Post-Colonial Reading Strategies and the Problem of Cultural Meaning in African/Black1 Literary Discourse

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Abstract

This paper is part of the author's research into the possibility of carving a distinct critical canon for the reading of African/Black literature. It has been observed that postcolonial theory is fraught with many assumptionist errors, one of which is to read all postcolonial discourses as if they are products of the same cultural, aesthetic and historical consequences. Another problem is the shallow application of Western induced meanings on the rather cryptic semiotic and semantic cultural meanings of African writings, arts and aesthetics, which often lead to misinterpretations of the emotions and signatures of 'Africanness' and blackness in the works. Thus, the prefixes 'pre' and 'post' to which Western critical theories attach base-morphemes like 'colonial', 'modernism', 'structuralism', etc are no African categories of reading and signifying meaning. The paper argues and illustrates that African names of humans, flora and fauna, and objects as used in African literary and cultural discourses are ritualistic and historical. They carry some dense sacred meanings. Drawing examples of colonial misconceptions, the paper interrogates Jean Copans' claim on the eve of the 21st century that "there is nothing like African studies ?" and conflates this with Biodun Jeyifo's Soyinka Nobel Anniversary lecture (2006) to interrogate his ideological construction that present generation of African scholars are "Unfortunate children of fortunate parents" of the second and third generations. It draws practical examples and concludes that there is a domain of cultural meaning requiring the services of active bearers of the tradition to decode.

Keywords: postcolonial, African/Black discourse, Copans, Jeyifo, sacred meanings, prefix, decode.

One of the greatest intellectual bugs in African Studies since the 1950s has been the nationalist search for African cultural, literary, social and political emancipation anchored on the quest for universal acceptance and recognition. There has been an artificial and human created perplexing cultural identity problem which has not only challenged intra-African studies but has also misunderstood the transformational cultural and semiotic codes that govern the production of African cultural continuities in the Diaspora. Arguably, the 1980s qualify as the golden age of African discourse emancipation when the decade is weighed on the balance of an ambiguous cultural appropriation and resistance to Euro-American models of literary interpretation2. However, the 1990s till date has witnessed attempts at discourse cultural revivalism and redefinitions that are distilled from "the voiced and unvoiced stories and interpretations of African conditions before, during and after colonialism" (Parker and Starker, 1995:11).

The consciousness to create a code for African cultural interpretation informed the first International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists held in Paris in 1956 with focus on the "The Crisis in Negro Culture". Subsequent conferences and congresses of African-American writers and critics have examined the negative impact of writing or book-culture (literary theory and interpretation) on the drive for a black critical aesthetics (Fashina, 1997:11). Several cultural genetic factors foreground this sense of nationalism and pan-Africanist conciousness. Among them was the need to create a theory of Africanism and Blackness, which is distilled from the homogeneous pattern of emotive and mythical interpretations of values in contrast to the European induced images and conceptions of our universe. This is what Abiola Irele (1990:54) describes as "the organic aspect of African imagination" and what Fashina 1994:73) indicates as "the symbiotic aspect of African collective consciousness".

Quite against this strive for African nationalist consciousness in culture and literary studies is the European standard interpretation of African studies as mere mental construct than a researchable reality. …