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  • What Is Africa to Me Now?
  • Caryl Phillips

“Heritage”By Countee Cullen(For Harold Jackman)

What is Africa to me:Copper sun or scarlet sea,Jungle star or jungle track,Strong bronzed men, or regal blackWomen from whose loins I sprangWhen the birds of Eden sang?One three centuries removedFrom the scenes his fathers loved,Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,What is Africa to me?

In 1925, when Countee Cullen wrote his famous poem, “Heritage,” he was writing in a strong tradition of early twentieth-century African American artists who were dreaming of Africa. To be more specific, they were dreaming of repairing the rupture in their personal and social history that had been caused by the institution of slavery. One could see back as far as Charleston or Savannah or Baltimore, but what came before had to be largely imagined.

Five years later, in 1930, Langston Hughes wrestled with exactly this same question of what, and where, Africa is in his poem “Afro-American Fragment.”

So longSo far awayIs Africa.Not even memories aliveSave those that history books create,Save those that songsBeat back into the blood—Beat out of blood with words sad-sung [End Page 10] In strange un-Negro tongue—So long,So far awayIs Africa.

Subdued and time-lostAre the drums—and yetThrough some vast mist of raceThere comes this songI do not understand,This song of atavistic land,Of bitter yearnings lostWithout a place—So long,So far awayIs Africa’sDark face.

So what was Africa to Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and others? Clearly it was a place they needed to understand—“I do not understand, / This song of atavistic land.” It was a place that appeared to be a crucial building block in their identity, and in the first half of the twentieth century Cullen, Hughes, and other artists would expend much creative energy trying to stitch Africa into the quilted narrative of African American lives. Of course, the truth is they knew exactly where Africa was, and they knew something of the many, many different cultures on the continent, but the question of “What is Africa?” was being posed as a gate through which they might pass and thereafter explore the more urgent problem of “What is America to me?”

By the time we reach the mid-1970s, Alex Haley’s book Roots appears to have successfully answered the question of what Africa means. Carefully published to coincide with the bicentennial celebrations of the United States, and presented as a gift to the country, Haley’s book was keen to reattach the umbilical cord to Africa and create a sociohistorical highway between Africa and her diasporan people—primarily, of course, Americans. Part of the book’s intention was to create some kind of reconciliation with Africa; in fact, one might view Roots as a long 850-page answer to Cullen’s delicately posed question, “What is Africa to me?” And Haley’s conclusions? Well, put simply, “it’s the place where I’m from.” Where Hughes claims to not understand, Haley is adamant that he understands fully—these are my ancestors, this is my village, this is where my story begins. The first sentence of the book couldn’t be more sure-footed: “Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte.”

It would appear that in a brief period of fifty or so years, African Americans passed from eloquently wondering about Africa to knowing Africa. Of course the story isn’t this simple, but I’ll return to this question of knowing—or even wanting to know—in a moment. Suffice to say that, whatever the artistic merits of the book, Roots was hugely significant as a cultural event. One might successfully argue that it heralded a change in modern terminology with which we are all familiar; out with Afro-American or Black American and in with African American. [End Page 11]

I mention Roots because of its personal resonance. I was a...


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