Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales. By Keith Cartwright. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2001. 264 pp. $36.00.
In recent years, the study of the African Diaspora has garnered significant interest in academia. Initiated by the works of prominent scholars-Paul Gilroy, W.E.B. Dubois, Toni Morrison, and others-African Diaspora studies have provided new ways to explore various concepts involving how Africa and people of African descent have impacted and continue to impact Western culture. Continuing in the discourse, Keith Cartwright's Reading Africa into American Literature goes a step further by locating specific moments in American literature where a significant African presence figures highly into plot development and overall themes in American literary works.
Cartwright covers a broad expanse of American literature ranging from Alex Haley's Roots to William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. While employing his extensive knowledge of the Sengambian region of Africa (the region of Senegal and Gambia) as a base for his notations, Cartwright's three-pronged analysis includes African and African American epic-like narratives, Afro-Creole inspired narratives by white Americans, and African influences on the Southern Gothic genre (3).
Although many scholars have noted the African influence on African American literary works such as Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and other works that Cartwright cites in his text, he manages to make them new by examining these classics thematically for their employment of elements of Senegambian culture. To be sure, Cartwright's focus on the Senegambian region is at times limiting because the Trans-Atlantic slave trade involved so many groups of Africans from various regions; furthermore, the vast African influence on Western culture cannot possibly be narrowed to a single scope. However, the narrowing of the topic does make the difficult work of tracing African influences on American culture a workable project. He explains that his "real goal"
in establishing Senegambian benchmarks for a reading of American literature does not lie in proposing an alternative Afrocentrism .... Ultimately my project would work towards opening our eyes and ears to a crossroads from which we may perceive some of the unsettling double agencies and something of the parallax effect of a contrapuntal, often polyrhythmic consciousness that is our true New World heritage. (6)
Even so, Cartwright's vantage point, in spite of its limitations, provides an opening for further exploration of different regions of Africa and their impact on American culture. His effort in initiating this kind of work into the discourse is laudable in itself.
While Cartwright does well in his examinations of the Senegambian influence on African American literature, it is his focus on American literature that sharpens the text and makes his work successful. By emphasizing the impact that the hybridization of Dixie had on white Americans, his exploration of the African influence on white American writers goes to the heart of his thesis. …