(The following essay was first published in the Ethiop’s Ear vol. 1, winter/spring 2000)
“White civilization and European culture have forced an existential deviation on the Negro [sic].”
So writes Frantz Fanon near the end of his introduction to his work Black Skins, White Masks. Ayi Kwei Armah attempts to correct that deviation Fanon identifies. He tries to realign the Black body with the Black soul in his mytho-epic work two thousand seasons, an effort to no less than re-inscribe the movement of Afrikan peoples through their history in the image of its makers, the Afrikans. The novel endeavors to extricate Afrikan meaningfulness and purposefulness from the colonial/neo-colonial paradigm of master and slave In Afrika and the Afrikan Americas relative to the European and Arab economic, political, and cultural self-interests. The novel is nothing less than an attempt to place the Afrikans at the nexus of their own ontology. Armah has not composed a doctrinal fiction servile to Fanon’s analysis of the colonial situation, for the differences between the brothers are manifest in their writings. Where Fanon expressly wants to liberate Afrikans from their blackness, Armah wishes to liberate Afrikans through their blackness, or perhaps more correctly, through their Afrikaness. (What a difference a preposition and some geography make.) For Fanon, Blacks are black because Whites have constructed them, in definitional opposition to the trope of whiteness. The Blacks become the essential other; more other than even woman is from man. When the Afrikans choose to simply be men and women, when they willfully remove themselves from the non-equation, black does not equal white, then they will be free. Then their mental world will be their own again.
Armah also rejects the non-equation, black does not equal white; however, Armah insists that the liberation of the Blacks burns in the willful decision to explore the difference, to expound the difference and walk accordingly. Fanon challenged the doctrine of the Rightness of the civilizing project colonialism and its antecedent proselytism purport to be; Armah takes up Fanon’s struggle to remove the pernicious constructs that make it easy to believe that the Afrikans ultimately benefitted from centuries of slavery and colonial
oppression. The idea that the invaders are after all our friends, Armah hurls from the Afrikan universe of meaning, like a god expelling an offending demon. (I am aware that my prose is sprinkled with terms from the semantic field of religion. These matters do have a quasi- spiritual quality to them, as many in the social sciences, the arts and humanities, academia, have made their living off the routine apotheosis of that elegant construct, the West). Armah and Fanon looked to that day when an Afrikan in New Orleans, or Lagos, or Kingston, or Salvador, Bahia will no longer reverently thank Europeans nor Arabs for bringing “true religion” and modernity to the Afrikan World. Two thousand seasons directly assaults the hierarchical oppositions white/black, civilized/savage, believer/heathen, master/servant, savior/bane.
Armah postulates, re-postulates, a complementary duality as the pivot upon which Afrikanity spirals in ever renewing meaning. Armah names the duality Reciprocity, and makes it the ethical center of the Afrikans’ moral universe. Reciprocity is the sign par excellence of social Afrikanity, “our way, the way,” he continually characterizes it.
“Reciprocity. Not merely taking, not merely offering. Giving, but only to those from whom we receive in equal measure. Receiving, but only from those to whom we give in reciprocal measure. How easy, how just, the way.”
There in is Armah’s objective, the demonstration through the medium of fiction of that philosophical principal central to his idea of social intercourse in the ideal Afrikan world, always with the understanding that ultimately, the Afrikans themselves are responsible for their past and present predicament, as well as its resolution. Reciprocity in all things. Armah is particularly self critical, self interpreted as the communal self. It is a significant strength that he insists continually on self examination. Yet how easily, how utterly you have forgotten it. You have forgotten that justice is not ease.” The novel is written as a memoir. Whose memoir? The memoir of a people, a race? The narrator, the utterer of the memoir remains nameless from beginning to end, identifying only as “we”. The temporal scope of the narrative ranges nearly a thousand years of history. Yet the narrator, the rememberer, writes as an active participant-witness in the events of the novel, the plot driven by a series of migrations. Where are we migrating to, we who know that we begin from one source? From what depths and how many movements across the vast continent of our soul? How has migration shaped our experience of meaning in the world, and meaning between humans? The rememberer remembers the sweep of seasons across a past that exists contemporaneously with the present and the future if it exists at all. So certainly “we” are an actor in the unfolding history Armah recalls.
Armah is writing a philosophical discourse clothed as narrative and commentary on the narrative which turns in upon itself as a memory of itself. Armah, a participant in the ubiquitous “we” of the memoir rejects any pretense to detachment or distancing, thereby rejecting any distinction between the writer and the text. The text, this text which recalls itself as memory, is not other than the writer, is not external to the writer. Rather, the text is the expression of our collective memory, the memory of our bodies, and the Body of our memory. It is resistance to meaning as constructed under colonial and neo-colonial conditions. It resists meaning as constructed under conditions of white supremacy, of northern supremacy, of religious supremacy. As memory, the text embodies the writer’s experience of the existential deviation which he, through the heroic act of remembering – the heroic act he invites us to accomplish- seeks to correct.
