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American Literary History 15.3 (2003) 639-653



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"What Is Africa to Me?":
Reading the African Cultural Base of (African) American Literary History

Gay Wilentz

Black on Black: Twentieth-Century African American Writing about Africa. By John Cullen Gruesser. University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales. By Keith Cartwright. University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. By William S. Pollitzer. University of Georgia Press, 1999.
What happened to those who were taken away?
Do people hear from them? / How are they?
Shut up child....
All good men and women try to forget;
They have forgotten.

Ama Ata Aidoo, Anowa

The fathers may soar / And the children will know their names.

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

From the first enslaved African brought to Barbados in 1509, initiating the largest forced migration of people in human history as well as the emergence of the African diaspora, the relationship between the African continent and the Americas has been a profound and complicated one. 1 For African Americans within the US, for southern Americans, as well as the rest of us living on this continent, that historical moment is still with us today. In her play Anowa, Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo addresses the slave trade from an African perspective; her main character Anowa asks her grandmother, where were they taken away to and do people hear from them? As Countee Cullen's lament in his poem "Heritage" identifies, the answer from the diaspora is not clear. Despite the fact that there have been many attempts to reconstruct and reinterpret the consequences of that catastrophic event and its effect on both sides of the Atlantic, there is no unified view. [End Page 639] From nineteenth-century Ethiopianism and Pan-Africanism to the twentieth-century Back-to-Africa Movement, Afrocentrism, and contemporary diaspora theories, the untangling of the African roots of black-national and southern cultures and the broader American culture appears to be an exploration continuing into the twenty-first century. From the development of diaspora studies and literary theory in the early 1980s, there has been a wealth of research, which significantly explores these African roots and simultaneously examines the ways that these traditions have affected our American literary and cultural history.

Three new works, written at the turn of this millennium, investigate the role of African-based traditions within the context of African-American literature, the South, and diverse cultural retentions. The first work, John Cullen Gruesser's Black on Black: Twentieth-Century African American Writing about Africa, investigates the influence of Ethiopianism in African-American literature and culture from the nineteenth century to Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982). The second work, Keith Cartwright's Reading Africa into American Literature, analyzes the full range of southern literature by black and white writers, as well as other African-American authors, through a consideration of specific West African groups, which he terms Senegambia/Mande, influenced by Islamic culture. The third work discussed is William S. Pollitzer's The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Unlike the other two works, this one attempts to explore all aspects of this African heritage, not limiting it to a specific theoretical view or any focus on literature. However, in posing these works along with others of diaspora theory, there is clear agreement that African roots are embedded within the breadth of American culture and literary history. Where the traditions came from and what retentions remain still complicate the search for those African roots. Morrison's implicit question in her dedication to Song of Solomon (1977) is if the fathers fly back to Africa, how will the children know their names? In uncovering what Morrison calls the "civilizations underneath" (LeClair 26), we may find that there is not just one story or one space that reconnects us all to this vital aspect of American culture. Still, we have those who define their view on the subject in a specific way, but by placing their tales together, we...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 639-653
Launched on MUSE
2003-07-11
Open Access
No
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