African Allusions in Eighteenth-Century Literature

By Walker, Marilyn | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

African Allusions in Eighteenth-Century Literature


Walker, Marilyn, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


African Allusions in Eighteenth-Century Literature

In April C. E. Langley's The Black Aesthetic Unbound: Theorizing the Dilemma of Eighteenth-Century African American Literature (Ohio State, 2008), she investigates "What is African in African American Literature?" This is an especially complicated task due to the hybrid nature of the black experience in the United States of America. As well as the influences of the multicultural environment, African American history and literature have been shaped by Afro-Caribbean figures such as Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and African cultural and artistic traditions such as the Sankofa. With numerous influences upon the tradition, Langley parses out the African contributions and presence by narrowing her field of study and focusing upon artists such as Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, Lucy Terry, and Venture Smith. These writers reflect the pulse of their homelands in their artistry. This project is especially poignant because many peoples of the diaspora seek to reconnect with their origins and this study provides a strategy for reexamining bonds to Africa. Although enslaved people lost family, tribal languages, customs, and suffered the debasement of their humanity, Langley argues that literature became a safe haven for preserving their culture and soothing their longings for the homeland. Through African Studies theoretical frameworks and close readings, she identifies matriarchal themes, the supernatural, and an African worldview as a vehicle for writers to reconnect with their heritage. Ultimately, Langley's study shows literature as a rejuvenating force amid the trauma of the slave trade and bondage.

Although The Black Aesthetic Unbound is staunchly focused upon the eighteenth century, Langley initiates her discussion from a personal perspective. She describes her youthful intellectual prowess and shares her knowledge of history related to Längsten Hughes's "Theme for English B" (vii). From the outset, she refers to modern literary influences, literature, and academic contributions to explain her investment in the project and to illuminate the African presence in black artistic endeavors. Subsequently, she also acknowledges the previous work on the aesthetic from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., John C. Shields, Valerie Smith, Addison Gayle, Jr., and Amiri Baraka. Here, she distinguishes the niche of her scholarship and establishes that her study is in a theoretical continuum. Uncovering African characteristics in language, narrative structures, themes, and traditions, Langley expands on pre-existing African Studies theories and insists that Africa also captures the literary imagination in a myriad of ways. As Vincent Carretta's Equiano the African: Biography of a SelfMade Man (2005) argues that Olaudah Equiano was born in South Carolina, it is especially valuable for critics and historians to establish that homeland also equates to values and continued traditions that edify one's sense of origin.

Subsequently, continuing the conversation about longings for home, Langley eloquently crafts her theoretical foundation for her book in chapter 1, "Dilemma of a Ghost: Early Black American Literature and its Mournings/ Moorings." She argues that eighteenth-century writers were in the double bind of an inescapable cycle of sadness for the loss of cultural bonds, and sought to anchor themselves to their African ancestry. Interestingly, the author relies upon Christina Ama Ata Aidoo's The Dilemma of a Ghost (1964). Initially, this appears to be an anachronistic selection, but Aidoo's text shows themes of fractured African identity. This fissure is also present in eighteenth-century prose, poetry, and slave narratives. Subsequently, many African American writers negotiate crises by translating their sadness about their lost past into future artistic endeavors. Through the underpinnings of a twentieth-century writer's definition of dilemma, Langley illustrates cultural retention through conflict in family situations and enslavement in the human family. …

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