- Tracing the Memory of Africa across the Atlantic Divide
[Published Winter 2020]
In her conclusion to The Cultural Memory of Africa in African American and Black British Fiction, 1970–2000: Specters of the Shore, Leila Kamali notes the simultaneous attraction to black British writers of "an African American activist tradition … which inspires an assertion of the value of Blackness" (271) and the difficulties of reconciling this tradition with their own experiences. Although the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Power movement may initially appear to offer exciting possibilities for black writers and artists on the other side of the Atlantic, "the parameters which appear to define African American Blackness do not speak to a British lived experience" (271). Significant dissimilarities in the functioning of white hegemony, in addition to the sheer differences between the physical and social environments of both countries, make it difficult to translate the specific valences of otherwise empowering political and artistic projects (271–3). These tensions, of course, highlight the potential fruitfulness of a comparison of these two contexts at once united by a common language, yet with complexly divergent histories of racial oppression, imperialism, and resistance. One of the crucial nodes of comparison here—and the focus of Kamali's book—is the way in which the memory of the African continent and its traditions is variously articulated, remediated, and negotiated by the writers of the contemporary period. While the experience of Africa prior to the Middle Passage is the most obvious commonality between the African American and black British experiences, a comparison of the precise ways in which the continent is remembered, and the textual strategies through which the practice of [End Page 383] memory is performed, offers a fascinating insight into the politics of the memory of Africa in two of the continent's largest diasporas.
In pursuing these questions, The Cultural Memory of Africa can be firmly situated as a contribution to "Black Atlantic Studies," a sub-field that does not necessarily accept all the arguments of Paul Gilroy's foundational The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness but broadly recognizes the utility of the "explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective" that a focus on the Atlantic and the legacy of the Middle Passage affords (Gilroy 1993, 15). The field can be said to be distinct from "African Diaspora Studies" at large, not only by virtue of its emphasis upon the precise legacy of the slave trade but also in its sustained engagement with writers and theorists from the United Kingdom—a tendency that can partly be attributed to Britain's historical prominence in the Atlantic region. While Gilroy's insights have proven useful to scholars wishing to interrogate questions of identity in works written in the United States, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom, this has sometimes involved to the neglect of the African continent itself as a continuing influence upon black Atlantic imaginations.1
An important corrective to this tendency can be seen in Yogita Goyal's 2010 monograph, Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature, which explicitly addresses the ways in which Africa has, and continues to, influence black Atlantic literary imaginaries: "Whereas Africa exists as the 'dark continent' in conceptual constructions of the black Atlantic or is relegated to some timeless past as a mythic origin for a diasporic culture, [Goyal's] book shifts the center of black diaspora studies by considering Africa as constitutive of black modernity" (7). Focusing on the ways in which black Atlantic writers use the romance genre—which she defines in deliberately broad terms as a "shift outside of realism into the sphere of the marvelous rather than the mundane" (13)—to imagine new forms of agency, Goyal shows that writers as geographically and politically diverse as Pauline Hopkins, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Caryl Phillips exploit the "generic discontinuities" between "nationalist realism" and "diasporic romance" to articulate politically potent images of Africa in the black Atlantic context.2
Kamali's discussion of the "cultural memory" of...