Don't Mention Slavery

By Armah, Ayi Kwei | New African, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Don't Mention Slavery


Armah, Ayi Kwei, New African


In the fourth instalment of the serialisation of The Eloquence of the Scribes, Ayi Kwei Armah tells how Africans trained in literature the colonial way find it embarrassing to discuss such central issues as slavery in their works. "It takes little time for anyone immersed in a study of African social realities to understand that political, economic and social processes in Africa, under the surface appearance of senseless chaos, are actually part of a deliberate kind of structuring, set in place at tremendous human cost, and thereafter maintained through the imposition of numbing doses of suffering on the continent's population," he writes.

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Achimota School in Ghana, I had studied not literature but English Literature. The actual study of the texts had been quite detailed, and our teachers had showed a particular dedication to their mission: getting us children to appreciate texts down to their subtlest nuances. Somehow, however, this dedicated attention to detail, this principled discussion of points raised in our reading until we arrived at a shared comprehension, failed when we came to a discussion of certain important human issues, such as slavery.

I know, to this day, that Africans trained in literature the colonial way find it embarrassing to discuss such central issues, and seldom mention slavery in their works if writing is their profession. From this new perspective, it seemed already clear to me that literature, the way it was taught then, focused on the pride and prejudices of a small minority of humanity. It had practically nothing to say about the rights of oppressed peoples, about the destiny of individuals who wanted to work to put social wealth at the service of society, or about the ideals of justice and equality. For example, the prominent English author, Jane Austen, in her book, Mansfield Park, buries the issue of African humanity under the "dead silence" of persons profiting from the destruction of that humanity. I did not need prompting to understand what had happened.

Embedded in Jane Austen's "dead silence" on African suffering as fuel for European happiness, was a culture's determined refusal to face the spectre of other people's freedom and humanity as long as that freedom and that humanity stood in the way of their comfort and their greed. If I continued studying literature as it had so far been defined for me, I could never hope to understand the workings of the world I was growing into.

Part of the problem lay in the nature of the colonial situation itself. In the colonial educational system, we engaged with literature as a discipline in which, by definition, only Europeans were visible as humans. This was presented to us as an eternal reality, requiring no explicit argument. The understanding was that Africans had never created literature. That being the reigning assumption, it was not just that there was no point in studying African literature. There was nothing to study, period.

Within such a framework, it seemed logical that Africans should not be present in literature. So it was possible for African students of literature to live at home in a world where the vast majority were Africans, but when it came to the study of literature, there were either no Africans at all, or just such European-made caricatures as Othello--a murderer and a dupe--or Man Friday--a born servant of the European.

Such was the literary vision of the world to which we Africans were invited at school. The principle of African invisibility was part of a constant background to all our readings. It became particularly clear when we read Jane Austen for our Cambridge Examinations Syndicate higher school certificate.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) lived at a time when the major commercial activity for Europeans was the conduct of slaving raids in Africa. Labour unpaid for, taken from Africa through violence, was shipped to the Caribbean and America under conditions that destroyed life in the interests of maximum profit. …

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