- The Trickster Comes West: Pan-African Influence in Early Black Diasporan Narratives by Babacar M'Baye
Babacar M'Baye's book covers the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writings of free blacks in America, England, and the Caribbean. He discusses Phillis Wheatley's poems and letters, British abolitionist Quobna Ottobah Cugoano's Thoughts and Sentiments on the Wicked and Evil Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce [End Page 235] of the Human Species Humbly Submitted to the Inhabitants of Great-Britain by Ottobah Cugoano, A Native of Africa (London, 1783), The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (London, 1789), two texts, both titled "The History of Methodism" and both merely ten pages long, by the Hart sisters, Elizabeth Hart Thwaites (1772-1833) and Anne Hart Gilbert (1773-1834), and The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself (London, 1831).
M'Baye characterizes his writers as "a small elite group of Western educated black intellectuals. . . . [They] utilized their elite status and individuality by attacking Western slavery and linking their suffering to blacks in Africa and to the African diaspora thereby becoming pioneers of black Africanism" (p. 3). This much seems certain. However, he goes further:
Oral tradition had major roles in the critique of slavery and imperialism in early black diasporan narratives. These writings show how black writers overcame difficult personal, social, political, and economic conditions through appropriation and reconstruction [emphasis added] of the resistance strategies of diasporan trickster figures such as Brer Rabbit, Nancy and Bro' Hog who remind us of West African prankster characters such as Leuk [the rabbit], Bouki [the hyena], Anansi [spider], Mbe [tortoise] and other icons of black folklore.(pp. 3-4)
The question is not whether the African oral tradition influenced the African American oral tradition. Clearly it did. The problem is that the written texts give next to no clear indication that the oral tradition was a source of the texts. What M'Baye expects us to do is to read through the lines to discover an almost magical link between early African American texts and actual plots, characters, and rituals that M'Baye himself has sought out in recently collected oral texts, and to backpedal more than two centuries to deposit them in motivations for the authors. The only cases in which clear Africanisms are found are in Cugoano's work. Here he uses the Fanti term bounsam, which refers to "the devil" and makes reference to the Fanti belief that white slavers were cannibals. Other than that, M'Baye refers to particular trickster figures associated with particular African societies. A central concept with which I critique this book as a whole is the notion of the author as trickster.
Two examples are found in the chapter on Wheatley, in which M'Baye compares a section of Wheatley's poetry to a narrative from Wolof folklore: "Wheatley employs the Wolof form of indirection since she does not want to offend the oppressive hegemonic power of white America that she criticizes" (p. 54). On the same page he goes on: "Wheatley's suffocation from slavery in America is similar to that which Leuk experiences in a narrative in which he is kidnapped by strangers and put in bondage." In other words, Wheatley's subversive poetry is inspired by Senegambian folklore. But the Leuk reference is a metaphor and nothing more. There is no verifiable thread of influence whatsoever.
According to M'Baye, Cugoano made some "disrespectful remarks" about Africans, but "his story exposes the strong influence of Fanti religious outlook on his worldviews" (p. 93). He plucks Akan notions out of nowhere, in other words, and deposits them in Cugoano's text, continuing in this vein for some pages. He writes: "Finally, Cugoano, like Anansi, overcame the challenges placed before him by relying on his own wits and survival skills" (p. 102). Again we find a metaphor rather than a demonstrable influence.
Equiano's Interesting Narrative is indeed...