Memory is the writer’s resistance, and is the memory of the body, its uncompromising black and brown hues, the very resistance Fanon tells us exposes, and thereby destroys, the delusionary Manicheanism of the racial supremacists. Through the will to memory, and violent resistance, the good/bad, white/black, sacred/profane oppositions enunciated by the agents of civilization and religion fall away. The supremacists see the resistance as demonstrations of the need for the civilizing project. But for the Afrikan, it is death giving life. Through violent resistance we see that the colonizers and supremacists bleed as profusely as we ourselves do. If the bodies of the once godlike strangers are susceptible to spearheads and bullets, then why shouldn’t their metaphysics also be susceptible? Their
Ideological authority must be overturned as well as their political authority. How can the Afrikans free their bodies, free their land, and free the culture if they cannot free the textuality of the black body from the imposed and imposing discourse of white domination? Without memory, we are obligated to repeat the sins of our fathers and of our conquerors together. Without memory, we will not revision ourselves:
“We are not Europeans, we are not Christians that we should invent fables a child would laugh at and harden our eyes to preach them daylight and deep night as truth…we are not Arabs, we are not Muslims to fabricate a desert god chanting madness in the wilderness, and call our creature creator. That is not our way”
We embark on this migration in time with Armah to re-locate Afrikans at the center of their own universe of signification, to re-invent and re-inscribe the institutions which had once produced Afrikan meaningfulness. As the matrix of this meaningfulness, Armah presents reciprocity, and calls upon Afrikans to remember reciprocity as they remember their fear, awe, or indifference toward the Black and White agents of the destruction of reciprocity.
Paradoxically, Armah conveys his project of remembering, his re-inscription of the text as the memory of itself, through the ubiquitous meaning producing institution, language, specifically the English language. The question of language is a critical issue in post-colonial Afrika, as the nation-states, perhaps already obsolete, strive to create national identities out of diverse ethnicities. In most of the non-Arabic speaking countries, the question arises, which language? Taking Nigeria as an example, should Hausa become the language of commerce and education, or Ibo, or Yoruba? And what of the Nemai, most of whom speak European languages or Arabic, must these Afrikans learn multiple languages in order to be active players in Afrika’s intellectual life? These are important questions, but they are not to be answered here. The immediate concern is how Armah resolves the paradox in his attempt to re-inscribe the existentially deviated Afrikan through the agency of the colonizer’s language. He turns the sign upside down and inside out.
Armah’s subversion of the sign is most evident in his uses of the terms “white” and “black.” White and black ordinarily signify an oppositional duality in which white is emblematic of all that is good and pure and life affirming, whereas black is all that which is not. Indeed black equals not-ness, the supreme sign of lack. Now consider Armah’s usage:
“What when the tumult and the rush are yet too strong for the voice to prevail uttering heard sounds of origins, transmitting seen visions of purposes? What when all our eyes are raped by destruction’s furious whiteness? Easy then the falling slide, soft the temptation to let despair absorb even the remnant voice. Easy for unheeded seers, unheard listeners, easy for interrupted utterers to clasp the immediate destiny, yield and be pressed to serve victorious barrenness. Easy the call to whiteness, easy the welcome unto death.”
Throughout the novel, whiteness signifies death, barrenness, and destruction. It is the desert which swallows the life giving spring waters flowing from a seemingly inexhaustible headwater, running deep and black. Whiteness is to be avoided. To wash black souls white as snow, as the Christian hymn assures the believer, is tantamount to psychic murder-suicide in Armah’s signification. Indeed, knowledge of Black positivity is the essential knowledge the Afrikan emptied of authentic soul lacks. The true villains of the novel are those Afrikans whose souls are not their own, whose souls are whitewashed, the askaris or soldiers who serve the invaders and their gods.
Let us return to Fanon with whom this reading began. To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture,” advises Fanon. Certainly the extent to which the “savage” masters the language of the colonizer is the extent to which he or she “gains” civilization. The so called savages are well aware of this and make conscious efforts to acquire or not acquire such mastery, as if language were a thing to that could be mastered, without exercising mastery over the speaker. However, facility in the language of commerce and education “opens doors,” as people say. Armah knows this, having sufficiently mastered English to earn degrees from Harvard and Columbia. Armah is a man in conflict with the language he has mastered, for in his mastery, in our mastery, he and we are mastered. In our control of the dominator’s language, we take on the dominator’s world and culture. We become participants in European civilization. He and we have indeed opened the doors to privilege in our societies through control of the dominant language, but Armah questions the wisdom of entering the great white hall.
Armah stands us at the threshold of European civilization with two thousand seasons. Using that civilization’s most enduring tool, he summons those like himself who dare heed him to come out of the cemeteries of our psyches, to come out of the mosques and churches, to remember our past. We re-inscribe the meaning of Afrikanity, the way, when we write our text as memory, the memory of our beginnings, the memory of our migrations, the memory of our bodies.
Armah, Ayi Kwei. Two Thousand Seasons. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1977.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Mask. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1967.