Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Reviving Oroonoko

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Reviving Oroonoko

Article excerpt

Khary Polk [*]

From literature the African was excluded altogether. He was not supposed to have expressed any thought worth knowing. The philosophy in the African proverbs and in the rich folklore of the continent was ignored to give preference to that developed on the distant shores of the Mediterranean.

Carter G. Woodson

This quotation, taken from Woodson's 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, refers to the lack of a black presence in Western literature. [1] The work details the inequities of black education since slavery's roots anchored themselves in American soil. Sixty-seven years later, the easy assumption would be that the educational landscape seen by Woodson has changed, and the literary lens that once only focused on white authors has become more culturally panoramic. After all, there are more Black Studies departments being implemented at the university level than ever before; likewise, more black students are enrolled at these same institutions.

Perspectives have, indeed, widened with the help of progress. Yet it would be premature and foolhardy to believe all blinders of race and racism have been razed from the field of literary studies. Within English literature there are very few black characters that are instantly recognized by name compared to their white counterparts. For every Bigger Thomas (from Richard Wright's Native Son) there are myriad Huckleberry Finns; for every Pecola Breedlove (from Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye) there are sundries of Scout Finches.

This is no new phenomenon. Black characters have always been one of the rarer prospects in the vast white territory of Western literature. The genre says it all--you need not be a wordsmith to etymologically pare the word "English" to find that its origin lies in England and not Africa.

As literary scholars we must continue to task ourselves with the mission of presenting canonical portraits of Black heritage to our students and readers. While it is taken for granted we will read and digest the works of certain notable black authors, I believe studying novels and short stories penned by white hands may give us an understanding in how blacks were/are depicted in literature. Examining the depiction of African peoples by white authors can give us latitude to inquire how white authors and white people view us today. Toni Morrison proposes and calls for just this type of scholarship in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, to continue

[to] examine the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored, or altered those notions. The scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behavior of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters. [2]

In turn, the question may even turn introspective, in asking us how we view ourselves. Efforts should be centered on reading these texts in a new light, through a refocused lens crafted with multiculturalism. Our goal should be to make the obscure distinctive, and to resurrect and revive characters of African ancestry so that their voices--however shrouded they are by white narrators--are not forgotten.

I first encountered Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave in a British survey of literature class. I still remember the effect it had on me. Coleridge would have been saddened, as his suspension of disbelief theory lost all power over me with this text. As a young black male, I was appalled, disgusted, and dismayed at the narrator's description of the African Prince:

His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony or polished jet. His eyes were the most awful that could be seen, and very piercing, the white of 'em being like snow, as were his teeth. …

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