AFRICAN POETRY - OF INTERNAL EXPERIENCES

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The Preamble states the intention of the Act, namely 'to regulate the conditions most favourable to the development of trade and civilisation in certain regions of Africa', and thus ensuring all its signatories 'the advantages of free navigation on the two chief rivers of Africa flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. This is why they commit themselves 'to watch[ing] over the preservation of the native tribes, and to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being' in order to '[bring] home to them the blessings of civilization' Berlin Conference ch.

I, Article 6. In this section I argue that the concept Africa is also internally coherent as depicting a condition. This concept is closely related to the previous two concepts and expresses a further explanation for the possibility of conceiving and treating the continent as a commodity. Africa as a condition has internal coherence as it is diagnosed as lacking in terms of an externally defined standard and treated by uncritically setting this standard as the remedy.

In this section the application of the notion 'civilised' to Africa is identified as crude illustration of this logic, and the discussion is then expanded to contemporary descriptions of Africa. In the British anthropologist Edward Tylor published what was to become a foundational work for understanding people in Africa, Primitive cultures: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art, and custom [] He regards the 'savage tribes' as being at 'an early stage of the human race at large', or in a 'primitive condition' Tylor [] His argument is based on the assumption that 'civilisation' exists 'among mankind in different degrees' Tylor [] According to Tylor, at least five principles should be applied when assessing the level of civilisation, namely the 'absence or presence, high or low development' of the 'industrial arts' which includes metalworking, agriculture and architecture , the 'extent' of scientific knowledge, the 'definiteness' of moral principles, the 'condition' of religious beliefs and ceremonies and the 'degree' of social and political organisation Tylor [] He regards the level of civilisation the lowest amongst what he calls savages and the highest amongst the 'civilised' nations of Europe and America.

Between savagery and civilisation he places barbarism and semi-civilisation Tylor [] In his references to Africa, it is clear that he regards most of the people he encountered as either 'savage' or 'barbaric', and certainly in need of 'civilisation' cf. Tylor [] Even though the concept civilisation itself is thought to be a product of the Third French Republic, the first written evidence of the word dates to and denotes 'the essence of French achievements compared to the uncivilized world of savages, slaves and barbarians' Conklin , In it was institutionalised as official political doctrine in the form of France's mission civilisatrice.

This understanding of civilisation expressed an overly optimistic conception of the stability and the content of European 'civilisation' and its ability to address the primitive condition of those found especially in Africa. Tylor is therefore convinced that '[ it ] may safely be presumed that no [civilised] people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism' Tylor [] as '[ d ]egeneration probably operates more actively in the lowerthan in the higher culture' Tylor [] This leadshim to the conclusion that 'barbarous nations and savage hordes, with their less knowledge and scantier appliances, would seem particularly exposed to degrading influences' Tylor [] These - and other - texts make it plausible to argue that the concept of Africa had, and in revised form continues to have, internal coherence as a condition.

This condition was conceived as a primitive stage of what can develop into a version of European civilisation, and European civilisation is understood in an idealised and uncritical manner. Or, put differently: This condition was quite simply the absence of European civilisation and therefore primitive.

To be sure, he received criticism from especially anthropologists in English-speaking countries. However, the continuity of much of his thought with ideas that were in vogue makes it an important illustration of the internal coherence of a conception of Africa as a condition.

His uncritical use of a European self-interpretation of civilisation as standard is undeniable. According to him, 'primitives' have a 'prelogical mentality', which means it would be futile to compare 'the discursive processes of prelogical mentality and those of our thought, or to look for any correspondence between the two'. This concept of Africa is clearly ethically problematic. When Africa is conceptualised as a condition, when this condition is conceptualised as the absence of a standard defined and exemplified elsewhere, and when the achievement of this standard is understood as remedy for the African condition, then critical reflection on the limits of this standard is easily abandoned or even disabled.

