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Spectres of the shore : the memory of Africa in contemporary African-American and Black British fiction

By Leila Francesca Kamali


This study considers the approach in recent African-American and Black British\ud fiction toward the cultural memory of Africa. Following a brief consideration of the\ud relationship between contemporary conceptions of African-American and Black\ud British cultural identities, I examine the ways in which the imaginative journeys and\ud geographies, evoked by the ideals of Africa and 'Africanness', are employed in the\ud negotiation of historical memory, and in the endeavour to situate black identity in\ud the context of contemporary American and British society.\ud My discussion addresses these questions, initially, in four novels by African-American\ud writers: Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Toni Morrison's Song of\ud Solomon (1977), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1983), and John Edgar\ud Wideman's Philadelphia Fire (1990). I argue that African-American writers situate\ud a memory of an African past within an African-American present, through a form of\ud historical memory which is sensitive not only to tradition, but also to the practice of\ud 'possession'. This fluid form of memory, characteristic of a voodoo tradition, and\ud also, these writers suggest, of a diversity of African-American artforms, allows\ud knowledge of African tradition to be situated within the American present, but is\ud broadly denied by an American trend of forgetfulness toward the past, and devalued\ud by institutionalised racism. African-American texts present uses of language in\ud which the linguistic and the pre-linguistic realms are felt to be continuous with one\ud another, in response to an American language which is centrally occupied by the\ud fraught relationship between black and white Americans.\ud The second half of this study examines the memory of Africa in three Black British\ud works, including Caryl Phillips's Crossing the River (1991), S.1. Martin's\ud Incomparable World (1996), and Bernardine Evaristo's Lara (1997). I suggest here\ud that Black British authors employ the cultural memory of Africa not as an\ud inheritance which is connected to a known 'tradition', but as one of a diverse\ud number of inheritances which are negotiated as part of the process of situating\ud identity as flexible, individual, and unfinished. The memory of Africa is figured as\ud frozen in the past, along with a range of other cultural inheritances, which are taken\ud up and redramatised in the present as part of an attempt to recover the inherent\ud diversity at the heart of an oppressive British fiction of linearity, and of uniform\ud 'whiteness'. Where Britain, historically, has been silent on Britain's black presence,\ud Black British writers simply speak into that silence.\ud Emerging from this fruitful comparison between the two literatures is a sense of the\ud contrasting approaches which are made by black writers toward notions of tradition\ud and the performance of identity, in the context of two very different national\ud histories, and as part of fundamental strategies of survival employed in\ud contemporary social settings. These dramatisations are interrogated against\ud continuous issues of race and racism, but also as diverse solutions for identity where\ud national contexts bear a contrasting significance in an age which is increasingly\ud globalised, and in which imperial power has shifted, and continues to shift, between\ud Britain and America

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