Stifled Stories of the Black Imagination

by Asia Wesley

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credit: Emilia Tjernström

Westerners often view the African/Black writer as someone who is culturally impoverished and unable to produce truly excellent literature because of the West’s complex history with colonization, slavery, and institutional racism. The majority of precolonial—and even postcolonial—African writing has been overlooked by Western authors and critics, and when the history of African writing is closely analyzed, it tends to be in the context of postcolonial history like slavery. American Literary critic Henry Louis Gates claims that “the slave wrote not only to demonstrate human letters, but also to demonstrate his or her own membership in the human community.” We forget that African/Black writers were creating literature and art long before the colonial gaze existed.

I was especially attuned to African American history in school because it was my history. Unfortunately, this history was related to me in a series of events that jumped briefly from one moment to the next.

It always began with slavery. I was led to believe that the first form of storytelling by my ancestors came from slave narratives. Next, I learned about a few well-known Supreme Court cases: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Shortly thereafter, I found myself in the Civil Rights Era, where my history teachers dropped names like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Then, in the 8th grade, I was fortunate enough to witness a monumental moment in history and even be present at one of its events in my hometown. It was the moment for which the United States had been waiting: we had finally elected our first Black president. Barack Obama became the ribbon that African American history needed, and just like that, my ancestors’ story was wrapped up in a neat little package, waiting to be opened by the next history teacher.

US Senator Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, August 28, 2008. Library of Congress

Does this summary of events sound familiar to you?

If you recognized even one snippet of this history, then congratulations; Western educators have done their job. They’ve managed to sum up over 400 years of history in a few short sentences. Yet, these narratives centered on African and Black pain still play an important part of my history. They are very much part of the Black imagination. But storytelling was happening centuries before colonization, and we must uncover the African/Black narratives that are buried beneath the oversimplified and traumatic historical moments.

The marginalization of African literature results from centuries of colonization of African cultures, histories, and, most importantly, stories. Western history has been written in a way that tends to avoid direct engagement with racism and whiteness and excludes much African American and Black art from canons. Many of the first published works of African American literature weren’t widely distributed until the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.

Writing and storytelling across Africa existed long before the Harlem Renaissance, however, and has a much longer history. African literature is often either imagined as a modern concept, or simply as a copy of already existing literature, even though this convention of storytelling existed long before colonization. In fact, it goes all the way back to 1255, just south of the Sahara Desert in the West African grasslands, when African/Black writers first told their stories in the form of oral literature.

Map of Old Mali. D. T. Niane’s oral epic, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

The first African writing systems came from oral tradition. Even though the oral tradition was never meant to be written, it was imperative that it was transcribed so it could be shared and recognized as history, according to Western culture. Oral and written history are distinct from one another, according to Gates, and they very rarely overlap. Western cultures prioritize the written word over oral form, so they have often denigrated the traditions of Black storytellers. “In the black tradition, writing became the visible sign, the commodity of exchange, the text and technology of reason,” Gates explains.

Djibril Tamsir Niane’s Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali transcribes an African oral story in 1960, over 700 years after it had been told by mouth. The story of Sundiata is told from the voice of a griot, or “a speaking document.” Old Mali’s history would not exist without the singer-storyteller figure of the griot. The griot is key to reciting the story about “a real king, who from 1235-55, ruled the empire of Mali.”

In D. T. Niane’s version of the Sundiata epic, the griot’s name is Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté. Kouyaté is the history transmitter of the story of the Malinke people, and he “appears as one of the most important [members] of this society…[as a keeper] of archives [and recorder of] the customs, traditions, and governmental principles of kings.” Kouyaté’s voice is prioritized as the griot and narrator of the oral epic, as the first line reads, “I am a griot.” Kouyaté then goes on to claim,

[I have] been in the service of the Keita princes of Mali, we are the vessels of speech, we are the repositories which harbor secrets many centuries old. The art of eloquence has no secrets for us; without us the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind; by the spoken word we bring to life the deeds and exploits of kings for younger generations.

A drawing of griots in West Africa. National Library of France

Capturing the memories, and thus the stories, of the Malinke people was crucial, especially as a reference for the history of the empire of Mali in the 13th century. If this story were told by an outside voice, it is likely that it would have lacked the insight of the true history of the Malinke people. The griot had the essential job of overseeing and acting as the guardian of memory—a concept that is dynamic and always changing.

Furthermore, the ability to take an idea that says, “I am a memory of my own kind” and put it into words is a powerful tool in the act of storytelling and the writing of a culture’s history. By having Kouyaté’s voice at the center of the Sundiata epic, readers are given a more accurate understanding of the Mali Empire.

Kouyaté’s form of storytelling does not have Africa’s history commence at colonization; instead, the oral epic shows that Mali was one of the most powerful kingdoms in West Africa long before the French arrived. Through Kouyaté’s “words of [his] father’s father,” his history is not purely tied to colonial history. Even after being colonized by France, Mali eventually became an independent country, and thanks to the oral epic of Sundiata, its story “remains a symbol of past greatness.” The story of Sundiata continues to live on even as it is rewritten in other forms and languages.

