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Celebrating Black Literary Heritage
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Kenya: Celebrating Black Literary Heritage
The East African Standard
It is that month of the year again when we celebrate Black History. It is February, the month when we remember Carter G. Woodson, who came up with the brilliant idea of celebrating the black history month more than 80 years ago.
In this Black History month, such names as Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, WEB Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr, Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela among other great names that have over the years come to epitomise great moments in Pan Africanism and Black History will reverberate in all sorts of fora across the world.
For those with a bone for matters literary, it is time to revisit African, African-America, Afro-Caribbean and other shades of writings by people with all sorts of ties with the African continent.
Personally, black literary heritage catapults me, at least in spirit, to my undergraduate days, when my African-American fiction teacher, one Mr Macharia Ndogo, would make us read tomes upon tomes of fiction that unveiled to us the experiences of descendants of slaves in the Americas. Books such as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass come to mind.
In this book, Douglass, whose name has now become synonymous with the abolition of slave trade, explains how he was helped, ironically, by the children of his own slave master to read and write, skills that enabled him to eventually travel from the Southern part of America to the North, where slavery and racial bigotry was relatively mild. The book underlines the importance of education as a quest for freedom, using the author's life as a case in point.
In that moment of month-long recollection, I recall reading Richard Wright's heartrending novel, Native Son. In the novel, I sympathise with the dog's life that the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, has to go through when he accepts a job in a white couple's house so as to be able to lift his family from debilitating poverty. In the process of trying to help one of the daughters of the house, Bigger Thomas inadvertently kills her.
This leads to a cat-and-mouse chase with the police that culminates in a tear jerking court case where Bigger Thomas is told (famously) by the state attorney that even if the court sets him free, the crowds of people waiting (to lynch him) outside the courthouse would not.
It all captures the fact that the Negro was presumed guilty and no amount of legalese could prove anything in the contrary.
When reflecting about Black History, other texts like Alice Walker's Color Purple, a text that explores the quest for sisterhood and the double tragedy (they are looked down upon both for being black and being women) that formed the lot of black women in the Americas.
In the novel, Celie writes to God after being sexually abused by her father. She is concerned that, after her mother dies, her father resorts to sexually abusing Nettie, her (Celie's) younger sister.
Many years ago, the novel was adapted into a film of the same title starring, among others Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg. As you think of Illinois Senator Barrack Obama tracing his roots to Kenya, spare some literary thoughts for Kunta Kinte, a character in Alex Haley's classic, Roots, in which a descendant of slavery traces his roots back to Africa despite concerted effort to bury, forever, the fact of Africa from the minds of descendants of slaves.
Indeed, the issue of Africa-American roots in the African is continent is arguably the strongest theme of the African-American writings especially in the 20th Century.
For the last century saw such great names as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison step out of African-American literary shadows into fame. One of her novels, Song of Solomon, is one of the greatest usages of symbolism I've ever come across.
This is also the month to think of the poetry and drama of the Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora. I'll travel back in time (in spirit if you like) to the 1920s to celebrate Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes among other poets who, possessed by a mystical spirit straight out of my continent, produced an out pouring of poetry and critical uprising that became variously know as The Black Movement, The Negro Movement of more famously, the Harlem Renaissance.