The Slave Trade and its portrayal in the African and Western Novel

Primary Texts:

  1. Schwartz-Bart, André, translated by Ralph Manheim. A Woman Named Solitude. Atheneum: New York, 1973.
  1. Tutoal, Amos. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Grove Press: New York, 1994.

I will examine Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts to ascertain a better understanding of the African novel’s utility as a form of memory. In doing so, I will put this into conversation with Schwartz-Bart’s La Mulâtresse Solitude to compare and contrast the particular ways in which Western and African authors bring to light different aspects of the slave trade. In particular, this will entail a direct comparison of the first part of La Mulâtresse Solitude, which takes place in what is today Senegal and focuses on a young girl before, during and after her capture by the French, against Tutuola’s narrative in which a young boy’s life is torn apart by incoming European slavers forcing him to flee into the wilderness. While both are worthy examples of historical memory and describe the ensuing turmoil caused by the slave trade brilliantly, Tutuola emphasizes forms of resistance as Schwartz-Bart takes greater interest in the atrocities surrounding it all. From this, I conclude that Tutuola is more interested in demystifying the inevitability of capture and the possibility of resistance to European actions. On the other hand, Schwartz-Bart concerned himself with spurring a greater acknowledgement of Europe’s bloody history throughout the West.

Theory:

  1. Arendt, Hannah. Imperialism: Part Two of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Brace and World: New York, 1968.
  1. Césaire, Aimé, translated by Joan Pinkham. Discourse on Colonization. Monthly Review Press: New York, 1972.

Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Hannah Arendt’s Imperialism are landmark works, which relate Colonial violence to that the Second World War and the Holocaust. This is to say that, many of Hitler’s ideas on race and terror came from the practices of France, Great Britain and the United States during the Age of Imperialism. According to each author, the metropolitan bourgeoisie’s incessant need for capital expansion created a problematic desire to colonize new territories, conquer new peoples and extract new resources throughout Africa, Asia and much of the New World. In particular, Césaire’s articulation of choc en retour, and Arendt’s conceptualization of the alliance between the mob and the bourgeoisie to perpetuate imperial practices show how this played out in a cycle with Totalitarianism, violence, racism, genocide and terror eventually coming to the metropole itself. This works when read alongside My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and A Woman Named Solitude as Tutuola’s novel shows the extent of trauma exacted onto Africa by the West and Schwartz-Bart draws a direct comparison between slave plantations in the New World and the Ghettos in Poland.

Criticism:

  1. Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford University Press: Stanford, 2009.
  2. Murphy, Laura T. Metaphor and the Slave Trade in West African Literature. Ohio University Press: Athens, 2012.
  3. Scott David. Conscripts of Modernity. Duke University Press: Durham, 2004.

The most defining event in recent West African history came with initial European contact and the beginning of the slave trade. According to Michael Rothberg and David Scott, being free from the confines of overt political and historical discourses, literature can serve as a valuable vehicle of collective memory for this terrible legacy. Nevertheless, African, Caribbean and Western authors have all went about remembering in different ways. While C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins positions itself as a form of narrative history of the Haitian Revolution that looks ahead to an anti-colonial future, André Schwartz-Bart’s La Mulâtresse Solitude takes on the role of a hybrid work of historical fiction and biography, which links the horrors of slavery to those of the Holocaust. Conversely, scholars such a Lauren Murphy have argued that West African authors tend to deal with this legacy more indirectly, referring to it through metaphors that convey the pervasive fear, anxiety and chaos the institution brought to the continent’s shores.

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