Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Part I)

Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Part I)

Contrapuntal analysis will show that even when the lives of enslaved Africans were located at the opposite pole of modern identity and when their objectification was at odds with the triumphant subjectivism of modernity, slaves were intimately connected to the political and moral economy of the modern world. It was difficult to imagine a modern identity that was totally detached from the Africans’ subjection (Gikandi, 2011: 81).

Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste explores eighteenth-century European and American archive to identify what was excluded from the “discourse of taste and the series of omissions, repressions, and conceptual failures that were its condition of possibility” (25). Gikandi’s uses this century as a reference point because it marks a period when issues of slavery and culture of taste were more prominent. This was also the age of enlightenment in Europe when individuals discovered the increasing significance of personal liberty. Moreover, this was the century when more slaves were shipped from Africa. As Olaniyan writes, “over half of all the enslaved Africans in 366 years of slavery were shipped out or disembarked” in that century. Arguably, this century was the most affected by the phenomenon of slavery. The presence of so many slaves in Euro-American society was bound to shape lives of people in many ways.

Gikandi uses “culture of taste” to refer to institutions, norms, and practices of high culture in Europe and America. He notes that during this time to refer to one as a “person of taste” meant that the person is “highly cultured and of refined or sophisticated sensibilities” (xii). He reads the eighteenth-century archive contrapuntally to show that modernity cannot be read without incorporating slavery because they are two sides of the same coin. He demonstrates this point by pointing out that “slavery and the culture of taste were connected by the theories and practices that emerged in the modern period” (xiii). Gikandi aims to allegorically engage the archive through interrogating a series of following questions, such as:

What was the relation between aesthetic objects and the political economy of slavery? How do we read these two spheres of social life-one rooted in the realm of the aesthetic, civility, and taste, and the other in the political economy of slavery in the same register (Gikandi, 2011:35).

This essay explores some of the ways Gikandi has tried to respond to those questions. Gikandi reads Euro-American modernity, which is conceptualized as an era of personal freedom that allowed individuals to develop faculties for appreciating art, against the institution of slavery in Africa and the Caribbean. He discusses the story of Anna Margaretta Larpent, icon of social mobility in the culture of taste, writer of voluminous diaries, a woman attuned to the cultural sensibilities of her time; and Nealee, a faceless African woman slave in a coffle, bought for gold dust in a Bambara slave market, destined to die somewhere between Sego and the Gambia. On the one hand, Larpent enjoys her freedom – she goes to galleries, keeps a diary, has coffee in cafes and enjoys art. On the other hand, in Africa, Neale a slave woman howls across the Sahara Desert as her captors are determined to get her to the shore where she will be shipped across the Atlantic. Nealee and Larpent are players in the same era of modernity, albeit playing different roles. They show that although the slave master and the slaves occupied distinct geographies, they were connected through a single political economy.

Gikandi establishes that Nealee’s life, in a way, enables Larpent’s life. In other words, slavery produced sugar and other commodities that allowed and fueled a Euro-American culture of taste. As Gikandi points out, sugar more than anything was a major commodity of modernity. But while we can easily read Larpent’s story, Neale’s story is buried in accounts narrated by European masters, which raises a question about the extent to which we can rely on these narratives. How can we engage the archive when it is solely a product of European hegemony and racism? Gikandi examines this phenomenon through what he calls “the paradox of presence/absence”. Here, he notes that “the very social classes that were considered to be outside the domain of taste functioned as counterpoints of the ideals of polite behavior or even as figures of desires” (27). He shows that even though European masters wrote the archive, we can read it contrapuntally to reveal what is omitted.

