Monday, January 10, 2022

Race in Literature – From the Past to the Present

 ‘I’m writing for Black people, in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t (write about White people) – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of White people in my books. The point is not having the White critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.’ - Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize (1988) and Nobel Prize for Literature (1993) winner[1]

‘As a rounded human being in his own right, the Black man in Afrikaner literature is as absent as the English working man from a tea party of Miss Austen’s young ladies.’ - Lawrence van der Post, The Dark Eye in Africa

Poet Amiri Baraka speaking at the University of Virginia, USA

World-renowned European writer, Milan Kundera:

The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster...The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Dr. John Henrik Clarke on the importance of history[2]:

Finally, I got to meet Arthur Schomburg (founder of Harlem’s Centre for Research in Black Culture)…Being 18 and rash, I wanted to know the history of African people in the world – right now, henceforth, within his lunch hour.   He said, ‘Sit down, son. What you’re calling African History and Negro History are the missing pages of World History’… I studied European History and World History. Now, when I went back to Schomburg, with some knowledge of European history, he began to show me how to study African History. Arthur Schomburg taught me the inter-relationship of African History to World History. Wilson Huggins of the old Harlem History Club taught me the political meaning of history.  And from the lecture of William Hansberry of Howard University, I learned the philosophical meaning of history.

The most valuable lesson I ever learned was that when you address a people by their right name, that name must relate to land, history and culture. All people go back to the geography of their original origin and identify themselves, no matter where they live on the face of the earth. We have overused the word ‘Black’ because ‘Black’ tells you how you look but it doesn’t tell you who you are. You can call an Italian ‘White’ but that doesn’t tell you anything about him. We are the only people who seem to have lost that all-essential trait of geographical and historical reference.

British-born writer Elspeth Huxley, in a dated conversation with William F. Buckley Jr. on TV’s Firing Line (Episode title: ‘Africa and Colonialism’):

I don’t know what moral pressure you can exert on people who are perfectly convinced that, morally, they have the answers...You’re talking specifically about South Africa...The Afrikaners (South Africans of Dutch origin) think they have the answers; they are in direct communication with God, and it (apartheid) is all right, you see. It’s all in the Bible...They believe there is a future for this separate development which can be constructive, with the Africans in their own areas (ie. apartheid/segregation).[3]

From the award-winning book, Tram 83 by youthful French-language writer Fiston Mujila (DRC):

The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we f**k, we’re happy. There needs to be f**king in African literature!

Poet and socio-political activist Amiri Baraka (USA), speaking at the University of Virginia:

Du Bois said that we suffer the Sisyphus Syndrome: We push the rock up the mountain, they push it back down. From slavery, we push it up, they push it back down. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, we pushed it up, they pushed it back down. In the ’50’s we pushed it up, in the ’60’s they pushed it back down...Now, down in Arizona, they’re attacking the Latino immigrants. They say, now, that Ethnic Studies is illegal. In Texas, they mention of slavery in the text books. You talk about insane people. You talk about people who have deep psychological problems. They want you to have withstood 300 years of slavery, then you can’t talk about it. That’s stupid...About the immigrants and all the stuff that they suffered when they came over here – don’t talk about that, either. So, we’re facing a new day, actually. Black people are the only people who didn’t come here on their own free will. We didn’t come here looking for work...We were brought here against our will, at the bottom of a boat...But now they wonna ban all Ethnic and Black Studies programs, get rid of any reforms in the financial system, let those corporations run away with our lives, get rid of health reform. They didn’t even want to have a peace treaty with Russia...

Below are some ‘Low Coups’ (Black versions of the Japanese ‘Haiku’) by Amiri Baraka, from his collection of poems titled Un Poco Loco:

Adventures in Negrossity

A negro tried

to cash hisself

for money

at a bank…

He got arrested

as a




Class Gas For Those Who Knows

Since the rich eat

More than anybody else

It is reasonable to assume

That they are more

Full of shit



European Jews say

The devil speaks

Perfect German


Black Americans

On the other hand


“He speak pretty good




In the Funk World

If Elvis Presley


the King

Who is James Brown –



Silent Night

Whenever the Devil

Is disguised as God

He is called

Santa Claus!


Low Coup


Is no act

Not to act





The real problem

Is that

You don’t


The real



Slave Narratives – The Beginning of Black Literature in English?

