The African Slave in the Western and African Novel

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. As a result, 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 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 while 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.

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