Nealee’s life negates the achievement of European modernity. It questions the assumptions of the enlightenment and contests the whole idea of modernity. This kind of reading is conspicuously absent from European accounts of this century.  Perhaps the absence of slaves in Britain made it difficult for Europeans to conceptualize or represent slaves as integral to their society (Gikandi, 2011). It made it even harder for them to interrogate their freedom as a product of modernity of which slavery was a significant part. As Gikandi reflects, “it is clear to him that one of the reasons that slavery could not be included in the discourse of taste, even when it pervaded its cultural forms, is because it was not compatible with the epistemological categories that defined high culture” (37). For such a society, Larpent’s story of self-fashioning takes precedence as a visible form of life. Nealee’s story is invisible and has no place in such a society. Larpent’s way of life was important to her self-fashioning in public space, and this centers her in a “historical moment in which the rise of a culture of taste as the mediator of social position constituted an important mode of freedom” – an essential element of the age of Enlightenment (56).

In conclusion, Gikandi’s project shows that the eighteenth-century archive is still relevant in African cultural studies. Engaging the archive creatively as Gikandi has achieved through allegory will lead us to new ways of understanding slavery and colonialism.

African traditions as an antidote to Judeo-Christian and Islam exclusivism: A reading of Wole Soyinka’s of Africa

African traditions as an antidote to Judeo-Christian and Islam exclusivism: A reading of Wole Soyinka’s of Africa

Wole Soyinka explores the concept of exclusivism in his book Of Africa.[1] Although he does not explicitly define what exclusivism means, we can deduce from his discussions that the term implies ideas that tend to create an ‘ingroup and outgroup.’ In Africa, those ideas range from notions of geography, boundaries, race, religion, migration, and ideology. These ideas are epitomized by what he refers to as “fictioning of Africa.” In Part One of the book, he examines four types of narratives that fictionalize Africa. These narratives written by foreigners as well as writers from the continent include (i) narratives of travelers and adventurers, (ii) narratives of traders, (iii) narratives of internal, power-driven fictioning by post-independent rulers, and (iv) revisionists narratives, driven by a desire to correct history. In Part Two of the book, he discusses African religions as an antidote to exclusivity.

Fictioning Africa

Travel narratives or travelogues defined Africa in a way that excluded it from the rest of the world. Soyinka points out that although Africa appears to have been known or spoken about in ancient writings, “no travel narrative has come down to us that actually lays personal or racial claim to the discovery of the continent” (27). This perhaps explains some of the ignorance or prejudice one reads in most travel literature about Africa. There seems to be a lack of complete knowledge about Africa. Hence, writers including African themselves often misrepresent Africa because rely on inaccurate travel accounts to construct their arguments.

Narratives of trade or commerce focus on the encounter of Africa with various traders from around the world. Soyinka does not take slavery as a departing point for discussing trade in Africa. Neither does he strictly focus on slavery as an idea of exclusion. Instead, he focuses on colonialism beginning with early instances of visitors to Africa and then the Berlin Conference that singled Africa as a piece of wealth to be divided among Europeans. Colonialism created boundaries that redefined Africans – locked them in enclaves that disregarded their traditions and lived experiences. The root of some of the present-day wars and conflicts of exclusivity such as those in Mauritania, Liberia, and Sudan among others can be traced to the creation of these boundaries. In other words, post-independence Africa inherited a legacy of discordant behavior that has led to dictatorships, genocides, and plundering of natural resources.

Of course, not all challenges in Africa can be traced to the demarcation of boundaries, as Soyinka points out, ideology is also crucial in understanding some of the problems affecting the continent. The cold war between the capitalist First World and communist Second World turned Africa into a playfield with catastrophic consequences. For instance, dictators such as Siad Barre of Somalia, a country with a single dominant religion and people of similar ethnicity, continued to massacre their own people because they received support from Russia and at some point, the West.

African writers have tried to move past the tragic history of Africa, but Soyinka argues that these writers ignore historical realities and tend to wish the past away. He counsels that Africa must confront the past because therein lie the roots of contemporary problems in the continent. He portrays South Africa and Sudan as countries that have glossed over race issues instead of tackling them. He particularly singles out Sudan as a case where racism has mostly informed government policies that exclude large populations in the country. For instance, the long civil war that ended with the succession of South Sudan was fought along racial lines – the Arabicized north against the Black south. The more recent violent conflict in Darfur where an ethnic cleansing militia, Janjaweed (which Soyinka compares with Ku Klux Klan in the US), backed by Sudanese government has sought to eradicate an entire ethnic group, is also a product of historical racism.