‘When I found I had crossed that line (into Philadelphia), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. I felt like I was in Heaven.’ - Harriet Tubman, abolitionist/escaped slave

‘It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.’Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) in the introduction to Southern Horrors (1892)

Activist/scholar Angela Davis delivering an Eric E. Williams Memorial Lecture titled ‘Slavery and the Prison Industrial Complex’ (Florida International University)

The legendary Frederick Douglass was a mixed-race slave who dreamt of freedom as a child and was lucky to get a basic education at a young age (Slaves were barred from formal education, which was why they developed a dialect that can, arguably, be compared to modern-day ‘Ebonics’.) He would later strive to improve his education in various ways, including through interaction with White boys his age. When he finally escaped from the slave farms into the urban areas (where slavery was rare), he become a fierce abolitionist, a Black leader, and an author. His writings rank as some of the pioneering English literature of the Black race. From Outline of American Literature by Kathryn VanSpankeren:

The most famous black American anti-slavery leader and orator of the era, Frederick Douglass, was born a slave on a Maryland plantation…Escaping to Massachusetts in 1838, at age 21, Douglass was helped by abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison and began to lecture for anti-slavery societies. In 1845, he published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave…the best and most popular of many ‘slave narratives’.

Unlike many texts on American lit, Outline of American Literature profiles many of the pioneering Ethnic/Black/Asian men and women of letters in the USA. Here’s a passage on a pioneering female scribe:

Harriet Wilson (1807 – 1870) was the first African-American to publish a novel in the United States – Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black, in a two-storey house, North, showing that Slavery’s Shadow Falls Even There (1859). The novel realistically dramatises the relationship between a white woman and a black man, and also depicts the difficult life of a black civil servant in a wealthy Christian household.

Another great female writer highlighted in Outline of American Literature is Zora Neale Hurston whose book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, it describes as, ‘a moving, fresh depiction of a beautiful mullato woman’s maturation and renewed happiness as she moves through three marriages.’ 

JESUS, TAKE THE WHEEL: A screengrab from the movie version of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God has been filmed, starring Oscar winner Halle Berry (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge) and featuring Terrence Howard (FOX TV’s Empire). Some snippets from the original book version:

 When she ran off with her good-time fella, she was laughing just like you! But he was only after what he could get. Stole her car, stole her money. After that, he was gone, like a turkey through the corn.


It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was standing across nothingness with the whole world in his hands…they sat in the company of each other in the shanties straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring in the dark but their eyes were watching God.

 Zora Neale Hurston (1903 – 1960) was also the author of Tell My Horse and Mules and Men. Folkorist Alan Lomax described the latter as, ‘the most engaging, genuine, skilfully written book in the field of folklore.’ Below is one of Zora’s most-referenced quotes:

Frequently the Negro, even with detached words in his vocabulary--not evolved in him but transplanted on his tongue by contact--must add action to make it do so…Action. Everything illustrated. So we can say the white man thinks in a written language and the Negro thinks in hieroglyphics. (‘Characteristics of Negro Expression’, essay)[4]

Many of the ‘Slave Narratives’, including the compelling work of Frederick Douglass and the haunting confessions of Nat Turner, are now available as audio books on YouTube and other online audio outlets.

From a PBS TV (USA) bio of W.E.B Du Bois:

William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois (February 23, 1868 - August 27, 1963) was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author and editor. W.E.B. Du Bois was born during the term of President Andrew Johnson and died the year that Lyndon Johnson became president.

Originally from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. William Du Bois's paternal great-grandfather was an ethnic French-American, James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, who fathered several children with slave mistresses. After completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D, W. E. B. Du Bois became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature; and his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. He wrote the first scientific treatise in the field of sociology; and he published three autobiographies, each of which contains insightful essays on sociology, politics and history. In his role as editor of the NAACP's journal The Crisis, he published many influential pieces.

In 1903, in his famous book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois charged that Washington's strategy kept the black man down rather than freed him. This attack crystallized the opposition to Booker T. Washington among many black intellectuals, polarizing the leaders of the black community into two wings -- the ‘conservative’ supporters of Washington and his ‘radical’ critics.

