- Legba’s Crossing: Narratology in the African Atlantic
Heather Russell’s Legba’s Crossing: Narratology in the African Atlantic (2009) extends discussions of Afromodernism, offering the Legba Principle as a frame for reading what certain African Atlantic writers— James Weldon Johnson, Audre Lorde, Earl Lovelace, Michelle Cliff, and John Edgar Wideman—achieve in their emancipatory poetics. Russell suggests that the expectations embedded in formal analyses of African Atlantic writers rely heavily on Western European theoretical models such as modernism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism, and therefore fail to realize the narratological contexts from which the writers operate. African Atlantic texts de-form by crossing the borders of “conventional formal, generic, and disciplinary rules” (4). Russell argues that much of diasporic literary criticism focuses on content rather than form; when form is addressed, critique is preoccupied with how narratives do or do not fit conventional models.
Russell unpacks African Atlantic narratology in the introduction, explaining that she employs the term African Atlantic rather than African diasporic “to specify persons/writers or narratives concerning persons of African descent living on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean” (22). Riffing on Paul Gilroy’s notion of the Black Atlantic, Russell distinguishes her analysis by bringing Africa back into focus through her use of West African philosophical and cosmological precepts; she contends that these precepts provide a different frame for understanding the imaginative and material dimensions of African Atlantic thought. For Russell, framing is important. Whereas Gilroy’s Black Atlantic locates Africa outside of the intellectual universe of Black Atlantic political thought and activism, Russell advocates a frame incorporating the West African concepts of “Great Time,” àshe, and the Vodun loa Legba.
The Legba Principle is Russell’s “metonym for African Atlantic narratives whose episteme is engaged in freeing praxis at both the level of form and of theme—in other words, texts whose narratologies interrupt, disrupt, and erupt Euro-American literary convention for sociopolitical, ideological purposes” (12). Russell therefore focuses on texts that address key [End Page 218] moments in black resistance to enslavement, colonialism, neocolonialism, segregation, Cold War Imperialism, and neoliberalism. The writers examined use their narratives to free themselves from convention while providing an alternative experience of ideological and political freedom for their subjects. Invoking Houston Baker’s analysis of the blues singer’s negotiation of the railroad tracks and Wilson Harris’s contention that the Caribbean limbo dance symbolizes a gateway to the new world, Russell identifies the convergence of key concepts of Esu-Elegbara (Yoruba) with Exù (Brazil), Elegua/Ellegua (Central and South America and the Caribbean), and Legba (Haiti). These “New World” deities, derived from the same pantheistic source, carry with them the responsibility for navigating the crossroads, granting access to other deities in the pantheon, and opening the door to the spirit world. Russell’s articulation of the Legba Principle does not make central the interchangeability of the aforementioned deities, but rather emphasizes how, taken together, they offer a hermeneutics for reading African Atlantic writings.
Russell finds that when applied to Caribbean literature, the frequently invoked idea of fragmentation reifies the “privileged status accorded fragmentation within modernism” (16) and connotes psychic alienation, an always already broken cultural identity that is fractured beyond repair. Departing from this problematic frame, Russell embraces Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido’s “quilting structure,” which moves beyond the linearity of male texts to engage narrative quilting as a discursive form. The weaving together of history, myth, memory, genre, form, and narration by the writers discussed results in this quilted discourse. Here, John Mbiti’s “Great Time” provides the thread that weaves them together. The manipulation of time becomes a method for linking African Atlantic encounters with modernity across national boundaries, recognizing that those boundaries themselves were constructed as part of an oppressive colonial project.
In Part I, “Interruptions,” Russell examines how James Weldon Johnson and Audre Lorde disrupt the autobiographical form with the strategic use of the Legba Principle. She argues that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a “tricky African...