Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Towards an Afro-Arab Diasporic Culture: The Translational Practices of David Graham Du Bois

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Towards an Afro-Arab Diasporic Culture: The Translational Practices of David Graham Du Bois

Article excerpt

This article offers a rare analysis of the literary and journalistic work of David Graham Du Bois. It illuminates a practice of Afro-Arab diasporic culture that narrates linkages between Oakland, Cairo, and Palestine through practices of linguistic and generic translation. In situating the production of David Du Bois's autobiographical novel ... And Bid Him Sing (1975) in its own dense historical weave, a close reading highlights the textual strategies constitutive of translating an esthetics, politics, and language of African American radicalism into other contexts.


It's the early 1960s. At a corner table at Cristos, a Cairo rendezvous for the city's young intellectuals and writers, sits Bob Jones, a veteran African American journalist for the English-language daily Egyptian Gazette. He spots a vaguely familiar face across the room. It's Suliman Ibn Rashid, a 'black American' and a 'Moslem,' troubled by bone tuberculosis in his leg, who'd recently moved from Philadelphia to Cairo to study Arabic, write poetry, support a friend's small business venture, and do some political organizing (D. Du Bois, ... And Bid Him Sing 10). Bob and Suliman chat a while, and before long, the conversation turns to Suliman's frustration at the non-transferability of politicized notions of Pan-Africanism. African American notions of blackness just don't translate in Cairo. The exchange ends, with Suliman and Bob intent on meeting again, and they bid farewell. Bob, the novel's primary narrator, describes Suliman's departure: "Waiting for the traffic light to turn green, I watched him go. He walked at a brisk pace, back straight, shoulders square, head held a little to the right; his short leg forcing a slight bobbing up and down of his body that his erect posture seemed to be trying to conceal" (39).

Thus closes the second chapter of David Graham Du Bois's 1975 work ... And Bid Him Sing. Part novel, part autobiography, part history.... And Bid Him Sing narrates Bob and Suliman's various attempts at forging a durable Afro-Arab diasporic culture in Cairo. In quoting Countee Cullen's 1925 sonnet "Yet Do I Marvel," which famously grappled with the tension between racial performance and literary form at the height of the so-called "Harlem Renaissance," David Du Bois's novel dwells in the productive dissonances of black radicalism as it moves from the Nation of Islam mosques in Philadelphia to the streets, cafes, apartments, and music halls of Cairo. It provides nuance and texture to Malcolm X's famous 1964 visit to the city, before closing with the onset of the June 1967 War and its forcible disarticulation of this diasporic culture--a result, the novel suggests, of US material and ideological support for Israel's post-1967 policies of expansion and occupation.

The novel draws heavily on David Du Bois's own extensive experiences

in Cairo. Published during a five-year-stint in Oakland, California, in the mid 1970s, much of the rest of Du Bois's life was spent living in the city or splitting time between Cairo and Amherst, Massachusetts. While Shirley Graham Du Bois, who joined her son in Cairo in 1967, had made plain the statement that "Egypt is Africa" in response to Israeli military aggression in the Sinai, David Du Bois's novel poses this same formulation as deeply problematic for African American exiles. (1) And while David Du Bois's stepfather, the great African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, had long theorized robust conceptions of Pan-Africanism as routed through the sub-Saharan continent, ... And Bid Him Sing thematizes various modes of translation practiced in a North African and Arab context. Such modes of translation are linguistic, transnational, and multi-generic, moving between English and Arabic, US and Third World grammars of blackness, jazz and poetry, history, fiction, and autobiography. In this way, the novel dwells on, and extends, the practices of diaspora offered by David Du Bois's closest kin that, through a rich mix of translation grounded in his own life experiences, brought into focus relationships between African Americans and Arabs in general, and Palestinians specifically. …

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