Aesthetic Modes in Afro-American Fiction: Alice Walker and Ralph Ellison. (Literary Criticism)

By Nama, Charles | Kola, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Aesthetic Modes in Afro-American Fiction: Alice Walker and Ralph Ellison. (Literary Criticism)


Nama, Charles, Kola


Several Afro-American writers such as Phyllis Wheatley, Countee Cullen and W. E. B. Dubois depicted Africa in several of their works. Most of them were influenced by the religious and socio-political ideologies of their time in portraying Africa negatively in their writings. In Countee Cullen's "Heritage" for example, an ambivalent tone permeates all the verses. Phyllis Wheatley was more dogmatic. In "the University of Cambridge," she acknowledges her indebtedness to her European masters for resucing her from African pagan gods. Despite the negative portrayals of the continent and its culture in the earlier works, two major contemporary Afro-American writers--Alice Walker and Ralph Ellison have depicted Africa positively in their works and also used motifs from the culture very effectively.

In this study, I wish to substantiate the thesis that in some of her poems, "Diary of an African Nun," and The Color Purple, Alice Walker presents more positive portraits of African cultures than most of her predecessors. I will also indicate that there are interesting parallels between the oral historian or griot in African societies and some contemporary Afro-American writers such as Ralph Ellison. I submit that Ellison is an oral historian of Afro-American culture. Most of his works especially Invisible Man and the "Hickman Stories" exemplify his role as a custodian of Afro-American culture.

After her stay among the Kikuyus and Bugandans, Alice Walker wrote a collection of fascinating poems, which celebrate some aspects of African life. Unlike some of the earlier Afro-American poets such as Phyllis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon who romanticized Africa in their poems, in "African Images, Glimpses from a tiger's Back," and "karamujans," Alice Walker vividly recaptures the mystique and picturesque scenes of African villages and cities. (1) The ideological content of her poems is devoid of the derogatory observations which characterized the works of Phyllis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon.

"Diary of an African Nun" is an interesting short story, which illustrates the dichotomy between African and foreign religions. It is a stinging critique of the imposition of foreign religions on Africans. The age of imperialism does not escape her attacks. The irrelevance of foreign ideologies to Africans is highlighted by the narrator's ambivalence. She laments her marriage to God because it deprives her of all the rich, traditional ritual. Throughout the story, the narrator is overwhelmed as the rhythmic incantations of the sacred dance are heard in the horizon. She emphasized her dilemma when she observes:

At midnight a young girl will come
to the circle, hidden in black she
will not speak to anyone. The red
flames roar and the purple bodies
crumble and are still. And the
dancing begins again and the whole
night is a repetition of the dance
of life and the urgent fire of creation.
Dawn breaks finally to the acclaiming
cries of babies.... (2)

At first glance, it would seem as if The Color Purple focuses mostly on a series of love triangles--menage a trois. (3) This is a very common aspect of Alice Walker's works. In the novel, the two most prominent love triangles are; Celie, Mr.____________ and shug and Corrine, Samuel and Nettie. In Meridian, there is also a love triangle, which comprises Truman, Lynne and Meridian. The love triangles in The Color Purple are juxtaposed with the polygamous attitudes of the Olinkas. Hence, Alice Walker is expressing the exploitation of Black woman in the Diaspora.

During the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement of the 60s, several Afro-American artists advocated the notion that Africa was an invaluable source of personal and artistic inspiration. In The Color Purple, Nettie accompanies her host Corrine and Samuel to Africa. Her journey is a symbolic return to the native land in search of her identity. In Afro-American fiction, the existential journey in search of an identity is usually to the Deep South.

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