 W.E.B. DuBois in 1935:

 Negroes must know the history of the Negro race in America, and this they will seldom get in white institutions. Their children ought to study textbooks like Brawley's ‘Short History,’ the first edition of Woodson's ‘Negro in Our History,’ and Cromwell, Turner, and Dykes' ‘Readings from Negro Authors.’ Negroes who celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, and relatively unimportant ‘founders’ of various Negro colleges, ought not to forget the 5th of March,—that first national holiday of this country, which commemorates the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks. They ought to celebrate Negro Health Week and Negro History Week. They ought to study intelligently and from their own point of view, the slave trade, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction and present economic development.

Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, a world-renowned educator:

So why would this individual, W. E. B. Du Bois, why would his publication of this particular book - The Philadelphia Negro - be important for high school students? It is important for high school students because it offers a challenge to them to not only figure out their environment but to figure out how they might engage that environment to produce a better world. 

 From Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar:

I was talking to an African scholar one time, a man from one of these big schools. He was real skinny and black and straight, and he wore that little African-style hat that's just like an American soldier's, only in bright colours, and he was all right, I guess, but he had lifeless eyes, and I almost shivered while he was talking to me. It was like he was a well-educated, smooth-talking zombie, and he had sort of jerky movements, too. So anyway, he got to talking about how much of a cliché it was when black people here claimed their ancestors were sold into slavery by an uncle. He kinda chuckled when he said it and leaned back in his chair. I didn't say anything to him, 'cause he'd already decided that the truth, if told a number of times, can be dismissed as unbelievable, and I have lived enough times to have seen this happen a lot. Some folks actually think the truth can be worn out. But anyway, it was my uncle who sold me. It was the uncle who sold a lot of women and their children, and it's easy enough to understand why this is so. It was the African organization of family life.

 In 1965, American authors James Baldwin (Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone[5]) and William F. Buckley (God and Man at Yale) engaged in a historical debate themed, ‘Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?’ The famed encounter took place at the University of Cambridge, in the UK. Baldwin was by then a world-renowned Black author, essayist and civil rights fighter (Incidentally, he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine alongside Martin Luther King Jr. just prior to the debate.) Buckley was the editor of the National Review, and a political conservative. Some jabs from both debaters:

Buckley: Mr. Baldwin, I am going to speak to you tonight without any of the surrounding protections that come by virtue of the fact that you are a Negro.

Baldwin: When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books, that Africa had no history, and neither did I. That I was a savage about whom the less said, the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And, of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. Those were the only books there were. Everyone else seemed to agree.

Buckley: The fact that your skin is black is awfully irrelevant to the argument that you raise. Thus, Mr. Baldwin can write his book, The Fire Next Time, in which he threatens America. He didn’t, in writing that book, speak with the British accent that he used exclusively tonight; in which he threatened America with a necessity for us to jettison our entire civilization. The only thing that the white man has that the Negro should want, he said, is power.

Baldwin: This is not an overstatement. I picked the cotton and I carried it to market and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip. For nothing. For nothing. The Southern oligarchy which until today has so much power in Washington was created by my labour and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This in the land of the free, the home of the brave.

The full (black and white) video of the debate can be viewed here:

Novelist Harper Lee (a Caucasian) was born in Monroeville on April 28, 1926, the youngest of five children. Drawing on her own childhood experiences in Monroeville, Harper wrote a compelling novel revolving around three children - Scout Finch; her older brother, Jem; and their friend, Dill - and a variety of other townspeople who become involved in the court case of Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of rape in the Depression-era town of Maycomb, Alabama. Titled To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel was published in July 1960 and became an immediate best-seller. It scooped the coveted Pulitzer Prize and was turned into a gripping feature film in 1962.  Gregory Peck, who played a White lawyer defending the accused Black man in the movie, won an Oscar (Best Actor) for his role.  In an interview published in 1964, Harper Lee told critic Roy Newquist:

I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird’. I didn't expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.

A scene from the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird

Filmmaker, and Howard University (USA) professor, Haile Gerima, talking about the current state of Black popular culture:

 Who owns the intellectual product of Black imagination is going to be a 21st Century issue. Jazz is great but who owns it? Blues is great but who owns it? And then, if this is not capital, no wonder I can’t make my own movies. Who owns the capital?...If Black people have produced so much cultural wealth in - leave sport out - in jazz, in blues, in gospel, in American music that goes all over the world - how come they don’t have a cent of that capital?...How come they can’t finance their own movie? Why are they still poor? To me, if I only owned Billie Holiday’s music, I would make 20,000 movies. I’m sorry!

