The Influence of African Writers on Identity and Language
Research Scholar, Assam University, Silchar
Language plays a great role in developing and shaping a society and its culture. Language defines a community. It brings into focus the identity of a person and the culture he belongs to. Language also acts as a kind of communication and it depicts and carries the culture of the people of a community. It creates a bonding between the people of a community, and becomes a part of who they are. Language shapes and creates a notion of how to look at the world and themselves. The African-American literature consists of works on the African American people and their culture. And in it we can see the influence of African language in shaping the identity of African people. The seminar paper will show how African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Frantz Fanon prefers writing in their own mother tongue and not in the old colonial languages of the colonial powers. According to these African writers, literature represents people’s struggle for liberation from their colonial subjects. For a better understanding, the paper will examine the works of the African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and others. In their work, we will see the power of language and how language is central to a community or a culture’s definition of themselves in relation to a more natural and social environment.
Keywords: African writers, language, identity, influence
When we address the issue of language in African literature, it can be said that writing African literature in English is a capitulation of sorts. The use of a foreign language like English diminishes the identity of the black. There has been always an undying conflict between African and English. Though the literature intends to provide a progressive positive conceptualization of post-colonial society, but by using a foreign language it will completely undermine such a message.
There are two main uses of language i.e., language as communication and language as culture. Language helps in understanding each other, it expresses and carries the culture of people. It acts as a storehouse of images, ideas, wisdom, experience and history of a culture or a community. Language creates a bonding between the people of a community, and becomes a part of who they are. Language shapes and creates a notion of how to look at the world and themselves.
The main problem of study is that many Africans has grown up as children with a mother tongue but has received their higher education in a colonial language. Higher education does not only mean just science and mathematics but also literature and philosophy and art – and therefore it leads to a certain way of looking at the world and in the case of the Africans it is the Western, Eurocentric one.
And all this leads to colonial alienation where people become torn between two worlds. The Africans began to see themselves through the eyes of others. Their mother tongue, their people, their culture, all became a point of shame for them. The Africans, they are cut off from their own people, which means they cannot help them break their chains, overthrow the neocolonial order and free everyone.
Those in power often impose their beliefs on others regarding what they assume to be the correct language. Power mostly manifests and is imposed upon those who are powerless. Language is that which shapes our thoughts which in turn shapes reality.
Many African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Frantz Fanon has contributed successfully to the development and understanding of African language in literature. This has helped to develop an identity of the Black people and their community. The article mainly focus on examining how these writers preserve Black identity by acknowledging their language, identity and culture. They have different views regarding the use of their native language and the language of the colonial powers. The article also gives a short description of works on Black, their culture and traditions.
Frantz Fanon was one of a few extraordinary thinkers supporting the decolonization struggles occurring after World War II. Fanon’s first work Black Skin, White Masks (1967) was his first effort to articulate a radical anti-racist humanism that adhered neither to assimilation to a white-supremacist mainstream nor to reactionary philosophies of black superiority.
In the chapter “The Negro and Language” of Black skin, white masks (1967), Frantz Fanon used the example of the “Negro” in Antilles as an example of challenges that colonized people face regarding language. Blacks in Antilles, specifically Martinique, were pressured to speak French as opposed to Creole. By speaking French, Fanon explained that Blacks could become more “white;” achieve higher social status and think of themselves as being equal to whites in society as can be seen in his personal example. Fanon argued that the European had a fixed image of the Black man. Language is used to reinforce this image: “to make him talk pidgin is to fasten him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him, the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible” (35).
The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe discusses why he chose not to write in his own native language but in the European language. According to Achebe, it was not the colonizers who pushed language into his mouth, but it was he who choose to learn in English and write in English because for him writing in a colonial language is not wrong until you write what is good.
In 1975, Chinua Achebe gave a speech entitled "The African Writer and the English Language". He answered the above challenge with these words:
"Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else's? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it." (Thiong'o, p.285)
Again, Achebe agrees.
"I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings." (Thiong'o, p.286)
According to Achebe, there is no use returning to the past. In order to successfully find a sense of identity, it is necessary to recognize the infiltration of foreign culture. He says that writing in a foreign language like English cannot be traitorous to tradition or culture rather writing in English is a way of giving new life and form, a way to affirm the possibility of existing in a foreign culture. For example, if we imagine the English language as representing western culture, post-colonial literature is an example of a successful cultural transplant. Post-colonial literature written in English should only serve to strengthen a sense of identity by proving that African values and ideas can survive the translation. The key is to make the language one's own, to incorporate rather than being incorporated.
In “The Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature” (1989) Chinua Achebe of Nigeria presents himself as an African writer writing in a European tongue, English. The title is taken from a book by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986). Ngugi himself gave up writing in English and said that to be totally free from the European masters one must write in an African language, that the colonial power has forced its languages on Africa to control it, that Achebe, by writing in an European language, is a supporter of imperialism.
But what Achebe says is that Ngugi is not being completely honest. Achebe writes in English not because he wants to write to the world in a world language or he supports imperialism. English is the only language common to the whole country. And so on for many other African countries. English is the only language that can hold it all together without favouring any one part of the country. Elsewhere Achebe admits that sometimes it is hard to express African thought in English, but he has used that to shape English instead of letting a white English shape him or limit what he can say.
In 1958, Achebe published Things Fall Apart that won him the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize for the novel's contribution to African literature. Achebe chose not to write or translate Things Fall Apart into the Igbo language. Igbo is a language not known by all, but English is a language practiced all over the world. So, Achebe, to reach each and every part of the world, and to explain the role of culture and conditions of the African community, chose to write it in English.
