Place, Politics, and the Performing Arts in the African Diaspora

Article excerpt

Over the course of the last twenty years a sizeable literature has developed on the cultural linkages among Africans and persons of African descent living in other parts of the world. In large part, this literature is the product of the 1960s black studies movement in the United States which rested on the assumption that neither the brutalities of the slave trade, nor the horrors of American slavery cut the tie between Africa and her North American children.

While there is a connection between Africa and African America, its nature is far more complicated and complex than the scholars of the 1960s realized. Because they took place at the same time, the political struggles for independence in Africa and the political struggles for racial justice in the United States informed, stimulated, and impacted on one another. While Africans became familiar with the names of Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X, African Americans learned of Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, and Jomo Kenyatta. This knowledge was facilitated by the fact that in the twilight of his years the towering Pan Africanist, W.E.B. DuBois, renounced his American citizenship, publicly despaired of blacks ever receiving justice in the United States, and took up residence in Ghana. As DuBois was an artist as well as a political theorist and a scholar, his actions had a profound impact on African American artists.

As a result of the increased attention given to African culture, Afro-American artists at work in theatre, music, and dance soon discovered the African performing arts and assumed a direct linkage between these arts and their own work. But as the performing arts require control of the physical environment, the linkage was not as simple, or even as direct as these artists assumed. To do their work, performing artists must not only control the space in which their performance takes place, but control it for purposes of planning and rehearsal. While the novelist, the sculptor, or the composer typically work alone and need only a small working place, performing artists need sufficiently large spaces to bring together a number of people. Like other spaces in American society, artistic space is owned, allotted and assigned by those in power. This paper is concerned with the relationship among the performing arts, political power, and control of space in Africa and the African diaspora.

Controlling Black Places

Akinyela (1992: 14) defines "Critical Afrocentrism" as "a sociocultural analysis which is humanitarian, communitarian, and faithful to the context of African cultural experiences. It at the same time recognizes that all cultures, influence and are influenced by other cultures. It is from this `dialogue' between cultures that new cultural experiences and contexts arise and contribute to cultural identity and continuity." Akinyela writes in response to those who would reduce Afrocentrism to a simplistic orthodoxy in which there is no room for criticism. But he also writes to demonstrate that African cultures have both impacted on and been influenced by other cultures.

Akinyela's observation suggests that the various cultures of the African Diaspora have not only had an impact on the cultures of other peoples but have had, and continue to have an impact on one another, thereby making difficult the understanding of the black performing arts and the political contexts in which they have developed. It has not been easy to understand the relationships among them in part because the interdisciplinary methodologies necessary to explore them have not yet been fully developed. Despite the importance of control of physical space to the black performing arts, interdisciplinary explorations of black environments are rare.

In his study of St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton's Black Metropolis, Jordan (1982: 88-89) notes that Drake and Cayton's focus on the human ecology of the black experience in Chicago had both advantages and disadvantages for understanding black life in the city. …