Who owns the intellectual product of Black people? Intellectual, literature. Even now, Black publishers, for example. You talk about Black arts, etcetera...There’s only like three or four Black publishers in literature: Third World Press, Red Sea Press, Black Classics...Yeah. Who owns the writing, who re-issues it and why are most of the Black intellectual products and books out of print?

One Black publisher who did gain success was John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing company (Ebony magazine, et al) and the 1st Black man to appear in Forbes’ 400 Rich List. But it was no walk in the park:

 I was born in poverty.  I spent two years in the welfare rolls. I learnt early that I had to communicate or die and so I talked my way out of poverty. I communicated my way to the top. I’m a hands-on, hands-in, hands-wrapped-around manager, and I believe it is impossible to separate good management from good communication. For the best manager is the best communicator.  

In his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, he talked about his business dealings with White folk:

 Whenever I go in (to make a pitch), I never say, ‘Help me because I’m Black’, or ‘Help me because I am a minority.’ I always talk about what we can do for them.

 At the time of his death, in 2005, his estimated net worth was USD $600 million.

Publisher John H. Johnson and his famous memoir

According to Outline of American Literature by Kathryn VanSpankeren, African-Americans have contributed substantively to the American canon:

Contemporary black Americans have produced many poems of great beauty and considerable range of themes and tones. It is the most developed ethnic writing in America and is extremely diverse. Amiri Baraka (1934 - ), the best-known African-American poet, has also written plays and taken an active interest in politics. Maya Angelou’s (1928 - ) writings have taken various literary forms, including drama and her well-known memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), in addition to her collection of verse, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water Before I Diiie (1971). Angelou was selected to write a poem for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993…




                                                                                    Photo: Bettmann (CORBIS)

‘If one could accept the fact that it is no longer important to be White, it would begin to cease to be important to be Black.’ –James Baldwin, African-American novelist and essayist

‘I would have been a writer anywhere. But in my country, writing meant confronting racism.’ -  Nadine Gordimer, South African Nobel Literature Prize winner, in an interview in 1990

‘Racism is taught in our society, it is not automatic. It is learned behaviour toward persons with dissimilar physical characteristics.’ – Alex Haley, author of Roots

‘The challenges of being black and working-class in America – my characters didn’t understand that and I didn’t either.’ - Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers

‘People think that if you don't write in English, you don't write.’ - Nawal El Saadawi, controversial Egyptian author

‘History shows that it does not matter who is in power... those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they did in the beginning.’ – From The Mis-Education of the Negro by Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1933)

‘Who or what are the beings that can tolerate slave ships, whether on sea or land, and cause humans to endure being “packed like sardines” on their way to forced labour?  Meditating on this question is scary but must be done.’ - Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple

‘They're certainly titled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions... but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.’ – From Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

‘Literary fiction is under threat in this country due to a combination of factors – reluctance by major houses to take risks; a bottleneck in the distribution chain (and) diverse voices being ignored by a predominantly white, middle-class industry.’ – Literary agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown

‘The capital and complex imagination of black people has always been banned, unless it is supportive in the service of the privileged body’s desire to view itself as superior.’ - Rachel Eliza Griffiths

‘I think Langston Hughes’ poem about looking for a house in the world where white shadows do not fall is such a poignant one especially for Black people – and for Black performers – because you find that you are always having to operate within the context of White society and its dictates. And it would be nice to think that there may be an arena where your talents would be viewed without that that kind of overlay.’ – Petrine Archer-Straw, author of Negrophilia

‘James Baldwin said, “I am only Black because you said you were White.” ’ – Amiri Baraka

‘Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me.’ ― Zora Neale Hurston, novelist/folklorist

‘Hate. It has caused a lot of problems in the world but has not solved one yet.’ – Maya Angelou

‘With black friends, in contrast to politically correct white guys, I establish real contact. How? Through dirty stories, dirty jokes. When you visit a foreign country, you play PC games about your interesting food or music, but how do you become really friendly? You exchange a small obscenity.’ - Slavoj Žižek, controversial philosopher and writer[6]

‘Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant and racially marginalised communities has literally become big business.’ - Prof. Angela Davis, Chair of Women’s Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz (in an article titled Masked Racism: The Prison Industrial Complex)

‘You go to school, you study about the Germans and the French, but not your own race. I hope the time will come when you study Black history too.’ – Booker T. Washington