In the essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness" (1975), Achebe accuses Joseph Conrad of being "a thoroughgoing racist" for depicting Africa as "the other world". His argument focused particularly on the use of black Africans as symbols, how words and language are denied to black people in the novella Heart of Darkness (1899), how Africa itself used as a mere backdrop to explore European concerns and the imagery of darkness itself in the book.
In his lecture, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Achebe documents the ways that Conrad dehumanizes Africans by refusing to bestow "human expression" on Africans, even depriving them of language, speech. In addition, Things Fall Apart contains passages which show that Africans are able to learn and converse in the European languages. There are only two instances in Heart of Darkness, "when Conrad departs somewhat from his practice and confers speech, even English speech, on the savages," and these are used by Conrad, according to Achebe, only to reinforce the savagery of the Africans (1788). Chinua Achebe not only criticized colonial works like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but wrote a new story in the emerging postcolonial style that counters many of the degrading stereotypes that colonial literature has placed on Africa.
Ngugi wa Thiong'O, a Kenyan writer, is one of the most well known and interesting writer to have emerge out of Africa in this 21st century. In his book, Decolonizing the Mind (1986), Ngugi challenges the African writers to abandon writing in colonial languages as he calls literature written in these languages 'Afro-European Literature' and instead opt for their native languages to give African literature its own genealogy and grammar: the preaching that he himself put to practice as Decolonizing the Mind was his last book in English. Ngugi himself earlier wrote in English, but now he mostly writes in Gikuyu. Keeping Fanon in consideration, Ngugi says that this way of writing makes writers most dangerous to colonial powers because they begin to speak to the people rather than trying to gain cultural credence in the colonizer’s language of a European tongue.
Ngugi tells of his boyhood in Kenya, of how he was taught in his native Gikuyu language at school when suddenly in 1952 the British authorities forced schools to teach in English instead. Proof that Europe forced its languages on Africa.
Most African literature is oral. It includes stories, riddles, proverbs and sayings. In Decolonizing the Mind (1986), Ngugi Wa Thiong'o discusses the importance of oral literature to his childhood. He says "I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around the fire side. It was mostly the grown ups telling the children but everybody was interested and involved. We children would retell the stories the following day to other children who worked in the fields."The stories main characters were usually animals. Ngugi said "Hare being small, weak, but full of innovative wit, was our hero. We identified with him as he struggled against the brutes of prey like lyon, leopard and hyena. His victories were our victories and we learnt that the apparently weak can outwit the strong.”
According to Ngugi's way of seeing, we can't study African literatures without studying the particular cultures and oral traditions from which Africans draw their plots, styles and metaphors.
In 1986 a meeting titled, 'A Conference of African Writers of English Expression' was held in Kampala, Uganda. It was a rather momentous and comprehensive meeting ever convened by the continent's writers on the politics of the language of the African literature. Topping the agenda was this question: 'What is African Literature?' The conference included only English writing African authors because those that wrote in African languages were not invited. This blindness to the indigenous voice of Africans is a direct result, according to Ngugi, of colonization.
Ngugi explains that during colonization, missionaries and colonial administrators controlled publishing houses and the educational context of novels, texts were mainly printed in the colonial language, and Africans were forced to speak European languages in school and also that native language was bad. Language was twisted into a mechanism that separated children from their own history because their own heritage were shared only at home, relying on orature in their native language. This puts the lives of Africans more firmly in the control of the colonists. Ngugi argues that colonization was not simply a process of physical force. Rather, "the bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation."
Ngugi argues that writing in African languages is a necessary step toward cultural identity and independence from centuries of European exploitation.
Many other writers emerged in the field of literature that influenced the African society, in the development of their identity, in understanding culture and tradition. They also explained the sufferings, pain and the outcomes of the blacks though their writings. Phillis Wheatley was the most popular colonial poet in England. Her only book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was first published in London (1773) and later in America (1786). It was the first book published by an African-American woman. The most popular autobiography was written by Frederick Douglass, ex-slave, orator, abolitionist, writer, and publisher. Douglass' first written account of his life was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).
The Harlem Renaissance began to emerge as a major literary force in the 1920's. The Renaissance represented a "confluence" of African-American oral and written traditions. Langston Hughes was the most popular writer to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes' first publication was The Weary Blues (1926), followed by Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was voted the most popular American novel from 1945-1965 in a Book Week Magazine poll conducted in 1965. Invisible Man is a black man's search for identity.
The 1960's marked the re-emergence of Black Nationalism. Black identity and racial pride reached a pinnacle during the late sixties and early seventies. Black women writers who serve as metaphors of the cultural and social resistance of the Black women, include: Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Toni Cade Bambara. In 1983 Alice Walker's The Color Purple was the first novel by a Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is very concerned with the loss of oral histories, folktales, songs and ring rhymes, ofriddles, the dozens and all African traditions and the desire to bring them back.
We have seen that how African writers like Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o has maintained the dignity of African language, speech, tradition and culture. Through their works they have shown the world the importance of Black culture. Though some African writers do not prefer writing in the colonial language, but it can be concluded that English language will be able to carry well the weight of the African experience to a great extent. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home, but altered to suit its new African surroundings. African writings and African-American literature is a celebration of the human spirit. Black writers have used their skills to tell the world about the beauty and pain of Black life. This article has shown the African spirit and how it continues to live in African-American language and literature. Black children, young and old can gain sustenance and pride from this spirit and non-Blacks can learn to respect and acknowledge this spirit, for their lives too have been and will be always influenced by the African culture and tradition.
Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Tabula Rasa 20 (2014): 13-25.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 1986. Print.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of darkness. Macmillan Education UK, 1995.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1977. Print.
Taylor, Nancy, and Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2008. Print.
Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ Wa. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: J. Currey, 1986. Print.
Turkington, Kate. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. London: Edward Arnold, 1977. Print.