The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature: Volumes 1 & 2

By Strongman, Roberto | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature: Volumes 1 & 2


Strongman, Roberto, Journal of Haitian Studies


The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature: volumes 1 & 2. F. Abiola and Simon Gikandi, eds. Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0521594340. 906pp. $180.00 cloth.

The 1960s and 70s produced the first wave of critical anthologies of African Diaspora Literature. During those two decades, literary scholars such as Lilyan Kesteloot, Jahn Janheinz, Rowland Smith and Houston Baker provided canons of global Black literature that served as cultural counterpoints to the various Black Nationalist movements re-shaping the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean. Their transnational approaches removed the critical boundaries that had prevented important comparisons between Black literatures and redressed the earlier chauvinism present in commentaries of Black literatures compiled by 19th-century European writers such as Abbé Henri Grégoire.

Sharing in the 1990s Zeitgeist of Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic (1993), the work of F. Abiola Irele and Simon Gikandi marks a second wave of critical commentaries on African Diaspora literatures. After Gikandi published Writing in Limbo (1992) and Abiola The African lmaginaion (2001), both scholars joined forces to produce the monumental co-edited volumes that comprise the Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature. This work makes a significant advance from its 1960s and 70s predecessors by being the first work to examine the Afro-Diasporan literary production in a truly multilingual scope that encompasses the entirety of the African continent and the Caribbean. The two volumes provide 40 in-depth articles on a vast range of topics by leading scholars from universities around the world. Grafting an anthology in which works by Kwesi Yankah from Ghana, Maureen WarnerLewis from Jamaica, and Alain Ricard from France can find a common forum emblematizes the editors' intent to record the breadth of the Afro-Diaspora experience through the international nature of its contributing scholars. Among the wide range of topics covered, some salient linguistic themes become discernible in oppositional pairs: orality vs. writing and literature in the African languages vs. literature in the European languages. One might similarly be able to trace a progression along the axis of political economy by seeing clusters of articles on slavery, emancipation, colonialism, and independence. The parallel progression of linguistic and political-economic themes ensures that the volumes present literature and criticism in their proper contexts. The concern for such a balance between culture and history is also evidenced in the helpful chronological chart in which significant cultural works are paired alongside historical events. Nevertheless, one must point out that despite the natural thematic progression of its chapters, the immensity of the work does not lend itself to cover-to-cover continuous reading. Instead, the work purports to be a reference tool to established scholars and students of African and Caribbean Studies.

As expected in such an extensive anthology, the specificities of the works discussed are sometimes drowned by the ambitious breadth of the Cambridge History. It might strike us with a note of disappointment to find that the Cambridge History does not contain a chapter devoted exclusively to Haiti, a nation whose centrality to the history of the Black Atlantic we know to be indisputable. However, the scattered references to Haiti throughout both volumes articulate and emblematize the diffusion of Haitian literature in the cultural production of the region. Just when the tangential treatment that Haiti receives in the volumes begins to appear like a gigantic editorial blind spot, the extraordinary number of brief comments on Haiti is sufficient to relieve some of our worst fears. Therefore, even if Haiti is not studied as an independent historical, national, and cultural formation, it is presented as auxiliary to a series of important thematic currents addressed by the contributors to the volumes. …

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