‘If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe, then let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted among us.’ - Frantz Fanon, author (The Wretched of the Earth) and Pan-Africanist

‘The African Empire will not be a Utopia. Neither will it be dangerous or fail to serve our interest because we realize that, like the leopard, we cannot change our skins.’ - Marcus Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey


Besides their contribution to literature, African-Americans are credited with having influenced, if not invented, various American-born art forms such as jazz, rock, soul, and hip-hop music (aka rap/emcee-ing). In 1970, iconic British rock star and social activist, John Lennon (The Beatles), said this about Black-American rock music pioneer, Chuck Berry:         

Chuck Berry is one of the all-time great poets, a rock poet you could call him. He was well-advanced of his time, lyric-wise. In the Fifties when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible meter to the lyrics. We all owe a lot to him.

 On American TV’s Mike Douglas Show (in 1972), Lennon uttered the immortal words:

               If you had to give Rock n’ Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry’s numerous guitar-driven hit songs include Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven, Maybelline, No Particular Place to Go, You Can’t Catch Me and Rock and Roll Music. His early records were the templates for many of the rock acts now said to be some the greatest of all time. Acts that performed cover versions of Berry’s songs include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Altman Brothers, AC/DC, and Bruce Springstein. In one of the early space probes of America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), they decided to equip a satellite exploring the solar system with some information that might be of use to intelligent life out there, should the probe fall into such hands. Among the things they placed in the voyager spacecraft was a plaque with a sketch of a naked human male and human female, a diagram of the solar system indicating the position of planet Earth…and a recording of the music of Chuck Berry. (A more recent voyage, testing the integrity of audio signals beamed from space to Earth, employed the music of African-American rapper/producer who is best known for being a member of The Black Eyed Peas.[7]) After Chuck Berry’s death in 2017, US novelist Stephen King posted the following message on his social media accounts:

Chuck Berry died. This breaks my heart, but 90 years old ain't bad for rock and roll. Johnny B. Goode forever.  “The Coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale.” Can't beat that line!  (March 19, 2016)

In the Carribean Islands and South America, the descendants of African slaves are credited with creating/innovating numerous musical genres (Rocksteady, Bluebeat, Mento, Calypso, Reggae, inter alia) and dance styles like Capoeira and break-dance (aka b-boying). Their contribution to world culture is, therefore, immense. Take Hip-Hop, for example. Invented by Black artists (poets, rappers, graffiti writers, DJs, dancers etc) in New York City in the mid 1970’s, it has now spread to all corners of the world and taken the music business by storm. The first world rap tour was dubbed ‘Planet Rock World Tour’ and was steered by a stern-faced African-American pioneering rapper known as ‘Afrika Bambaataa.’ Here is a snippet from a talk by KRS-One, a rapper and Hip-Hop activist, speaking at the California State University, Los Angeles:

Afrika Bambaataa is a writer, journalist. Matter of fact, the reason he was in Africa was because he won a UNICEF writing contest. Gang member. Head of the biggest gang in New York! Took up a writing contest and won it! These people (DJ Cool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa) are amazing people! Won a writing contest, went to Africa, had an epiphany, came back and now he's ‘Afrika Bambaataa’. But he's a writer that could never think of getting a job at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal - none of that. He couldn’t think of Hollywood writing. He couldn't imagine himself there (due to the race issues of the 1960’s and ’70’s). He became a DJ and a community organizer.

Return to My Native Land by Aimé Césaire is one of the most influential poetic works in all of Black literature, so much so that the author is credited with helping to ‘establish the literary and ideological movement (called) Negritude.’ Born in 1913 in the French Caribbean, Aimé Césaire was a poet, playwright and politician but is best known for this much-studied lyrical masterpiece. Excerpt from a review by Roger Cardinal, on

A work of immense cultural significance and beauty, this long poem became an anthem for the African diaspora and the birth of the Negritude movement. With unusual juxtapositions of object and metaphor, a bouquet of language-play, and deeply resonant rhythms, Césaire considered this work a ‘break into the forbidden,’ at once a cry of rebellion and a celebration of black identity.