This can lead to misjudgement, self-deception, the imposition of unattainable or irrelevant goals and sheer brutality. For him, the legitimacy of European civilisation is beyond critical reflection, which disabled him from asking what the weaknesses and limits of this idea of civilisation were. He was not able to consider the possibility that alternative forms of civilisation could exist, also in Africa, and that an application of the institutions, aims and practices found in European civilisation might even have a negative effect on certain societies.

He noticed that the leaders of 'African peoples who have come to self-government and independence' showed a 'lack of awareness Real freedom is not simply 'political freedom' or 'freedom of bodies' but indeed the 'freedom of minds' Senghor This type of freedom will not be achieved if institutions are imported 'without selection'.

They much rather propagated the critical and reflective use of these institutions. It is in no way the intention to 'stop [these institutions] at the customs posts' Senghor The ideal is much rather the analysis of 'their forms and their spirit' in order to see 'what should be retained and how this can be made to take root in the realities of Africa' Senghor The usefulness of this concept of Africa might just lie, paradoxically, in the possibility it creates to reflect critically on the standards in terms of which the state of Africa is measured and the goals that are set for the development of the continent.

The proposals for concepts of Africa that I have presented thus far have one characteristic in common. They were initially used as an external perspective on the people and groups who reside in what is today called Africa. This has changed, as the different concepts of Africa came to be used and applied not only by people from outside Africa.

It is no longer possible to say that only persons from outside Africa view it as a place, or that only persons from outside Africa utilise it as a commodity to create political and economic value for themselves, or that only people from outside Africa use the concept to denote a condition that needs to be improved. The fourth concept of Africa that I argue has internal coherence in the sense that it reclaims subjectivity and reinterprets selected elements of the socio-cultural, economic and political resources in Africa as a representative ideal.

It marks the shift from using the concept of Africa to denote the other to using it to denote the self. It signifies the reclaiming of subjectivity by reinterpreting and thus attempting to redeem a word that was used to objectify and in many cases degrade. Its structure resembles that of a synecdoche, as the part - and indeed specific interpretations of it - is used to represent the whole.

The result is that the adjective 'African' rather than the substantive 'Africa' is often used, in order to qualify the part that is to be representative of an ultimately idealised whole. In this section I argue that this concept of Africa is internally coherent with reference to the notions of reclamation, reinterpretation and representation.

I argue that 'Africa' or 'African' can be used to denote representative ideals, which are based on the reclamation and requisite reinterpretation of African socio-cultural resources. In accordance with the previous sections I attempt to draw in an illustrative manner mostly on primary sources and examples. One of the earliest examples of the reclamation of African subjectivity and the reinterpretation of African socio-cultural resources can be found in the work of Senghor. He then uses the deconstruction to explain the reasons for the European colonial enterprise, highlights its effects and affirms the validity of the socio-cultural resources in Africa Senghor ff.

The African ceases to be that which is investigated, but becomes the investigator. But within the space of a few sentences Senghor dissolves the distinction between investigation and interpretation, and then goes further by dissolving the distinction between interpretation as a merely intellectual exercise and interpretation as an activity with concrete effects:.

He keeps it at a distance. He freezes it out of time and, in a way, out of space. He fixes it, he kills it. Senghor Senghor then proceeds by meticulously tracing the results of this enterprise. Senghor echoes and reframes Kant - the pre-eminent European - to make this point: '[The European] makes a means of it' Senghor He expands the distinction between means and ends by drawing an even more radical conclusion. Making something a means to an end, is 'a centripetal movement', which ultimately leads to the assimilation of the other.

The European 'destroys it by devouring it'. This 'process of devouring' is, according to Senghor, the true meaning of what is called 'humanizing nature' or 'domesticating nature' Senghor In another text he develops this line of thinking further by developing a notion of assimilation that negates the French colonial project and affirms the reclamation and reinterpretation of being African Senghor ff.

To be African means to abandon the 'I' in order to sympathise and identify with the 'thou'. An African 'dies to himself to be reborn in the other, and therefore 'does not assimilate' but 'is assimilated' Senghor Realising that he might seem to come dangerously close to providing arguments in favour of colonial attempts at assimilating Africans, he qualifies the reinterpretation of assimilation:.

