Program Notes and a Request or Two

by zunguzungu

As my summer turns into the fall semester, this blog may (or may not) get more academic in focus. I’ll start teaching Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart next week, and will try to write-up some of my class notes, just almost not quite in time for the postbourgie book event on Things Fall Apart. And I’m hoping, in a more general sense, to find ways of making the kinds of thinking about literature that I do for money and love synchronize a bit more. We’ll see.

In any case, I have two requests which, I’ve heard, are infelicitously known by the internet community as “blegs.” I refuse to use the terms except quarantined behind quotation marks.

The first is the class I’ll be teaching, which will be called “First Contact.” Since Kotsko and Burke have convinced me that it is good and right to do so, I’m posting the vague blueprints of the syllabus that I’ve got below as a request for suggestions. Basically, the class is an excuse to make students read and write about Things Fall Apart, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, but there is a loose thread connecting them together, which is:

“In The Gods Must Be Crazy, an airline pilot drops a coke bottle into an isolated !Kung community in the Kalahari desert, their first experience of the outside world. As the hapless Xi attempts to get rid of the offending object, we are meant to laugh at the spectacle of a bushman wandering through a civilized world he cannot understand. Yet as a variety of critics have noted, the entire movie is a fantasy; actual isolated “native” communities that are unaffected by the outside world are very hard to find in practice. The “bushmen” of the Kalahari, in fact, originally retreated into the desert to escape European invaders!

“Most stories of “first” contact seem to fall apart in the same way. After reading some critical work on the subject, we will carefully read three novels written less about “first” contact than about the myth of it, set in Nigeria, Colombia, and Saudi Arabia. Students’ final projects will be a research assignment exploring and analyzing a story of “first contact” of their own choosing. This course will also focus on writing persuasively, clearly, and precisely about literature, and student writing will develop from brief response papers to full length argumentative essays and revisions.”

On the first day, I’m thinking about showing my students the great twilight zone episode “To Serve Man” and maybe the short version of District 9 (I’m trying to decide if I can or should make them see District 9 itself), but since it’s a “reading and composition” course I’m going to downplay the theoretical apparatus (and broader course argument/thematic) in favor of the reading itself; there may, i nfact, be no critical literature on the subject at all, since the texts themselves are so thoroughly critical and self-aware.

The second “bleg” I’m a little more nervous about, but what the heck. Having written my prospectus (a sort of outline for the dissertation), and being deep in the trenches of the second chapter, I’m going to share the first thousand words of the prospectus with y’all, on the off chance you’ve an interest in what I really do and, more hopefully, that you might care to read the entire document and give me feedback. The whole prospectus is ~6,000 words and goes into much more detail about the specific figures I’m dealing with (Stanley, Roosevelt, Dubois, Wright, Kenyatta, Abrahams, and a variety of more “literary” writers in somewhat less detail), and if you’d like to read it, drop me an email and I’ll be delighted to share it with you. I don’t feel like posting the whole thing on the web — though having had my prospectus conference, it somehow feels to me like a more public document — but, again, let me emphasize that even if all you want to do is see where I’m going wrong with it, I’ll be flattered and delighted by anyone’s request to read it.

If you want to get a taste, here’s the opener. As always, questions, comments, advice, rebukes, and tangential trollery are all welcome, or at least in the spirit in which they are given.

Native Sons: Developing America’s Africa into Africa’s America

“…what was, in the beginning, merely a false assumption, becomes a reality. Men create the world in which they live by the methods they use to interpret it.”

— Richard Wright[1]

Following Edward Said’s lead, literary critics have often treated the construction of “imaginary geographies” as a problem of realism.[2] When, for example, Ruth Mayer writes that hers “is not a book about Africa,” because “Africa is an artificial identity, invented and conceived by colonialism,” it should be clear that she is distinguishing between two different “Africas,” between a “space” which is real in some empirical sense, and a “place” whose unreality is a product of its status as colonial artifice.[3] Yet while it might be useful to bracket off colonialist artifice as such and to argue (as Mayer does) that “all of these ‘artificial Africas’ could not be farther away from the lived reality, the lebenswirklichkeit, of a geographical Africa,” doing so only presumes the “reality” of the Africa she refrains from addressing, leaving it a rhetorical function of the averted gaze and defined by its very lack of definition.

