There’s no such person as the ‘other’

‘Landeg’. The Portuguese receptionist hesitates. I pass her my bilhete de identidade, and she copies it out, a letter at a time. Sometimes, my wife spells it out – with an el, an arr, an enn, a day, an ay, and a jay.   Occasionally, puzzlement overtakes politeness. ‘Landeg, what kind of name is that?’ It’s Welsh, I tell them. This resonates. Like Wales, Portugal is a small country, overlooked by its powerful neighbour. More, we have Celtic words in common. More too, Wales’ powerful neighbour happens to be Portugal’s oldest ally, in another marriage of unequals. By this stage, I’m well on the way to being embraced.

Read More

The Dignity of Merchants

Review of Manthia Diawara, In Search of Africa
(Harvard University Press, 1998)

Towards the end of Eddy Harris’s Native Stranger: a Blackamerican’s Journey into the Heart of Africa, he spends two despairing weeks waiting at Lisala on the bank of the Zaire River for a steamer to take him to Kisangani. Behind him are North Africa, Franco-phone and English-speaking Africa, and a disastrous foray into the former black American colony of Liberia; behind him, too, 300-pages of mounting exasperation with the poverty, filth, incompetence and sadistic bullying he has encountered on all sides. Finally the steamer arrives and he falls with relief into conversation with Justin, an English passenger. The captain remarks on this: ‘his ancestors stole your ancestors from this place and took them to America as slaves. How can you live with them?’ Thinking back on all he has seen and experienced, Eddy Harris ‘turned to Justin and thanked him’.

It is a climax of appalling irony, to some readers an obscenity, like joking about the holocaust. How could, a black American, even temporarily deranged, how could he celebrate the slave trade as a good thing, releasing him from a ‘heart of darkness’ homeland? Yet Harris’s ‘thank you’ is not just a perversity. It finds an echo in Richard Wright’s question: ‘What does an African facing an African American see?’ It finds an echo in Manthia Diawara’s answer: ‘I see Toni Cade Bambara, I see Kamau Brathwaite, I see James Baldwin, I see Bob Marley, I see James Brown, I see C.L.R. James, I see Muhammad Ali, I see Paule Marshall, I see Malcolm X, I see Edwidge Danticat, I see Walter Mosley, I see Maryse Condé, I see myself. I am free to see a human being, a person, an individual’.

Read More

Palpable Inventions

Review of Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism, Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso, 1998)

Did Napoleon mutilate the nose of the Great Sphinx because he thought it looked too ‘African’? Is the star Sirius B a storehouse of energy and information transmitted to earth specifically to people whose bodies are rich in melanin (the chemical which pigments skin)? Are Christmas trees, chocolate bars, baseballs, Spanish bulls (and what’s done to them by way of chopping, biting, thwacking and impaling) all symbols of black male genitalia? Were the first white women lepers who fled to the Caucasus and coupled with jackals to produce the white race? Do surnames like Dunn, Grey and Douglas, and place names like Dublin and Blackpool, indicate concealed African origins? Were the Mende people of West Africa the first to navigate to Peru? Did Egyptians build Stonehenge? Is AIDS the outcome of a genocidal white conspiracy to eliminate Africans? More to the point, do you believe these are serious questions, requiring patient and scholarly rebuttal?

Stephen Howe’s subject is Afrocentricism which, he says, comes in two varieties. The first is an interest in Africa and its culture reinforced by the belief ‘that Eurocentric bias blocked or distorted knowledge of Africans and their cultures’. This has been around for some time, most effectively expressed over the last four decades in the rise of the new academic discipline of African history. It is the second or ‘stronger version … a far more cohesive, dogmatic and essentially irrational ideology’ which has developed over a much longer period which is his subject. He doesn’t add, but it is his premise, that this second form of Afrocentricm is dangerous. The parallels he invokes are with Germany in the 1930s and Serbia in the 1990s.

Read More

In Bonaparte’s Backback

Review of Howard Gaskill (ed), The Reception of Ossian in Europe (Thoemmes Continuum, 2004)

In his introduction to this symposium on the reception of Ossian in Europe, Howard Gaskill acknowledges that ‘any suggestion of a general rehabilitation’ of James Macpherson ‘would be premature’. But if the task is to be accomplished, a demonstration of the seminal importance of Ossianic poetry for European romanticism is probably the best way forwards. Meanwhile, as several contributors acknowledge, it is curious how perfectly Ossianic poetry fits the requirements of contemporary literary theory. If your interests lie in nationalism and invented traditions, in Romantic forgery, in the oral-literacy debate, in translation studies, in reception theory, in post-modernist indeterminancy, or whatever (except, so far, queer theory), Macpherson is your perfect author, with the added advantage that virtually nobody in Britain reads him.

Read More

In Cannibal Country

Review of Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (Faber, 2007)
& Clare Pettitt, Dr. Livingstone, I Presume? Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers & Empire (Profile Books, 2007)

In January 1963 in his gap year, Tim Jeal set out by steamer, bus and truck on a journey from Cairo to Johannesburg. Over forty years on, his main memory is of his insecurity, of being utterly dependent on the undependable. To get stranded, a ‘guideless stranger would soon be lost … and likely to die in the bush, if not from thirst or exhaustion then in the jaws of a wild beast’. At night, when he was not fretting about snakes or scorpions, he thought about those Victorian explorers, making similar journeys without diesel trucks or insect repellent creams, and his admiration became a lifetime obsession.

Earlier writers on Africa have had similar epiphanies – George Shepperson, speculating about the Nyasalanders under his command in Burma during World War 2, Jan Vansina made curious by his spell of military service in the Belgian Congo, Basil Davidson wondering in mid-travels why there was nothing he could read about the ancient cities of West Africa. By 1963, along with a handful of others, these had become the founding fathers of the new discipline of African History. Jeal comments that as he passed through independent Uganda and soon to be independent Tanganyika, he knew the explorers were considered ‘anachronistic embarrassments’. But he has stuck with them, and imbibed much of their worldview.

Read More

Terras de Lava

Visiting the Azores for the first time, I’ve figured out just where in the world they are. Ideally, you need a two-page map of the Atlantic, with Lisbon to the right, New York to the far left, and Bermuda lurking in the south west. The nine islands of the archipelago are about a third of the way across. But atlases are grudging about water, and the Azores get squeezed into separate boxes at odd corners of the maps of somewhere else. To my surprise, they turn out to be west of Lisbon – not a hint of Africa, about them – the visible bits of something called the north mid-Atlantic ridge, and on the same latitude as Washington DC.

Read More