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He lives with the Other in a communal life, lives in symbiosis: he is born-with and thereby knows the Other. Senghor argues that to be 'African' means to make use of another form of reason, namely 'reason-by-embrace' Senghor The logic of reclaiming African subjectivity and reinterpreting African socio-cultural resources as representative ideals are expressed provocatively in the concept of nigritude. The concept does not purport to capture all of the diversity implied by it, and is in this sense a 'true myth', namely 'the awareness by a particular socialgroup or people of its own situation in the world, and the expression of it by means of the concrete image' Senghor This reclamation can be described as the 'symbolic progression from subordination to independence, from alienation, through revolt, to self-affirmation' Irele That which is reclaimed has been degraded and needs to be reinterpreted - or properly interpreted.

In the Cahier he makes it clear that he is not reclaiming '[n ]egridom with its smell of fried onion', which 'rediscovers the sour taste of freedom in its spilt blood'.

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An interesting element of the initial reflection on nigritude is the refusal to develop it as a historically static or culturally absolutist concept of Africa. Writing in , Senghor makes clear that the intention is not to '[revive] the past so as to live on in an African museum. This concept of Africa is also not meant to be culturally absolutist. It enables better adaptation to any situation Senghor A concept of Africa as reclamation and reinterpretation resonates with the writing found in other regions of the continent too.

Kwame Nkrumah, for example, emphasises the need for Africa to 'speak by using its own voice'. This needs to start with its historiography. According Nkrumah, the history of Africa 'needs to be written as the history of our society, not as the story of European adventures' Nkrumah Only in this way can it become 'a map of the growing tragedy and final triumph of our society' in order to, eventually, 'guide and direct African action' Nkrumah In a letter to a 'whites only' school in South Africa on the future of Africa, Julius Nyerere expressly rejects a racialised understanding of Africa that uncritically glorifies what is understood as African history.

According to Nyerere, the challenges are neither to 'be ashamed of our own heritage' nor to 'put aside everything which is not "traditionally African" and live forever as though Europeans had never come into contact with us' Nyerere Africa as an ideal does not mean a 'uniform Africa', as 'this word "Africans" can include all those who have made their home in the continent, black, brown, white' Nyerere I argue that this Africa as ideal has internal coherence as a fourth concept of Africa, and can be understood as the reclamation, reinterpretation of African socio-cultural resources as representative ideals.

This concept of Africa can contribute to explaining the way in which, for example, ubuntu is regarded as 'African'. Ramose , in his influential article, describes ubuntu as 'the wellspring flowing with African ontology and epistemology' and can be regarded as 'the basis of African philosophy'.

African ontology, epistemology and in fact African philosophy seem to refer to more than simply ontologies, epistemologies and philosophies that originate from Africa. The assumption much rather seems that there is a single ontology, epistemology or philosophy that can be called African.

The same goes for ubuntu: It is presented as not one of many, but as the basis of African philosophy. This use of Africa in this regard cannot be explained adequately by any combination of the previous three concepts of Africa. It becomes even more difficult when one considers the socio-linguistic origins of the word ubuntu.

It is an Nguni word, most often defined by means of the isiZulu phrase 'Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu', or 'a person is a person through other persons. Kamwangamalu However, despite its primary linguistic location in the family of Nguni languages of southern Africa and its presence in selected languages in east and central Africa, the concept of ubuntu still seems to exclude those parts of Africa where Bantu languages are not spoken, especially Africa north of the Sahara.

It also - on such a reading -seems to disregard the immense linguistic and cultural plurality of the more than million people who live in Africa. This challenge is compounded when one takes Metz's differentiated approach to ubuntu into account Metz Ubuntu is nonetheless viewed as an African, or even the African, moral and philosophical principle. If one attempts to interpret such a statement in terms of, for example, a geographical understanding of Africa, one struggles to make sense of it. The way in which Ramose uses 'Africa' to qualify ubuntu becomes plausible when one views its use as the reclamation and continuing reinterpretation of an African cultural resource, and setting it as a representative ideal.

