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  • Our Mothers, Our Powers, Our Texts: Manifestations of Àjé in Africana Literature
  • Oyekan Owomoyela
Our Mothers, Our Powers, Our Texts: Manifestations of Àjé in Africana Literature By Teresa N. Washington Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006. xi + 333 pp. ISBN 0-253-21757-1 paper.

The author seeks to formulate for Àjé, a manifestation of female power and agency pervasive in Africana oral and literary texts, "a definitive, holistic Africa-based model" that would replace Western misconstructions. The two-part study discusses Àjé in oral traditions in the first, and in the second, Àjé's operations in literature, primarily Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, T. Obinkaram Echewa's I Saw the Sky Catch Fire, Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa, and Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress Indigo, supplemented with works by numerous other authors.

Far from being an exclusively Yoruba phenomenon, Washington's Àjé is a "boundless and comprehensive" force widely dispersed in West and Central Africa, and in the New World in the form of Hoodoo. Timeless and ubiquitous, Àjé both empowers women and bridges the gender divide, enforcing gender balance. One of Teresa Washington's major contributions to the discourse of black feminism is her assertion that Africana women's struggle is not to regain lost power, "for their inherent biological, spiritual, and political power cannot be usurped," which is not to say that men might not resort to stratagems "to suppress Àjé politically and oppress women socially" (167). The statement recalls Pierre Vergér's earlier testimony that at the dawn of creation Olódùmarè invested Àjé with inalienable veto power over the aspirations of Ògún and Obàrìsà, and of all creatures who people the earth. Hence the designation Àjé, the substantive part of which is (acquiesce). [End Page 215]

Washington's book testifies to the author's impressive knowledge of Africana lore and literature, especially their feminine and feminist aspects, and is destined, deservedly, to become an authority for students of the Africana universe. Because in the global intellectual economy scholarship published in the West tends to displace African knowledges, some cautions are in order. The first is that although a brilliant exposé of Africana manifestations that mimic the attributes of Yoruba àjé, Our Mothers is not quite a treatise on àjé itself. The second addresses the integrity of traditional terms and usages. Washington asserts that among the Yoruba of Nigeria, ìyá mi (my mother) having undergone tonal changes becomes ìyà mi, which she translates as "My Mysterious Mother" (4). Thereafter she consistently substitutes Ìyàmi Òsòròngà for Ìyámi Òsòròngà. While dialectal or individual idiosyncracies might make Ìya-à-mi into Ìyàmi, the widely acceptable (or authentic) rendering is Ìyámi (My Mother), not Ìyàmi (which means not "My Mysterious Mother" but "My Suffering," "My Punishment," etc.). Also, sprinkled throughout the work are Yoruba words that are imprecisely parsed; for example, the verb "júbà" is never a noun (226) like ìbà (homage) or ìjúbà (its cognate). The cautions are, however, not intended to diminish the brilliance of Washington's achievement.

Oyekan Owomoyela
University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Work Cited

Vergér, Pierre “Grandeur et décadence du culte de Ìyámi Òsòròngà (Ma mère la sorcière) chez les Yoruba.” Journal de la Société des Africanistes, 35.1 (1965): 141–243.


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