It was in April 1941, while passing through Martinique on his wartime journey to New York, that André Breton chanced on a long poem, ‘Cahier d’un retour au pays natal’, freshly printed in the magazine Tropiques. He at once declared it a masterpiece and the work of ‘a great black poet’. Its author was a young Caribbean writer, Aimé Césaire, and the native land of its title was Martinique, to which the author had returned after a long stay as a student in Paris. Composed in 1939, his poem would circulate in various forms until a definitive edition was issued by Présence Africaine in Paris in 1956. An explosive critique of French colonialism, it had become a central text of the Negritude movement...

Césaire’s poetry makes for difficult reading. Its headlong progression is accretive and associative, full of repeated phrases and unsettling detours. Its ruling device is the surrealist image, in which words clash and flare, to create tantalizing moments of revelation, paradoxically offering meaning while undermining coherence. The text spills forth in searing details and tableaux, ranging from the whispered evocation of ‘a little line of sand’ to the description of a poverty-stricken black man on a bus, whose decrepit state inspires in the poet disgust and shame, which swiftly modulate into anger...

Excerpt from another review, on

Although the central thematic concern of the poem is the importance for the person who lives as the subject of a colonized land to decolonize his or her own mind and sensibility, one of the central paradoxes of the poem is that it is written in French, the language of the colonialists, not in the native Creole of the Martinican population. Indeed, in their brief introduction to Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry (1983), Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith point out the paradox that Césaire, the spokesperson for decolonizing the mind, who was later to become mayor of Fort-de-France, the city on which he focuses in Return to My Native Land, apparently never thought of Creole as a suitable language for his poetry.

Further, the traditions from which the poem seems to borrow are largely the traditions of French literature. Not only does the poem’s rush of bizarre and often grotesque images seem to place it in the context of French Surrealist literature, but, as Eshleman and Smith also note, the images of hardship and misery seem to owe much to such images in the works of Victor Hugo, the great French novelist of the nineteenth century, whose works Césaire read as he was growing up...


A famous poem/song by Gil Scott-Heron[9] (USA)


You will not be able to stay home, brother

You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out

You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and

Skip out for beer during commercials

Because the revolution will not be televised


The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In 4 parts without commercial interruptions

The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon

Blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John

Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat

Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary

The revolution will not be televised


The revolution will not be brought to you by the

Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie

Wood and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia

The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal

The revolution will not get rid of the nubs

The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner

Because the revolution will not be televised, Brother


There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mays

Pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run

Or trying to slide that colour television into a stolen ambulance

NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32

Or report from 29 districts

The revolution will not be televised


There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down

Brothers in the instant replay

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down

Brothers in the instant replay

There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being

Run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process

There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy

Wilkins strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and

Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving

For just the proper occasion


Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville

Junction will no longer be so Goddamn relevant, and

Women will not care if Dick finally gets down with

Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people

Will be in the street looking for a brighter day

The revolution will not be televised


There will be no highlights on the eleven o'clock

News and no pictures of hairy armed women

Liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose

The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb

Or Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom

Jones, Johnny Cash, or Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth

The revolution will not be televised


The revolution will not be right back after a message

About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people

You will not have to worry about a Dove in your

Bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl

The revolution will not go better with Coke

The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath

The revolution will put you in the driver's seat


The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised

Will not be televised, will not be televised

The revolution will be no re-run brothers;

The revolution will be live



‘So geographers in Afric maps

With savage pictures fill the gaps

And over uninhabitable downs

Place elephants for want of towns.’

-Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels

‘When a coward sees a man he can beat he becomes hungry for a fight.’

― From No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe


Hollywood actor Djimon Hounsou (Amistad) reads out Binyavanga’s essay How to Write About Africa

In his brilliantly articulated satirical essay, How to Write About Africa, published by Granta (2005) and quoted worldwide, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina took issue with the manner in which some foreign journalists/writers cover African issues. Binyavanga humorously mocked the hackneyed technique of discussing Africa as if it were some ancient jungle running with savages. He opens the piece by saying:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

 Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress...

 He further postulates that:

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.

 A drop of comedic gold from one of the finest humourists that ever lived – S. J. Perelman (USA):

To be quite candid, the safari the author celebrates in his title is about as exciting as a streetcar journey from Upper Darby to Paoli, and his flaura and fauna suggest the lobby display accompanying a Monogram jungle film. (White Bimbo, or, Through Dullest Africa With Three Sleepy People, essay) [10]

 An excerpt from the popular novel The Hairdresser of Harare, by Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe):

When the rich and famous need the best hairdresser in Harare, they come to Vimbayi here at Makhamalo’s Hair and Beauty Salon. Her secret is simple and taught to her by the master herself. A satisfied client, Mrs Khumalo keeps telling her staff, is one who walks out of the salon feeling like a white woman…

The Hairdresser of Harare was nominated for The Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ in 2011 and voted an Observer Top 10 Contemporary African Book in 2012.

