- African Literature and Social Change: Tribe, Nation, Race by Olakunle George
A new and welcome addition to the field of African literary studies, Olakunle George’s African Literature and Social Change is dense where it needs to be and glories in productive close readings when its objects call for it. George’s nearest compatriot is, perhaps, Ato Quayson, in that both are concerned with where the sphere of Anglo American literary theory and criticism ends and African literary studies begins. While Quayson’s Calibrations suffers a little from its relentless theoretical density, George’s more traditional academic text balances a thick theory chapter against a series of clear and against-the-grain close readings.
To begin with, George calls for the field of African literature to shift its center to account for what he calls “missionary moments” in the [End Page 440] representation of Africa (1). We should expand African literature away from a collective fetishization of postcolonial literature from the middle of the twentieth century to include and account for more than just Achebe and everything after. George seeks to draw our attention to some aporiae in African literary studies—we often leap from eighteenth-century exceptional figures like Equiano to twentieth-century independence movements. In doing this, George pulls the focus wider to show thematic through lines in African literature like the trope of sacrifice, a figure that enables his argument that African literature is best understood “under the sign of social change,” not as a fixed or establishing or static “cultural or identitarian retrieval” (1). To argue so is to push against a long history in African literature study that implicates sociology and anthropology as interlocutor disciplines for reading social-realist literature. By folding in texts like the missionary testimonies of “black whitemen,” which even George admits can be tedious, we can expand the frame of reference of “literature” in productively material ways, and also account for less realist or traditionally generic literatures.
This is admirable, opening up a wider frame of reference; even if many of these usually elided texts are, as George himself admits, rather clichéd or boring, they are nevertheless important for tracing out the origins and breadths of “African” literature. As George reminds us poetically at the end of his text, “Africa is text and desire . . . [and it] is also a product of intellectual labor and acts of language”—we might add, not just the ones we favour or agree with (194).
In doing this, he explains, his approach is to “elicit the ways in which African writing can equip us to desediment and rehistoricize the categories of race, nation, and tribe as they pertain to the continent” (9). George goes about this work in a remarkably comprehensive way, chipping away at the fuzzy borders of disciplinary self-conception and self-limitation, breaking down the assumptions upon which the field’s textual politics are based, and resuscitating neglected writers like Samuel Ajayi Crowther, and neglected texts like Peter Abrahams’ A Wreath for Udomo. All of this allows George to disrupt longstanding discursive commonplaces, like the “Western reification of black Africa as a place of ahistorical collectivities” (19), and challenge the trio of discursive constructs—tribe, nation, race—in the title of his book. He does all of this with an eye to contemporary post-postcolonial “world literature” and “globalization” discourses, and issues this gauntlet: “To what extent does the African experience of literature as self-negotiation equip us to challenge glibly universalizing tendencies in literary globalism? How might a transgressive reading of African literature intervene productively conversations about globalism in literary and cultural criticism?” (3). The tension between postcoloniality and [End Page 441] literary globalism, the latter’s belief in itself as a “sublat[ion]” of postcoloniality, leads to a false dichotomy between the two bodies of thought, most often at the cost of postcolonial theory and politics, even as he argues that we’re still living in the conjunction of postcoloniality and globalism (23–30).
He begins his range of readings with the “black whitemen...