In other words, distinguishing between real and imaginary places begs some important questions. In what ways does “reality” limit and shape how it is possible to imagine what is real? And how, in turn, do the “imaginary geographies” through which we perceive reality shape and re-shape the world we “really” live in? After all, while Mayer builds consciously on Terence Ranger’s description of African “invented traditions,” Ranger was specifically interested in the extent to which these imaginaries became real, the ways that “invented traditions of African societies…distorted the past but became in themselves realities through which a good deal of colonial encounter was expressed”[4] That final clause is worth re-emphasizing, for representations of reality do not exist in a different world from the one they represent (nor would there be any point in critiquing them if they did). Perception is, as Richard Wright observed in Nkrumah’s Ghana, an organic part both of how reality is lived, and how it is shaped and re-shaped.

For this reason, while my dissertation begins with an intuitive set of Saidian questions — how and through what “imaginary geographies” it was possible for “America” to see “Africa,” and vice versa — I am equally interested in how this particular trans-Atlantic imaginary changed in the period between W.E.B. DuBois’ birth during reconstruction and his death in Nkrumah’s Ghana, and in how this change was seen and conceptualized by people (like DuBois) who participated in changing it. In addressing this question this way, I seek to sidestep the limitations of this Saidian critical framework: if we explore how an “artificial” colonialist imaginary gets imposed on a pre-existing “reality,” we will inevitably both dis-imagine the “reality” of the imaginary being imposed and reify the artificial pasts which get created as a function of this very process.

Instead of seeking to answer the question of what is real, therefore, I will question the extent to which the idea of “development” came to be the primary trope by which the changing relationship between “Africa” and “America” was understood, a conceptual apparatus which not only seeks to define what has changed, but which provides the interpretive context for understanding what change itself is. In addressing a figure like Theodore Roosevelt in Africa, for example, distinguishing between “real” and “imaginary” is decidedly unhelpful: not only did the Kenyan landscape which he imagined become real in large part as a function of his imagination of it, but since the very argument of settler colonialism was the notion that white men could impose their imagination onto a receptive landscape and in doing so make it a lived reality, it makes no sense to un-think the extent to which they were right.

In this sense, it is germane but insufficient to point out that Henry Morton Stanley saw Congo being torn apart by slavery and reconstructed like the Missouri he pretended to be from, that Roosevelt saw East Africa as the Dakota frontier he wished he was from, and that Wright conceptualized Nkrumah’s Ghana through the lens of both the Jim Crow youth he imagined in Black Boy and the tribal Africa he ambivalently imagined his ancestors to have been liberated from. For while How I Found Livingstone, African Game Trails, and Black Power are each “about” America in a way they are not about Africa, such an argument only reproduces its original premises, rendering invisible the extent to which imagining “America” in “Africa” produces something new, and something irreducibly different from either starting point (as well as the extent to which both identities come to be re-conceptualized by reference to it).

It is necessary, therefore, to both highlight the creativity of these figures and trace it against the changing backgrounds which they, themselves, were helping to change (and by reference to ideas of “change” which they were working to re-conceptualize). In seeking to rethink the civil war and Anglo-American relations through a vision of African reconstruction, for example, Stanley would not only create the most enduring version of the Livingstone myth by which the European colonial mission to emancipate the dark continent would be justified, but he would also carve out space within the narrative for a very particular American role in reconstructing it. In imagining Kenya as a white-man’s country and a hunter’s paradise (and defining both by reference to the other), Roosevelt was one of the most important conceptual architects who invented and inscribed an “imaginary” geography onto the social landscape which twentieth century Kenyans would inherit and inhabit. And the conceptual framework that Richard Wright laid out in Native Son and Black Boy would suggest a particular kind of analogy between African-Americans and African natives commonly interpellated as “boys” — a parallel made explicit in Black Power — which would form the basis for an unfavorable comparison between the developing and modernizing African-American and their yet-immature African cousins, a comparison which would retain for America the privileged role in developing Africa which Stanley had originally envisioned. In this sense, while one could point out that these fictions have little to do with Africa and the United States as they were, each case does say a great deal about how the relationship between was being re-articulated from the American side, and how a single “imaginary geography” was being elaborated through which both would places would be understood…


[1] Richard Wright, Black Power, p.150

[2] Edward Said Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism

[3] Mayer, Artificial Africas: Colonial Images in the Times of Globalization, p.5.

[4] Terence O. Ranger “The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa”