Influence of African Thought on Western Texts: Proposed MLA 2013 Session

    In 1996, the scholar of African literature Simon Gikandi expressed puzzlement that more was not written about African agency vis-à-vis English agency, that is, about the impact of England’s others on England. In looking at the works of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, Tom Nairn and Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Terry Eagleton, Gikandi was surprised to see that narratives about England’s shaping of colonial identities were not paired with narratives about the colonies’ shaping of English identities. Although colonialism had structured every aspect of his own life, Gikandi noted, as a student even he had not seen how English culture and literature were shaped by the colonial experience. Later, then, “I began to ponder on ways in which cultures produced on the margins of a dominant discourse might actually have the authority not only to subvert the dominant but also to transform its central notions” (Maps of Englishness, xv).

    Sixteen years later, Gikandi’s suggestion—that African agency is stronger in cultural encounters with Europeans than earlier critics had imagined—may seem in no need of defense or elaboration. Indeed, many scholars claim to be investigating the agency of Europe’s others, and many have argued that Africans were not as penetrated by European colonialism as European fantasy would have it. Yet, very few have begun to argue that Africans and African thought actively changed Europeans and European literature in Europe. What is missing in conceptualizing the agency of the colonized subject in the encounter with the colonizer is a model that foregrounds the malleability of the colonizer. Europeans were acted upon, not always acting subjects, and were changed, often deeply and irrevocably, not only by their experiences but also by the deliberate actions and discourse of those they colonized. Postcolonial literary critics would do well to move beyond imagining powerful European authors deliberately and consciously selecting particular delicacies from the smorgasbord of other cultures. Authors are not always in control of themselves or their texts. We must add a perspective on the power of African peoples’ representations to penetrate, we might even say animate or possess, European identities and literatures. Now, some scholars have started to study how non-Western thought has shaped some Western texts, deploying a reciprocal intertextuality model.

    This session includes presentations that focus on specific European texts and African cultures to argue that Africans and African thought actively changed Europeans and European literature. It brings together some of the innovators in the field of reciprocal intertextuality to present their new work. Perhaps the most important is Mechal Sobel, whose ground-breaking book The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (1987) first brought to light how deeply African ideas of time, spirit, and death influenced the southern United States in the eighteenth century. Keith Cartwright is another vital figure, partly due to his book Reading Africa into American Literature, about how the philosophy of Africa’s Senegambian region shaped the work of American canonical writers including Faulkner. The historian Sterling Stuckey has made essential contribution as well, partly through his book African Culture and Melville’s Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick, about how African thought infused the work of Herman Melville. Françoise Lionnet’s article in Diacritics in 1998 illuminated the “mark” that African Creole culture left on Baudelaire’s poetry. Wendy Laura Belcher’s new book Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author is another effort in this field.