When modern African literature began to mushroom in the years between World War II and the First World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966, it led critics the world over -- African and non-African alike -- to raise questions seldom asked, for the growth of African literature brought an entirely new and unique entity into the already existing world family of literatures. How and where did this new phenomenon fit into the literary scheme of things? How -- by what standards -- was it to be judged?
One of the first Western critics to address this question was Robert P. Armstrong, then of Northwestern University, in a paper entitled "African Literature and European Critics" given at the seventh annual meeting of the African Studies Association in Chicago in 1964. Professor Armstrong noted at the outset of his paper that one's critical approach to this literature would in part be determined by whether the critic thought of African literature as an entity in itself or as an extension of European literature. He quoted JeanPaul Sartre's essay, "Black Orpheus," in defense of his belief in an African literature and also disagreed with the position that African literature was European by virtue of its being written in European languages. He said:
It makes considerable sense to assert, as Sartre suggests, that a literature exists when the unique perceptions and experiences of a people begin to take literary shape, to demand their own modifications of form, to assert themselves in their own metaphor, regardless of what language they may or may not share in common. Metaphor, symbol, situation- these, not words, are the items in the lexicon of literature. (3)