Monday, October 11, 2010

by Harold Courlander.  

Review by Elizabeth Abbott

"The African," first published: in 1967; is a literary milestone. First, it is the classic story of African-American roots. Second, some of it also appears in the 1974 book "Roots," Alex Haley’s bestselling saga of his forefather, Kunta Kinte. That extensive “borrowing” cost Haley $650;000 in the out-of-court settlement, that ended his plagiarism trial, and forced him to acknowledge in future publicity that parts of "The African" had found their way into "Roots."
The African is Hwesuhunu, a Fon child kidnapped from his tribal village in Dahomey, sold into American slavery and transformed into Wes Hunu, "the thing known as a nigger." This is the story of Wes's conflict between the African world order and the white-supremacist vision of Christian salvation as he struggles to understand life, "the knowledge of things" and also man, "he who gains the knowledge."
On the first leg of the Middle Passage, on one of the infamous slaver ships transporting stolen Africans to the West Indies for "seasoning," the slaves obsessively debate the nature of Fa -- Fate. Chained beside them in the filthy, stinking, suffocating hold, Hwesuhunu listens.
A storm and shipboard mutiny land Hwesuhunu and others on St. Lucia, where they unite in brief freedom. "We are of different tribes,” one man said. "But as of today, we are one village. We are many heads with a single stomach.”
In freedom, the Africans recreate their own ways of life, and sing constantly of their homeland. To survive, they raid plantation storehouses and receive gifts of food, tools, and weapons from sympathetic slaves. Finally, avenging slave-owners massacre most of them and ship the survivors, including Hwesuhunu, to Georgia, USA.
Renamed, Wes Hunu quickly learns that, in his new world, slaves are not persons. "In Dahomey, a slave was taken as an act of vengeance, a consequence of anger or policy, or the need or the whim of a king … [but] still acknowledged as men and women."
The nature of slave work is another dilemma. To excel is to enrich the master, but to shirk is to embrace incompetence. Ultimately, Wes rejects both strategies, and decides to escape. “The task was to refuse to accept what others were seeking, to find ways of accepting; to reject the authority that was a denial of life, even though it was clothed in the waistcloth of a king.”
Free again, Wes recalls a Fon parable about a mythical hunter and at last understands his own Fa – “another long journey of Ategon, the hunter, searching for release from the land of the No Name People and the talking skulls… Every story is true for one man," he muses. "I think this story belongs to me." Even Agagonay, a tender and beautiful Afro-Indian maiden, cannot deter him.
"And what did he have on his side? One thing only. He was Hwesuhunu the Fon." Free, on the threshold of maturity, the young man accomplishes his greatest feat; he reclaims his identity as Hwesuhunu.
The republication of "The African" does more than dredge up sordid memories. It also underscores the hollowness of the current vogue against "cultural appropriation," by which literary/artistic protectionists categorize human experiences as cultural phenomena reserved only for bona fide members of that culture to explore.
Such a monopoly would consign Courlander's Afro-oriented books to oblivion, because the now 85-year-old U.S. novelist, author of 35 books, including such internationally recognized classics of Caribbean and African culture as "Haiti Singing, The Drum and The Hoe Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People," is a white man.

Reviewer Elizabeth Abbott is Dean of Women at Trinity College, University of Toronto, and author of ‘Haiti: The Duvalliers and Their Legacy”.

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