- The Power of a Singular Story:Narrating Africa and Its Diasporas
“I am not an African.” The British-Caribbean writer Caryl Phillips was hit with this seemingly simple but forceful realization in early 2003, while sitting inside a one-story house surrounded by a snowy American landscape (Phillips, “Out of Africa” 206). Prior to this moment of clarity, Phillips had been in conversation with the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, into whose living room he had been welcomed; the subject of their exchange had been Joseph Conrad’s controversial novella, Heart of Darkness (1902).
During this encounter, which took place almost three decades after Achebe first delivered his famous lecture on Conrad’s book—a talk entitled “An Image of Africa”—the Nigerian writer uncompromisingly stood by his verdict: Conrad, whose novella presented Africans as “rudimentary souls” and “savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet,” was a “thoroughgoing racist” (“Image” 19, 7, 11). Phillips, who had always rather viewed Conrad’s narrative as an indictment of the European colonial enterprise in Africa, took the opportunity of his conversation with Achebe to respectfully voice his disagreement with his elder, upon which the Nigerian writer emphatically replied, “you cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity. I cannot accept that. My humanity is not to be debated, nor is it to be used simply to illustrate European problems” (Phillips, “Out of Africa” 206).
It is at this point that Phillips became fully aware that he, born to African-Caribbean parents in St Kitts and brought up in England, had an interest in probing “the health of European civilisation” (“Out of Africa” 206) that Achebe did not share. While the younger British-Caribbean writer was willing to engage with Conrad’s tale about the “infamy” of colonialism (203), even if it meant putting up with “a certain stereotype of African barbarity that, at the time, was accepted as the norm” (205), his older Nigerian colleague was most definitely not ready to make such a concession. Eventually understanding the validity of Achebe’s [End Page 1] position, Phillips discerningly concluded, “Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe” (207).
In the context of this special issue of Research in African Literatures, Achebe’s and Phillips’s divergent responses to Heart of Darkness are of more than anecdotal interest, for they bring into focus the contrasting nature of the two men’s relationship with Africa, an asymmetrical connection shaped by historically different experiences of the continent. Evidently, Africa was not the same to Achebe, who spent most of his life in Nigeria and only reluctantly joined the ranks of the “new” diaspora in the United States later in life, as it is to the Anglo-Kittitian Phillips, a descendant of the members of the “old” diaspora, those displaced by the transatlantic slave trade. To the heirs of those uprooted people, Africa quickly became a distant, intangible entity, yet for many it also remained a pivotal constituent in their search for identity, a quest for cultural roots powerfully articulated by the African American writer Countee Cullen in his 1925 poem, “Heritage,” in the form of a straightforward question: “What is Africa to me?”
Both Cullen and Phillips belong to the “old” diaspora, but this common biographical feature is perhaps also where the comparison between the two authors must end. Indeed, Phillips’s response to Africa, a continent to which he has now traveled repeatedly and on which he has set part of his novels Higher Ground (1989), Crossing the River (1993), and A Distant Shore (2003), by no means shares the romanticism of Cullen’s vision, epitomized in the “Strong bronzed men, or regal black / Women” that peopled the African American poet’s imaginary landscape (“Heritage” 1347). Of course, Phillips’s and Cullen’s contrasting outlooks are the products of different cultures and different times, separated as they are by the better part of a century. This, in turn, begs the larger question as to what extent the various responses to Cullen’s original query have been subject to...