This also highlights the limitations of this concept of Africa. The dangers of exclusivity and essentialism loom large. This is the case despite prominent usages of 'Africa' as ideal that uses it as a dynamic and inclusive concept. Such a concept of Africa should therefore not be understood as the search for consensus, but - and here I agree with Gyekye - as 'the results of the reflective exertions of an African thinker' that gives 'analytical attention to the intellectual foundations of African culture and experience'.

This will necessarily include disagreement on which resources to reclaim, how to interpret them and the extent to which they can constitute representative ideals. In the sections above I hope to have shown that there is more than one concept of Africa, and that no concept of Africa is ethically neutral. When we refer to Africa as a place, we find ourselves confronted with a concept that has stabilised only relatively recently as a designator of the continent of Africa and only very recently became the self-description of persons who in fact live in Africa.

For most of the lifetime of the term it was used as an external designation with very few points of connection to the self-perception of the people on the continent, their histories and institutions. I also hope to have shown that Africa as a condition has internal coherence and, together with Africa as a place, continues to give the concept of Africa internal coherence as a commodity.

Lastly I hope to have shown that the self-conscious reclaiming and reinterpretation of African socio-cultural resources - often in a synecdochic way - make possible a fourth concept of Africa, namely Africa as ideal. But this concept of Africa is also not ethically neutral, as it might run the risk of becoming an essentialist or exclusivist concept of Africa. As I intimated in the introductory section, I do not regard these as the only concepts of Africa. Also other internally coherent concepts of Africa could exist.

Despite the impression that the four concepts that I proposed function independently, it seems plausible that whenever we use the word 'Africa' we make use of most of these concepts - and possibly other - to differing degrees. The challenge is to incorporate those elements of the four concepts of Africa that describe geographic, political, economic, historical and socio-cultural elements shared by people on the continent of Africa in a constructive and authentic manner. But is it possible to salvage and combine the positive elements of these concepts?

Even though such a project goes beyond the scope of this article, I nonetheless point in the direction of one such a possibility: Africa as encounter. Is Africa not also to be conceived as a symbol for the encounter between 'I' and the other; between imposed and indigenous institutions; between those who thrive and those who barely survive; between minorities and majorities; between different cultures and linguistic groups?

He integrates the diversity of the people and groups of Africa, the enduring effects of its commodification, denigration and self-destruction with the challenge of becoming an authentic place of encounter. In conclusion I cite an excerpt from the poem:. I would like to thank Zorada Swart, Etienne de Villiers, Florence Nazare, Bernard Slippers and the two anonymous reviewers for helpful exchanges on the article. In addition, the author gratefully acknowledges funding by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation that enabled the research that led to this article.

The author declares that he has no financial or personal relationships which may have inappropriately influenced him in writing this article. Alesina, A. Smith eds. Casey, J. Stahl ed. Collins, R. Conklin, A. Currie, T. Curtin, P. Daniels, C.

Wacher ed. Ehret, C. Englebert, P. Goodman, M. Gyekye, K. Hertslet, E. Huffman, T. Irele, F. Kamwangamalu, N. Le Glay, M. Clare, Princeton University Press, Princeton. Metz, T. Morden, R. Cockerill, London. Nkrumah, K. Nyerere, J. O'Brien, P. Pakenham, T. Ramose, M. Roux eds. Reid, R. Ross, E. Scullard, H. Senghor, L. Reed, Heinemann, London. Shaw, B. Africa and Africans', in J. Mclnerney ed.

12 Poems to Read for Black History Month

Press, Cairo. Tylor, E. Wesseling, H. Pomerans, Praeger, London. Wikipedia n. Young, R. Received: 23 Oct. The most accessible versions of the General Act of the Berlin Conference can be found online. See Bibliography for references to English, German and French versions.

