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Diaspora 1:2 1991 Writing the African Diaspora in the Eighteenth Century M. van Wyk Smith Rhodes University, South Africa The abolitionist debate, which peaked in Britain in the 1780s and '90s, elicited a number ofworks by black authors. These texts exhibit features which suggest that their authors were developing a diasporan consciousness, a sense of a community defining itself in contradistinction to a larger hegemony. Black voices obviously had been heard before in English writing; one thinks of more than just Othello or Oroonoko (see, for instance, Walvin, The Black Presence, Shyllon, and Dabydeen). From the appearance of the very first Portuguese , Dutch, and English chronicles of visits to the African west coast, from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries onwards, sporadic attempts were made to record the thoughts and sayings of blacks. Their voices, however, are usually no more than asides in the colonial narrative. Such passages are invariably of the "they say" variety and, though one may sometimes detect what sounds like a genuine cadence or whisper of a non-Western point of view, these cannot demonstrably be proven to be other than fictitious. By the late eighteenth century such mediated accounts, either totally or partially fictitious, had become a major feature of abolitionist literature, as Wylie Sypher and many others since have shown. Among this considerable body of writing, however, a small group of texts stands out as having been produced by blacks whose existence and authorship have been either wholly or substantially verified . Furthermore, as the first blacks to publish their own stories, these authors mark an important, indeed crucial, moment in the articulation of a black diasporan consciousness in Britain. A diaspora brings about identifiable (often minority) ethnic communities that, although violently uprooted and geohistorically severed from their homeland, nevertheless derive from it and retain significant cultural practices, memories, and myths that may be invoked to resist the dominant cultural paradigms of the host—and often hostile —nation. The African slave trade certainly effected a diaspora. As S. E. Ogude has remarked: "[For] black men all over the world the only genuine, shared racial memory is slavery and what it en127 Diaspora 1:2 1991 tailed. It is this experience that has defined and appears to continue to shape our relationship with the rest of the world. It is the one single experience that binds all black people together" ("Slavery" 21). Within the wide, calamitous African diaspora that is centered on the new world, the writers I am concerned with here and their community form a sub-set: the relatively small number of Africans, usually freed, unusually literate, brought to Britain, where they were, in a sense, doubly displaced from their original homes. Their position was a curious one. Marginalized by British society in most respects, these writers were nevertheless privileged within the specific parameters of the abolitionist debate, but this also meant that their writings had to be heavily predicated on the terms and values of that debate. On the other hand, to have entered the conditions of discourse at all also meant intervening in the circulation of power, and inevitably generated a quest for the fissures and opportunities within the dominant discourse through which to express counterviews. As part of the process of resisting what Samir Amin has called "internal colonization" and defined as "the patterns of exploitation and domination of disenfranchised groups within a metropolitan country" (369), these authors spoke for and gave being to an "imagined community" (Anderson) of blacks in England who until then largely had lacked their own narrative, their own textualized "fables of identity" (Frye). The larger discourse that these writers entered was the eighteenthcentury text of ethnography, and within that the heavily overdetermined transaction ofracial representation, with specific reference to the slavery debate. It was a potent discourse indeed. As Edward Said has remarked about the cognate discourse of Orientalism, by the eighteenth century it had been distilled to "ruthless cultural and racial essences" and had become a "streamlined and effective" general doctrine for confronting the non-European world (36): "[E]very European in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric" (204). Without necessarily sharing Said's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-1568
Print ISSN
1044-2057
Pages
pp. 127-142
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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