Soyinka sees these events in Sudan as a replay of the history of slavery whose roots were planted during the era of slave trade. As he points out, “those who wish to understand the undercurrents of the mind that breed and nurture the inhuman conduct of the Sudanese government against his own populace, notably now the people of Western Sudan, the Fur, would do well to take good note of the role of history in this scenario” (83).  Interestingly, African traders were cognizant of the fact that the past acts upon the present. Thus, they enacted different rituals such as forcing slaves to circle the “Tree of Forgetfulness” so as to forget about their homeland and their captors. But the ubiquity of contemporary conflicts of exclusion in the continent reveals the futility of these rituals.

My view is that Soyinka presents these ideas of exclusivity – how Africa has been conceptualized and articulated in a manner that excludes it from the rest of the world – as a foreground for discussing African religions as an antidote to exclusivity. As he argues, “African religions did not aspire to conquer the world” (25) or proselytize like Christianity or Islam. On the contrary, African religions are naturally accommodative and do not seek to dominate – they possess characteristics that shun exclusivity.

African religion as an antidote to exclusivity

Soyinka presents contemporary challenges and opportunities in Africa as a dialogue of different encounters between African, Islam, and Christian traditions, ideas that resonate with other scholars such as Edward Blyden, Kwame Nkrumah, and Ali Mazrui. These ideas were first articulated by Edward Blyden, a Pan-Africanist and a Liberian politician, in his book, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race,[2] and they were later developed by another pan-Africanist and founding president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. In his book, Consciencism, Nkrumah traces the origin of contemporary African religious heritage to three major forces: Indigenous traditions, Islam, and Euro-Christian impact.[3] Ali Mazrui expounds and propagates these ideas with great eloquence, passion, and persistence. In fact, most of his writings are informed by this worldview, which he calls “Triple Heritage”.[4] For Blyden, of the Judeo-Christian and Islam traditions, Islam appears as a favorable religion for Black people. He argues that Islam in its true observance, “extinguishes all distinctions founded upon race, color, or nationality” (92). Mazrui in his seminal work, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, explains that contemporary Africa’s triple heritage is composed of indigenous, Islamic and Christian legacies and that indigenous African religion is the most tolerant of the three religions. He attributes this to the communal nature of indigenous religions, which is different from either Islam or Christianity – the two religions are universalist in aspiration and are always seeking to convert others. Mazrui presents Nigeria and Sudan as the best embodiments of this heritage.[5] But this was before Sudan started its 30-year-old civil war, and Nigeria became a hotbed for Boko Haram terrorist activities.

Soyinka is likely to disagree with Blyden’s conclusions that Islam is an accommodative religion. The discussion on Sudan, Mauritania, and Ivory Coast highlights Soyinka’s thoughts on the contribution of Islam to exclusionary violence in those countries. Similarly, in an essay on “Religion and Human Rights,” which appeared in Index on Censorship,[6] Soyinka criticized Mazrui for his Triple Heritage project.[7] He castigated Mazrui for presenting Africa as a playground for Christianity and Islam while paying lip service to African deities, whom he (Mazrui) did not apparently think were relevant in the contemporary world. Furthermore, Soyinka contended that Mazrui, like Blyden, appeared to believe that Islamic civilization was the better of the three.

Soyinka is opposed to any religion that considers itself superior to others and thus “denigrates other people’s past in whom the present is very much rooted” (83). It is then clear what Soyinka is attempting to accomplish in Of Africa: At one level, he wants to redress what he considers as appalling ignorance and misrepresentation of the African continent through elevating its gods, and at another level, he wants to celebrate these gods as an elixir against exclusivity. He extends these arguments in an essay on “Religion Against Humanity,” published in Granta, whereby he points out that “adherents of African religions who remain passionately attached to their beliefs all the way across the Atlantic – Brazil and across other parts of Latin America – have not taken to wreaking vengeance on their presumed violators (Christianity and Islam) in far-off lands”[8] (the added emphasis is mine).

