The Circle and the Cross: Womanhood, Manhood, and Cultural Destruction in Prophetic African Literature

By de Vita, Alexis Brooks | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The Circle and the Cross: Womanhood, Manhood, and Cultural Destruction in Prophetic African Literature


de Vita, Alexis Brooks, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


MUCH AFRICAN LITERATURE CHRONICLES CULTURAL DISINTEGRATION caused by the imposition of European economic and socio-legal domination beginning with colonization. But the literature also shows the more insidious interpersonal erosions caused by cultural oppression and resultant evidences of African self-hatred. Aime Cesaire describes "millions of men in whom have been skillfully inculcated fear, an inferiority complex, trembling, genuflection, despair, flunkey-ism" (qtd. in Fanon 5). (1) Frantz Fanon's Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) explains in detail the psycho-emotional orientation of the victim of colonization as a learned destructive inability to perceive himself positively and work toward his own best interests. But a number of texts offer an alternative to this destructive tendency within traditional magical, mythical, and prophetic traditions. The fantastic elements within these texts often work to counteract the colonial perspective represented in their more realistic depictions of modern African life.

In such diverse works as Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God, Camara Laye's L'enfant noir (The Black Child), Flora Nwapa's Efuru, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between, Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino, Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions, and Ben Okri's The Famished Road, African writers throughout the continent chronicle how centuries-old, if not millennia-old, pre-Christian and pre-Islamic traditions of gender-defined morality and the ethics of character-building were obliterated by brainwashing European colonialist regimes. In order to dismantle these fully functional traditional or so-called "pagan" African societies, the men must be crippled by social and economic castration, rendered impotent and self-despising, driven to turn against their own loved ones, and silence and subjugate traditionally outspoken African women. Conversely, and contrary to popular European and American feminist discourses, many African women newly subjugated in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European colonialist regimes come from micro-nations (Wangari Maathai's suggested updating for the disparaged term "tribes") that long ago protected women's social and economic independence. Some of these millennia-old African traditions safeguarded against financial dependence, wife-beating, and other forms of domestic tyranny that have flourished among African and Diaspora communities in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, following economic and socio-legal domination by Europe and the Americas.

As examples of this deterioration, the heroine of Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood sees in her lifetime the fall of African men from the prestigious work of hunting and hard labor in the community's yam fields, with these activities' resulting sense of self-possession and vigor, to begging domestic employment in European homes. Concurrently, these socially and economically castrated men's sexual tastes rapidly degenerate from taking pride in being able to win over a proud, independent, outspoken lover such as Ona, heroine Nnu Ego's rebellious mother, "a very beautiful young woman who managed to combine stubbornness with arrogance" (11), to a desire for a woman who will sell herself to any man who can provide for her, epitomized by Nnu Ego's competitive co-wife, "Adaku and her whines and ambitions" (159). As women's roles degenerate from pre-Christian, pre-Islamic traditional Igbo egalitarian roles to those of sexual and servile helpmeets, the women preferred by dominated men are no longer the assertive, bare-breasted women who resist seduction and defy domination, but women who willingly barter sex of the most humiliating kind for enough coins to buy their children food.

   In his young days, a woman who gave in to a man without first
   fighting for her honour was never respected. To regard a woman who
   is quiet and timid as desirable was something that came after
   Christianity and other changes. … 

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