Using literary fiction as a voice for African/Black liberation by Ahjamu Umi, 19 February 2015
It happens on a regular basis. I’m speaking on a panel or at some type of event related to the struggle for African unity, liberation, socialism, and forward progress (Pan-Africanism). The white people in attendance will inevitably ask me, “What are your books about?”; to which I explain that my stories reflect strong and militant anti-capitalist, anti-white supremacist, and anti-patriarchal themes. African (Black) people present who are listening to this exchange wait patiently for the opportunity to address their concerns. When they do, the discussion almost always focuses on my work to organize among African people, but almost never on my literary fiction work. If the conversation somehow turns back to my writings, the white people present will almost always end up articulating their assumptions that African people are not interested in literary fiction. I’ve had white people boldly assert in front of me that they never see Africans attending the regular literary fiction book events they go to. They also claim we don’t participate in any of the multitudes of book meet ups or on line forums for literary fiction.
Their assumptions are especially interesting when talking about the type of literary fiction that I’m writing: assertive, challenging, and uncompromisingly political in focus. In other words, I think the unspoken perception among these white people is that Africans will only read fiction that is committed to humour, entertainment, and African popular culture themes of the “Waiting to Exhale” variety (no offense Terri McMillian and anyone else). And, just to be clear, although these attitudes are assumptions, I’ve had these views reaffirmed to me by enough publishers and agents to make it obvious that perception is reality, in an entertainment based industry where racism is fuelled by the priority of profitability.
So, in the typical systematic fashion that defines white supremacy/capitalist ideology, these white allies follow up immediately with their well thought out explanation for why Africans don’t read literary fiction. We are far too busy focusing on managing the oppression of being African in a world where white supremacist capitalism interrupts even our basic ability to enjoy a meal or use the bathroom in peace. Although we don’t have any problem agreeing with much of the sentiment in that last statement, it’s equally as interesting to examine the blatant contradictions that exist within those pronouncements. Here, you have white people making assessments about what African people are doing (nothing new), but what’s amazing is that those same white people, once they find out that my books are strong in confronting white arrogance and the lack of real white alliance with the African struggle, immediately drift away from wanting anything to do with my writings - after they just condescendingly criticized African people for doing the same thing. The white-plaining and p/maternal undertone to these event interactions are, for me, a constant reminder of the need to challenge this thinking, and the role politically motivated literary fiction can play in helping to do just that.
African people, like everyone else, are easily encouraged to become huge politically-motivated literary fiction readers if work is done to transform how culture is perceived and understood in this society. If it is true that Africans aren’t much on politically motivated literary fiction, my analysis is that since the time of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and the other women and men who produced ground-breaking political works of the past, we have not been made aware of much in this realm which addresses the issues of today in the way those classic works did. I know such works are out there today. I know authors are producing them like I am, but what’s lacking is the resources and ability to get themin front of people. What’s lacking is support from people for this type of writing.
As a revolutionary Pan-Africanist, I believe that culture, properly defined, is the culmination of a people’s experiences. It’s the stamp a people place on those experiences that defines that people’s legacy within the world. So, as that great Pan-Africanist Sekou Toure explained, “culture for oppressed people becomes the tool which they utilize to seek out their liberation.” With this understanding of culture, we can never accept the popular understanding that culture is simply a mechanism from which to advance your individual self – for example, if you can sing, do it. Sing anything, no matter how vile it is, to advance yourself financially. If you can write, do so and write any and all, whether it’s nonsense or not. Or, as publishers/agents have told me; write vampire and/or zombie literary fiction because “that’s what people want to read.”
I believe people want to read vampire and zombie works because that is what they have been mentally prepared to perceive, (or marketed to,) as what they want to read. This is the reality, to the point where there is very little patience for much of anything else that doesn’t fall within that thin and limited genre. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that type of fiction. In fact, I’m a bit of a zombie fan myself having, as a child, tricked my father into believing I was asleep while he watched the premiere of “Night of the Living Dead.” I took in the entire film that night and was traumatized for years in a way that apparently evolved into a fascination with the concept. So, while I’m as much a fan of “The Walking Dead” as anyone else, I experience excitement, as an African revolutionary, from writing political fiction like
‘The Courage Equation” in a way that trumps, ten-fold, the emotion experienced when reading entertainment fiction. In fact, my work doesn’t permit me much time to watch or read stuff of the zombie genre, but since I’m a fan, I am intrigued by the marketing that has reconciled even progressive and revolutionary minded persons likemyself to its existence.
This subject has made me passionate about creating a similar drive within people, to want to read books like “The Courage Equation” and similarly themed works, which use literary fiction to address critical issues like white supremacist violence and patriarchal behaviour, including rape culture. There is actually a large audience that is very interested in realistic and thoughtful social exchanges between African women and white women about interracial dating, something that is practically ignored in popular media, although it continues to be a major area of tension in many segments of society. There are a number of people who would find reading about daily life in Africa, especially life for an interracial couple born in the U.S., very intriguing. How does the white woman adapt? How is she treated? What type of consciousness does she develop? And how does she feel in a society where she is the minority? Most importantly, in what ways does she learn to interact with African people that are more respectful and productive than the experience of today’s majorities? I believe that there are plenty of Africans, as well as whites and people of other ethnicities, that would love to read about these things, especially in the current global atmosphere where racism has emerged from its subtle place with a vengeance, expelling the myths of those who want to view it as a phenomenon of the past. The current exchanges around race relations demonstrate clearly how underdeveloped the discussion actually is. For white people, literary fiction that addresses these issues can be a very effective tool in helping shape healthy perspectives around these concepts, in ways that are less threatening because there is no immediate risk looming in front of them. For Africans, this type of writing provides a reaffirming framework that clarifies our experiences, why we have them, how we deal with them, and how we can engage in our own struggles to transform this society into something that is healthy and equitable for everyone in ways that we define. In other words, literary fiction permits us the opportunity to create the world we want, and to use that model to educate.
So, instead of us continuing with the low-level thinking that is dominant in this society today, as it relates to politically motivated literary fiction, for example, why is this African man writing this since his people don’t read it? Why is he involving white people in this story which takes place in Africa? Why is an African man writing about patriarchy/feminism? – lets decide that we can create the consciousness we claim we want; and writings like mine and many other responsible authors are there to help with that process. It’s worth noting that we are in a spiritual, mental, and yes – physical war against the forces of oppression. Africans need this type of literature and white people need it just as much, if not more. So, stop questioning it, and start encouraging more of it. If we do it right, perhaps we will see another awakening of literary consciousness reminiscent of Harlem in the 1920s, but this time on a worldwide level, that propels us forward as it confronts class oppression, national oppression (race), and gender oppression.