 A quotable quote from Professor Njabulo Ndebele of the University of Cape Town, SA:

Our literature ought to seek to move away from an easy preoccupation with demonstrating the obvious existence of oppression. It exists. The task is to explore how and why people can survive under such harsh conditions.

From Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila (DRC), winner of the Etisalat Prize for African Fiction:

We've already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn't all that inspire you?

 And one from journalist/researcher Zeinab Badawi (UK/Sudan):

There has been a way of seeing Africa in terms of poverty and conflict which has become a kind of shorthand for the continent that still persists today.


The Far East

 ‘In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.’  - Toni Morrison, author of Beloved

 ‘Fiction is the only way I know a human being can inhabit the mind of another human being.’ - Jhumpa Lahiri, US writer

 From Outline of American Literature by Kathryn VanSpankeren:

 Like poetry by Chicano and Hispanic writers, Asian-American poetry is exceedingly varied. Americans of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino descent may have lived in the United States for seven generations, while Americans of Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese heritage are likely to be fairly recent immigrants. Each group grows out of a distinctive linguistic, historical, and cultural tradition. Recent developments in Asian-American literature have included an emphasis on the Pacific Rim studies and women’s writing. Asian-Americans generally are resisting the orientalizing racial stereotypes as the ‘exotic’ and ‘good’ minority. Aestheticians are beginning to compare Asian and Western literary traditions for example comparing the concepts of tao and logos.

 Asian-American poets have drawn on many sources, from Chinese opera to zen, and Asian literary traditions, particularly zen, have inspired numerous non-Asian poets, as can be seen in the 1991 anthology Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Asian-American poets span a spectrum, from the iconoclastic posture taken by Frank Chin, co-editor of Aiiieee! (an early anthology of Asian-American literature) to the generous use of tradition by writers such as novelist Maxine Hong Kingston (1940 - ). Janice Mirikatini, a sansei (third-generation Japanese-American) evokes Japanese-American history and has edited several anthologies such as Third World Women, Time to Greez and Aywmi: Four Generations of Japanese in America.

 Chinese-American Cathy Song’s (1955 - ) lyrical Picture Bride (1983) also dramatizes history through the lives of her family. Many Asian-American poets explore cultural diversity.

 African-American writer and intellectual Alice Walker (The Color Purple) on her website

 I have recently been sharing thoughts about books that are to me ‘great’ in the sense of having the power to engage the reader in new ways of imagining, of loving, acting, and growing. There are books that are great in an even more extraordinary way: they can sometimes single-handedly shift consciousness so much that a crime like enslavement of people, sometimes singly, often whole families, can at last be seen and emotionally felt for what it is.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe did this.  Slave narratives like Frederick Douglass’s did this. I’ve just finished reading two harrowing books out of India that could have similar impact:  River Of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction’, edited by Ruchira Gupta, and ‘Town Of Love’ by Norwegian writer Anne Osby.

 Peter Joseph[11] in Culture in Decline (documentary series), Episode 2:

One hundred and forty-three years after the passing of the Fourth Amendment of the US   Constitution and sixty years after Article 4 of the UN's Declaration of Universal Rights banned slavery and the slave trade worldwide, there are today more slaves than at any time in human history - trafficking about 30 million (people) for various profit schemes.


[2] From the documentary film, John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk

[3] Source: Firing Line video. Available at Hoover Library and Archives, Hoover Institution/Stanford University, USA.

[4] First published in Negro: An Anthology in Great Britain (1934), three years before Zora’s most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published.

[5] ‘Baldwin is a violent, persuasive writer. He can make you believe in the world he creates and in the justice of his anger.’ - Punch

[7] Interview with on TV’s The Graham Norton Show (UK)

[8] From the audio album Small Talk At 125th And Lenox, featuring Gil Scott-Heron with Eddie Knowles, Charlie Saunders and David Barnes

[9] Also considered a rap music pioneer

[10] The Most of S. J. Perelman

[11] Filmmaker and founder of The Zeitgeist Movement