Stuffing Soyinka and Dubois with Bad Straw

by zunguzungu

Way back in ’92, when I was a lad of thirteen, Kwame Anthony Appiah forcefully argued that:

“Race” disables us because it proposes as a basis for common action the illusion that black (and white and yellow) people are fundamentally allied by nature and, thus, without effort; it leaves us unprepared, therefore, to handle the “intraracial” conflicts that arise from the very different situations of black (and white and yellow) people in different parts of the economy and of the world.

The African metaphysics of Soyinka disables because it founds our unity in gods who have not served us well in our dealings with the world—Soyinka never defends the “African World” against Wiredu’s charge that since people die daily in Ghana because they prefer traditional herbal remedies to Western medicines, “any inclination to glorify the unanalytical [i.e. the traditional] cast of mind is not just retrograde; it is tragic.” Soyinka has proved the Yoruba pantheon a powerful literary resource, but he cannot explain why Christianity and Islam have so widely displaced the old gods, or why an image of the West has so powerful a hold on the contemporary Yoruba imagination; nor can his mythmaking offer us the resources for creating economies and polities adequate to our various places in the world. (p.176)

I want to say, to start off with, that I learned a lot when I first read this book. But as I re-read it now, I find myself getting more and more agitated, which is perhaps a nice illustration that scholarship does actually progress with time. The first paragraph, for example, is a strong claim, to the extent that you derive “racial” arguments through strict biological lineage, but I can think of almost no one who actually does this anymore. Who claims that “that black people are fundamentally allied by nature”? Certainly not anyone that gets taken very seriously within AF-Am studies in the academy. To plug my advisor’s book, for example, the starting point for what turns into a really strong argument for how to think about the coherence of “the” black tradition (a claim I’m still evaluating what I think of) is precisely not what Anthony Appiah positions himself as arguing against. As he writes (and you can read the whole excerpt, and should):

“Perhaps the most important thing we have to remember about the black tradition is that Africa and its diaspora are older than blackness. Blackness does not come from Africa. Rather, Africa and its diaspora become black during a particular stage in their history. It sounds a little strange to put it this way, but the truth of this description is widely acknowledged. Blackness is an adjunct to racial slavery.”

Now, I know that contrasting a just published academic book with something published seventeen years ago is somewhat unfair, but this part of Bryan’s argument isn’t even the fresh part; his assertion of the non-biological basis of race is the starting point, a presumption that race has to be understood as historical experience and social privilege which, by the way, Dubois was arguing years before Appiah himself was even born. Biology is part of race, as it is part of gender, but only because of the way that it has been socialized and politicized. And just as Judith Butler (though not without precedent) argued that “gender” as a biological category was not a sufficient horizon of possibility for feminist politics (without giving up “feminism” as a name for the problem), you have people within the black political tradition arguing, from way back, that biology was not a sufficient horizon of progress for an anti-racist project that nevertheless was enunciated in terms of “Race.” There are, I think, some straw men being disposed of here.

By the same token, I’m struck, in the second paragraph, by what a poor reading of Soyinka Appiah seems to be doing, how a disinclination to take any of Soyinka’s arguments seriously enough on their own terms as to actually understand them gets followed up by a series of completely unsupported or undefended assertions about what Soyinka’s system of thinking can or cannot do. The idea that Soyinka would be struck dumb at the problem of Christianity or Islam in Africa, for example, is just silly. But the problems are deeper than that. Appiah is focusing on Soyinka’s Myth, Literature, and the African World, and while I think there are some critiques to be made of it, you have to spend almost no time at all with your nose in that book to see what a disservice it is to compare him with the cliché of the African who fears “modern” medicine and dies because of a superstitious attachment to “Tradition.”

On page 54, for example, Soyinka argues that the Yoruba Gods’ “accommodative nature, which does not, however, contradict or pollute their true essences, is what makes Sango capable of extending his territory of lightning to embrace electricity in the affective consciousness of his followers.” The idea that there’s anything in Soyinka’s sense of tradition that precludes the adaptation and absorption of technology isn’t just a misreading, it’s a basic failure to read at all; this isn’t a side-point in Soyinka’s text, it’s one of the main points, one that gets repeatedly reiterated, again and again.

In any case, I referred to the “cliché” of the technology fearing African because that’s what it is, and a sloppy and stupid one, then or now. When Africans are disinclined to go to a hospital for treatment, one should try to understand why they make that choice, rationally, and how they do it with a great breadth of historical knowledge and range of social desires. One can disagree with their choices, of course, but the fact that some Africans die of malaria because they choose not to use readily available bed-nets is (as Tim Burke pointed out the other day) precisely as rational and as human as the fact that Americans catch potentially deadly flu viruses by not scrupulously washing their hands as often as the CDC recommends. In any case, you have to see the inside of the hospital they are giving up – to the extent they are – and think about why sometimes Western medicine (however magnificent in theory) is, in practice, sometimes not the best choice for people located in the communities in which they’re located, with the circumstances in which they are circumstanced.

Instead, Appiah’s assertion and critique of Soyinka programmatically disallow that sort of rationality, as does Wiredu’s book from which he cribs a bizarre distinction between traditional and modern based on the difference between analytic reason and authoritarian superstition. But my point is that his isn’t so much an argument with Soyinka as with a straw man he’s fashioned for the purpose; nothing in the “African traditionalism” which he and Wiredu attack really resembles Soyinka’s own position, which (I would venture to claim) is written with precisely the considerations Appiah raises in mind.

And the same is true for Appiah’s readings of DuBois, which explicitly start from the assumption that the man’s thought crystallized somewhere around 1897 (“there is an astonishing consistency in his position throughout the years,” p28), something which is, simply and manifestly, not true. DuBois’ 1935 Black Reconstruction and his 1897 “The Conservation of Races” could have been written by different people, and his 1940 autobiography explicitly lays out the ways his early thinking was radically transformed by the challenge that experience posed to his earliest acceptance of imperialist historiography; as he put it, “my intent in this book is to set forth the interaction of this stream and change of my thought, on my work and in relation to what has been going on in the world since my birth.” I therefore look with bemused dismay on the fact that Appiah has cited all three texts, yet seems to have actually read only the one that matched the straw man with which he wanted to do battle.