Unlike epics in English, African oral epics are short in length since they are more concerned with significance, and because of this, some Western scholars question whether or not the epic exists in Africa. Nigerian novelist Isidore Okpewho reads an oral epic as “a tale about the fantastic deeds of a man or men endowed with something more than human might and operating in something larger than the normal human context…” The tale about the “fantastic” people of Africa tells a story of significance, rather than one of length, and the griot emulates the very essence of these fantastic people. Significance lives in the griot as the carrier of history.

D. T. Niane does not let the oral tradition die, even as he transcribes Kouyaté’s words on paper. Oral stories are meant—and continue—to be told out loud in one sitting. Each time a story is told again, even if it is by the same singer-storyteller, a different version of the story can unfold. It is possible that some sort of embellishment can happen over time, and for this reason, oral epics are not original compositions.

Because of the various versions that may appear in epic stories, it is easy to ask the question, “Which is the right version?” but, as Niane says, this is a very “Western question.” This inquiry fails to understand the development of an origin story, for “historical accuracy or a definitive literary (written down) ‘text’ may not be particularly important in African oral traditions…” By leaving room for different versions of stories, the oral tradition stays alive and is not boxed into a written story that becomes frozen in time once it is on a piece of paper.

After learning about this oral history, I can’t help but ask, “How many of the African American stories from middle school and high school were based on oral history?” More importantly, I find myself asking, “Why didn’t I learn about these oral histories that were told by a griot?”

African/Black traditions were seen as lesser or sometimes outright ignored, not only because they were viewed as inferior or underdeveloped, but also because they did not fall into the category of a “standard” writing system according to Western criteria. This Western ideal of literature has been reinforced in our classrooms, and we see it in the books that teachers choose and in books that show up in the literary marketplace.

Western standards continue to be concerned with the validity of oral tradition because it is based on a writing system that derives from memory, which was seen as unreliable. We continue to see this disbelief long after colonization, which takes me to the first type of African American writing that I learned about: slave narratives. Harriet Jacobs was well aware of the public audience not believing her narrative, for the very first sentence in her preface of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl states, “Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction.” While the construction of a believable narrative was common in other accounts of the 19th century, Jacobs’ declaration shows how African American authors faced additional barriers in making their stories credible. If the audience cannot take the narratives of African Americans seriously, how can a reader perceive them as legitimate writers, let alone as human beings?

Portrait of Harriet Jacobs in 1894

Nonetheless, Jacobs not only became a voice for African Americans, but also for African American women in particular. She reminded us that slavery was not just about Black men in shackles; it was also about Black women who were raped by their masters. Jacobs’ narrative is innovative and tells the story of Linda, the main narrator, who could even be considered the griot. Through Linda’s character, Jacobs established a cunning identity for African American women that is not bound to their masters.

But why was her narrative the first event on the timeline of African American history? Why did I believe that the first time my ancestors wrote themselves into being was under the brutal conditions of slavery?

My history classes failed to mention anything about the origins of African/Black literature.

My history classes failed to describe the African/Black writer as an innovative “speaking document.”

My history classes failed to clarify that slave narratives not only created political power for abolition, but also represented the African/Black writer as a speaking subject through savvy language and clever wordplay.

My history classes failed to mention that the Harlem Renaissance was a time when African Americans used fiction, poetry, and essays to rebuild their identity—one that was not attached to colonization or slavery.

All in all, my history classes failed to delineate the influential literature that accompanied these historical moments, which would have broken the African/Black writer free of violent histories.

It took 19 years for me to unveil some of these stories. After reading writers like D. T. Niane, Harriet Jacobs, and Langston Hughes, just to name a few, I’ve become devoted to finding more and more stories that were covered up by the colonial gaze. The story of Mali is only (and literally) the beginning of the Black imagination, and I’m determined to uncover more.

For now, readers, I ask one thing: When you are asked to think about an African or Black writer, or even a prominent African/Black figure, who comes to mind? What story are they trying to tell? Is it based on the colonization of their history? Is it based on slavery? Does the development of their story fall under a Western standard?

While answering these questions, I challenge you to remember that most African/Black literature and speech is judged by a Western yardstick. I challenge you to remember that these stories are dependent on the repeated trauma-ridden histories of colonization, slavery, and institutional racism in order to be heard. So the next time someone recommends an author who retells the story of slavery, or you find yourself quoting figures like Dr. King or President Obama, don’t be alarmed; still listen to the story. This history is necessary and crucial to the Black imagination. However, do pay close attention, and you’ll find traces of literary traditions that go back to precolonial Africa. You may even hear echoes of Kouyaté, or the oral traditions of a griot’s father’s father’s words.

Asia Wesley’s love of stories was enhanced by writing and studying languages. She continues to build upon her primary interests of African American and Latinx literature as she completes her MA program in English at the University of Denver.

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