic narrative of appropriation, a cultural imperialism inextricable from Africa's violent colonization. Joseph Conrad's location of the Congo as the site of modernist horror in Heart of Darkness (1899) remains a flashpoint as well, thanks in part to Chinua Achebe's powerful and well-known critique of Conrad's treatment of race. Among scholars, critic Charles Larson's narrative of "the emergence of African fiction" in 1971 led to Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike's denunciation, in Toward the Decolonization of African Literature (1980), of "Larsony" as the practice of holding African letters to a falsely universalist standard of modernization.2 Alongside the pathology of "Larsony," these three critics posited "Hopkins disease" in their critique of some Nigerian poets' use of modernist poetic aesthetics, scorning what they call "the Leavisite modernist trinity—Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Gerard Manley Hopkins."3

The critical response to Larson's work in particular illustrates both the legitimate causes of the postcolonial Africanist criticism of modernism and the diminishing relevance of this stance with regard to how modernist studies is practiced in the academy today. Larson's early work no doubt earns the condemnation of Chinweizu and his colleagues by defining African literature's emergence as an evolution from indigenous forms toward a kind of "universality" whose Eurocentrism is veiled thinly if at all. Larson proclaims the African novel's move into "the main stream of Western tradition," in which "[s]ituational plots are … replaced by works which concentrate on character individuality," "[d]escription, and...