Ancient Kemet in African American Literature and Criticism, 1853 to the Present

Article excerpt

The Kemetic heritage penetrates the literature, the orature, the pottery, the burial rituals, the procreative myths, and the modes of thought of Africa. It is the classical African civilizations themselves that have given us so much organic contact with the history of ideas. The vivid example of the massive memorials to African genius, Karnak, the temples of the Valley of the Kings, the major shrines. When we feel, even now, the rhythms of creation in dance, art, literature, music, and talk the African intimacy with nature and fullness with life, we are experiencing our own standards, values, and codes exhibited in our approach to life thousands of years later. The festivals, the color, the vibrancy, the appeal to the deities, the incessant discussion, the dance, movement, show us ourselves dancing with the gods along the banks of the Nile.

--Molefi Kete Asante (1)

Introduction

As a matter of methodology in Africana literary criticism, anteriority--an awareness of the continuum from ancient to modern origins and historical developments--informs the practices, procedures, guidelines, and techniques for the development of the literary tradition. It is to anteriority that African American thinkers turned to for guidance, inspiration, and models, whether concise or romanticized, as they consciously instigated Africana creative production since the nineteenth century. It is a limited contemporary notion to credit Afrocentricity, alone, for prioritizing the record of Ancient Kemetic achievement as a catalyst for advancing African agency. Instead, the approaches African American forebears managed in the processes of engraving a new identity on American soil are examples of African-centered creativity, often pursued under conditions of socio-political duress. There is a hearty tradition of African Americans thinkers who surveyed the broad African past to excavate its cultural and historical record for their generation's contribution to "beginning again." (2) African American thinkers responsible for non-fiction and fiction literatures as well as groundbreaking literary and cultural movements summoned and sampled the ancient Kemetic aesthetic over a century before Molefi Kete Asante institutionalized the legacy of their intellectual activity as Afrocentricity. Reinstating this legacy into the record of African American literary criticism is both a corrective that fine-tunes the role of early and continuing Afrocentric behavior in the literary tradition and a map that demonstrates the methodological possibilities of advancing a literary tradition as representatives of a "nation within a nation."

The first part of this essay is a survey of how the corrective and the map offer guidelines for launching literary movements, for excavating tools (such as ritual and pageantry) for framing practices of genre (particularly in African American theatre), and for the unfinished business of embracing Kemet as an African past with usable cosmologies, archetypes, and structures that hold promise for literary productivity of future generations. The latter part of this essay introduces a notable cadre of recent scholarship that offers unprecedented and visionary re/interpretations of how Kemet and cosmology function in the discipline's literary record. Some of the current literary applications layer diverse African-derived cosmologies, which can range from Kemetic, Bantu-Congo, Yoruba, and so forth, but most feature Afrocentric discussions of Kemetic conceptualizations of literature. Collectively, the literary models and practices highlighted in this essay are central aspects of an emergent Afrocentric literary criticism.

Afrocentricity, the liberating African-centered orientation to phenomena that prioritizes people of African descent as subjects of their experiences, has provided useful tools for location, methodology, and directives for innovation to advance Africana literary study and analysis. The proof is in the diverse strategies, interpretations, and models that have been applied to literary analysis since the early 1980s when configurations of Afrocentricity began to appear in print. …