All the contents of this journal, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Services on Demand Article. English pdf Article in xml format Article references How to cite this article Automatic translation. Access statistics. Cited by Google Similars in Google. Introduction What do we mean when we say 'Africa'? Africa as place Even Kwame Nkrumah, a fervent proponent of African political unity, acknowledged the limitations of the use of a merely geographical understanding of Africa, as its inhabitants indeed do not share 'a common race, culture and language'.

Writing shortly after the first wave of independence in Africa, he strikingly describes the plurality of the people who live on the continent called Africa: Some of us are Muslims, some Christians; many believe in traditional, tribal gods. Nkrumah Despite the differences amongst people who live in Africa, some might nonetheless argue that the internal coherence of the meaning of Africa should be sought primarily in its designation of the continent of Africa and its inhabitants, as this provides the most neutral and descriptive explanation.

Reflecting in another section on the reasons for why Ethiopians and Egyptians, like the 'Phoenicians' and 'Syrians', practice circumcision, he states that the Phoenicians and Syrians are: [ T ]he only nations that circumcise, and it is seen that they do just as the Egyptians. Rankine begins the poem by collaborating with her reader. If we trust this poem and this poet, we can immerse ourselves in the effect of the language here as opposed to the direction of the narrative.

And when that trust comes into play, the rest of the poem holds greater rewards. We are more than our forms. We may potentially transcend our constructs. We are light contained and not containment. How can you not relish in such faith? She lives in Colorado. It is an excellent teaching poem. He lives in Massachusetts. In , when she was about seven years old, the girl we have come to know as Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from her home on the West Coast of Africa.

She was transported to Boston because she was too frail to be of practical use in the physically demanding sugar plantations of the South. She learned English, Greek, and Latin. But she remained enslaved.

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Twelve years later, in , this same girl would become the first black person to publish a book in English. We see it in the rhyme, the meter, in its controlled organization, and also its logic. There is an orderly series of four heroic couplets. There are the requisite nods to Christian ideals. In the mode of her time, Wheatley's poem is clean, uncorrupted. Practically dismissible, it seems so perfect.

But this is not a poem to be easily dismissed.

Scan it with me. In doing so, you'll see some of the ways Wheatley uses the apparent order of the poem to reveal an entirely different line of reasoning than what might be evident at first glance. There is practically a secret code inside this poem. This all has something to do with English itself, with where stresses naturally fall in particular words, but the way that these words are put together in Wheatley's poem directs whether and how we attend to them. Wheatley knew this. She uses the logic of the structure of metrical verse as a means toward revelation and resistance.

We see this same thing throughout the poem in her use of punctuation, in her rare enjambment, in the ways she plays with allusions, and especially in the fun she has with the homonymic potential of the English language. Wheatley revels in the ways that something can appear to have one conclusion and also another. This neoclassical poem, written by an enslaved young woman, barely out of her teens, is rebellious even as it appears to follow all the rules. It is about the complicated blessing of being kidnapped from her home and sold into slavery in a land where she is able to learn about the order and structure of Western traditions including Christianity , and it has at its heart words, phrases, and lines that can be read completely logically in a number of ways.

At every turn, she undermines and complicates the logic to which she is bound. I love that! I love her. Camille T. Dungy is the author of four books of poetry, including Trophic Cascade Wesleyan University Press, She lives in San Francisco. Materials for Teachers Materials for Teachers Home. Poems for Kids. Poems for Teens. Lesson Plans. Teach this Poem. Poetry Near You. Academy of American Poets. National Poetry Month.

American Poets Magazine. Tyehimba Jess on "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks "We Real Cool" is the poem so many of us know from grade school: the Seven that sacred number of the seeker, the thinker, the mysterious at the Golden Shovel the shovel be golden but be ready to dig your grave. Safiya Sinclair on "won't you celebrate with me" by Lucille Clifton What a balm and a blessing this poem has been to me. Harper Michael S. The war said let there be peace and there was war. Academy of American Poets Educator Newsletter. Teach This Poem. Follow Us. Find Poets.

Read Stanza. Jobs for Poets. Materials for Teachers. The Walt Whitman Award. James Laughlin Award. Ambroggio Prize. Dear Poet Project.



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