English 111: African

From Keywords for American Cultural Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

African as a keyword

File:AfricaSat.jpg
The keyword "African" in the context of this course relates to the ancestry and heritage of the people who descended from Africa, but today reside in the Caribbean. The treatment this heritage was forced to face is a main topic discussed in our keyword. “Africa” is a term used to describe ethnicity, even though as Stuart Hall points out, no one in the Caribbean designated themselves as being African until the emergence of the term “ethnicity”.

The keyword African has established a variety of meanings in different societies. Should one say African? African American? or just Black? Many of these connotations can be interpreted differently depending on the situation. Because of the keyword’s significance, endless possible explanations of the meaning, and openness to change, African is classified as an ideal keyword. African can be used to identify a race, or a culture, or even an entire continent. Looking at keywords like this, it provides an insight into society's ideals, and helps mark how history has changed the meaning of the word based on social and political influence and cultural practices. Illustrating how the definition changes from one culture to another or through time helps show the progression and variation of ideas. After reading multiple essays and Caribbean literature, we, students, ask ourselves: Why are "things" the way they are? How did they get to be that way? And, what does it mean to “be” African?

Analyzing Kevin Gaines' Keyword Essay

Gaines argues that though European travelers did not initially perceive African as slaves but rather as people with different religious beliefs, behavior and appearance, the word African quickly became associated with slavery during to birth of America. The system of indentured servants was first introduced to fueled America labor force but this system could not support to rapid growing economy of America. Consequently, the system of permanent enslavement was created to solve this problem. This system objectifies Africans and started the racial degradation of African people. Due to this degrading nature of the word, free blacks rejected an identification with the word Africa as a form of self-defense.

In his keyword essay,“African,” Gaines also illustrates an in depth timeline of Africans from Africa and Africans from the United States. Although the word “Africans” and “African Americans” may seem to be interchangeable, they are not. There is still a continuous debate of the question of "who is an ‘African’ and who is an ‘African American’” (16). This is “symptomatic of the nation’s continued struggle over the significance of the African presence, past and present, real and symbolic” (16). Africans, who descended from Africa, believed in voodoo and while being held as slaves, they worked in the sugar fields. Unlike these Africans, the denomination most prevalent from "African Americans" was Protestant Christianity. In addition, these "African Americans" were forced to work on the tobacco and cotton fields. According to the rest of the Americans, these slaves were known as “Africans” in American society. This triggered an argument of whether they should be recognized as “Americans” as well. The slaves in the United States considered themselves as African Americans since they helped build America. However, Africans who migrated to the United States do not want to be known as African Americans. These original slaves from Africa want to represent their “Africanness” that they were raised with. For that reason, depending on one’s background, many people define Africans as African Americans and vice versa. This brings provokes the question, is there an objective label for Africans and African Americans?

Identity and Relation to Geography and Culture

File:Nasmarley.png
Marley notes that “Africa has always a theme in [Nas’s] music and in Jamaica, Africa is everyday life. You see the Ethiopian flag more than you see the Jamaican flag.”

Stuart Hall describes the nature of African culture best in "Cultural Identity and Diaspora" when he states, "[Africa] is both repressed and everywhere." African culture is not limited to the continent of Africa, rather, it's present across the world and subtly impacts culture. Because the African influence is constantly affecting other culture's evolving identities, the impact of Africa is difficult to trace. Africa's cultural impact on cultures is a central theme in Caribbean literature; No Telephone to Heaven being a prime example of the search for identity. The main character of this novel, Clare Savage, travels from the United States, to England, and back to her homeland Jamaica to understand her culture. Clare ends up learning that the African presence alive in her fellow Jamaican's is both beautiful and tragic; both everywhere in Jamaican lifestyle and repressed by poverty.

Music is another prime example of African identity and its influences which can be related to geography. Reggae, gospel, blues, jazz, funk, and hip hop are but a few examples of how traditional African rhythms have evolved into modern forms of music in different places and times around the world. Along with the many music genres are lyrics that relate to Africa's influence on the community. Distant Relatives, featuring American rap artist Nas and Jamaican reggae artist Damian Marley, is a modern example of both African influenced rhythms and lyrics.

Relationship to other Keywords

The main focus of our article has been related to novels and essays on the Caribbean, especially emphasizing the countries of Haiti and Jamaica. The citizens of the Caribbean have the cultural identity associated with African heritage, but find themselves in the Americas, having to find an identity of their own. They are a product of Diaspora during the triangle slave trade, and they have come to have an ethnicity of their own based on both African, and European ancestry. In the essay "Cultural Identity and Diaspora" Stuart Hill analyzes the influences of three major presences in the Caribbean, including presence African, and the presence of America. The African presence in the Caribbean is reflecting the heritage of the slaves that worked on the sugar plantations, and the culture that they came from. It is also about how the Caribbean changed the sense of the African identity, and what it has come to mean today. The American presence is seen as the "blending" and mixing of cultures that is seen throughout the Caribbean. Then New World offers a stage for different cultures to meet and interact, forming a unique identity based on different heritages and ancestry. In relation to another keyword not thoroughly explored in our class, race and African also go hand in hand. Race is a term whose definition changes with time. It is used to further social and political agendas. As race changes those of not only African descent but any other than "American" changes. When the question of race first began to play into freedom in America, and later naturalization, those of African descent became heavily scrutinized. In some states, anyone with any kind of African blood be it 1/2 or 1/16 was considered African.