Conclusion

Soyinka does more than present African religions as a panacea for religious fundamentalism exposed by the dominant religious traditions of Christianity and Islam. He comprehensively discusses Orisa, Yoruba religion and its place among the Yoruba people of Nigeria and those in the African diaspora. Orisa is an epitome of the accommodative spirit that Soyinka drums up support for.

It is likely that a different reading of Soyinka’s book might interpret his ideas as exclusionism. My view is that the comprehensive exploration of Yoruba religions and how they functioned in the society are meant to wade against [?] such a reading. The point here is that a religion that accommodates others is desirable to one that excludes.

Bibliography 

[1] Soyinka, W (2012). Of Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[2] Blyden, E (1967). Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. 3rd Edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

[3] Nkrumah, K (1970). Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-colonization. London: Panaf Books Ltd.

[4] Adem, S. “Ali A. Mazrui, the Postcolonial Theorist” African Studies Review, 57 no. 1 (2014), pp. 135-152.

[5] Mazrui, A (1986). The Africans: A Triple heritage. Toronto: Little, Brown & Company.

[6] Soyinka, W.  Religion and Human Rights, Index on Censorship, (1991), (5)88, pp. 82-85

[7] Ali Mazrui conceived “The Africans: A Triple Heritage,” as a Television series that aired on PBS, and was later published as a book by the same name.

[8] Soyinka, W. Religion Against Humanity, Granta (2012). 122

Trauma healing: when violence strikes and community security is threatened

When the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation (TJRC) released its reports in 2013, I was surprised that my country had committed atrocities to its own people at various times in our short history since independence. The worst was the Wagalla Massacre that claimed over 5,000 lives and wounded thousands. These blind spots in our history have been a major cause of agony among many marginalized people.

Stories of women and men who are unable to have children because of what the military did to them abound in our society. At the release of the reports, I was shocked that victims just wanted the Kenyan government to acknowledge wrongdoing and apologize.  Having lived through a post-election violence in 2007, which claimed the lives of at least 1,500 people, I felt that an apology was insufficient.  Reading Carolyn Yoder’s book on Trauma Healing has enabled me to understand that trauma healing is a unique process to every individual or community and that in order for healing to occur, other support systems, including government apology, are needed.

Yoder’s book has widened my understanding of the subject of trauma healing. I have learned about the close link between violence and trauma, and how it relates to some of the events I have experienced in Kenya. For instance, it was widely claimed that part of the reason Kenyans fought against each other in 2007 and 2008 was that of unaddressed injustices that have traumatized some communities since independence. Therefore, unresolved trauma is dangerous because at some point traumatized people can resort to revenge or to other violent means so as to give themselves a sense of ‘closure.’

Yoder’s discussion of the nexus between biology and trauma challenges my assumptions that trauma is just a social construct. Despite her explanation, I still grapple with questions such as whether trauma can be dealt with the same way people deal with depression or under what circumstances can a community builder recommend medical attention for trauma cases as opposed to a social process such a Transformative Community Conferencing or Restorative Justice.

Reading Yoder’s explanation about secondary trauma has enabled me to reflect on my experience as a teacher and education counselor in Nairobi. Most of my students and their parents had fled wars in their respective countries. Even though some of these children had not directly experienced the wars their parents fled from, their perspective about life was majorly shaped by their parents’ experience of war. The narratives parents passed down to children affected them immensely. Unfortunately, neither I nor any of my teachers really understood the concept of trauma especially, one associated with consequences of war. Such children need specially trained teachers to heal.

Traumatic events shatter the world as we know it and shape victims’ future world. For instance, with increased terrorist attacks and constant electoral violence, people in my community (and perhaps in all communities) constantly worry about their security. Every election year, people vote for leaders from their community because they assume that such leaders better understand people’s trauma, and therefore will help them heal. But the reality is that only one person can be a president. So, communities that do not get the presidency are always scared.