Depiction of African in Modern Literature

File:Krikkrak.jpg
"No, women like you don't write. They carve onion sculptures and potato statues. They sit in dark corners and braid their hair in new shapes and twist in order to control the stiffness, the unruliness, the rebelliousness." --Kirk? Krak!

Krik? Krak!

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, is a collection of nine stories revolving around the history of a family with Haiti heritage. Danticat shows different views of how Haitian and African identity is viewed after the Haitian revolution. Though these nine stories are complete and are independent of one another, the stories are connected as a whole through the use of allusion within the book. Each of these stories depicts a struggle of African identity of some kind and is representative of a larger problem that Africans in Haiti experience during the Post-colonial period.

See more: Krik?_Krak!

The Black Jacobins

File:Tbj.jpg
"It is their song now. They used to sing 'La Marseillaise' and the 'Ca Ira' but the French soldiers always sing those, so the brigands have started to sing their song."--Christophe in "The Black Jacobins"

The Black Jacobins is a play by C.L.R. James about the Hatian revolution. It follows Toussaint L'Ouverture in his desire to free the slaves and slowly gain their own identity. After the slaves are freed, they choose Toussaint as their leader. Toussaint desperately tries to preserve their freedom while trying to find peace between themselves and rest of the world.

Identity; Nationalism and Exile In the play, Toussaint knows that once they are freed from being slaves they have lost any identity they once had. They were once African but they were taken to become slaves. They were once slaves but now they are free men. Toussaint knows that now that they are free they must claim their own identity, yet they are not ready to become truly independent. What they seek is their own nationalism. According to Edward Said in "Reflections on Exile", "Nationalism is an assertion of belonging in and to a place, a people, a heritage. It affirms the home created by a community of language, culture, and customs; and, by so doing, it fends off exile, fights to prevent its ravages" (Said 176). Through this "fending off" of exile to create their own nationalism, they create a new form of exile.

See more: The Black Jacobins, Haiti, and African as a Keyword


No Telephone to Heaven

Michelle Cliff explores and illustrates the complexities of reaching a state of wholeness with a past divided geography, race, and culture, in her novel, No Telephone to Heaven. The search for wholeness and identity takes heroine, Clare Savage, around the world and back to her homeland, Jamaica. Clare begins to understand her own Jamaican identity by experiencing the true Jamaica; a land both beautiful and tragic. Cliff's incorporation of creole gives the reader a more unique and poetic experience of the story, while shining light on the culture of Jamaica.

"I mean the time will come for both of us to choose. For we will have to make the choice. Cast out lot. Cyaan live split. Not in this world."--Harry/Harriet


Stuart Hall; looking behind, beneath, and inside of identity in the Caribbean

File:CulturalIdentity.jpeg
"Theorizing Diaspora" Edited by Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur

In “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, Stuart Hall breaks down the understanding of identity into different aspects. He begins his essay with the two types of cultural identities. First, identity is secure and defined by those who share a common history. Second, identity is always changing and determined by the similarities and differences. By going in depth with these two different identities, Hall believes “we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (234). For the rest of his essay, Hall interprets the three dominant presences in Caribbean cultural identity. The first presence, Presence Africaine, is “the site of the repressed” (240). This presence is not superficially represented, but remains as “unspeakable.” The second is the Presence Europeenne. This presence is the visual representation of identity and “plays” a dominant role in Caribbean culture. Lastly, Presence Americaine is the third presence. This aspect of identity is where many cultures collide. This presence is also known as “the ‘empty’ land” (243). With respect to Hall's second view of identity, "African" truly is a term defined by similarities and differences. Those who are dark in skin color or come from Africa can be considered African. Those who are different from the ones who are "white" can be called African. The term envelopes whatever the one with power wants it to be, choosing to use similiarites, differences or both to define the term to get what he wants.

See more: Cultural Identity and Diaspora

Reflection on Exile

File:EdwardSaid.jpg
"Modern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles, emigres, refugees." A quote from "Reflections on Exile and other essays

In "Reflections on Exile," Edward Said tries to apply the notation of exile to relatable terms, and show how it has changed through the course of history. He states that there is a huge difference between notations of exile that are seen in literature, and the experiences of modern, real-life exiles that exist in today's world. Exiles have a loss of association with their homeland, and their sense of loneliness causes them to interact with cultures in a unique way as they attempt to form a new sense of identity and belonging. The African keyword can be seen in Said's writing through the African diaspora to the Caribbean, and the struggle for a formation of identity that results. Said concludes by showing how the two definitions can interact to provide a sense of "the entire world as a foreign land" (186) to overcome the emotional consequences of exile.

"Exiles feel, therefore, an urgent need to reconstitute their broken lives, usually by choosing to see themselves as part of a triumphant ideology or a restored people" (177).

See more: Reflections on Exile








External Content

File:Mardi-gras-parade.jpg
New Orleans has maintained a significant Creole influence on its' culture, seen through the Mardi Gras celebration, and influence of Jazz music

The "African" theme that this article have been developing is by no means a recent topic, and the origin, context, and history of the word has been debated, and will be debated for years to come. African culture has continued to change and expand in modern society, and a large part of modern America (United States) society has reference to the African roots of the Americas. Some recent websites have offered ways to trace your DNA to its' African roots.

Other external sites:

Preservation of Caribbean Music

Haiti Earthquake

More on Nas/Damian Marley




Works Cited

Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996.

Danticat, Edwidge. Krik? Krak? New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 1-224. Print.

Diaz, Junot. Drown. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. Diaspora Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." In Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Gaines, Kevin. "African." Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Main Collaboratory Areas