A Critical Response to “The Language of African Literature” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Things are not always black or white — an idea that Kenyan post-colonial theorist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, does not clarify in his acclaimed essay “The Language of African Literature,” which appears in his 1986 collective work of essays titled Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. In this particular essay, he informs the reader of the heavy European arm on Africa’s throat manifesting as a blight brought upon the works of Africans by the English language. He continues to tell us that this blight has stained the fabric that holds (African) communities together — language. However, he does provide a solution to this epidemic of sorts that quite simply urges African writers to convey their literary talents through their African mother tongues. A solution I agree with for the most part, until I was introduced to the works of Safia Elhillo, an astounding Sudanese-American poet whose identity embodies a paradox for Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s vision for the emergence of African literature that is infused by only the languages born in Africa. Specifically, Safia’s poem titled “to make use of water” published in The January Children (2017) poem collection would not have sounded or felt the same if it were written solely in Arabic or solely in English. Asking Safia, an African woman, to write purely in Arabic invalidates her experiences tied to the English language into which she was born and vice versa. This is the reality of many African immigrants, not only Safia.

This reality presents a grey area for Thiong’o’s stringent, yet valid, sentiments about the languages birthed in Africa being the “collective memory-bank of a people’s experience in history” (293). He does suggest that the intermarriage of English and African language should be situated in its own Afro-European category. At first, this sounded exclusionary and quite colonial, but it makes sense. The Afro-European category of literature recognizes the existence of works like Safia’s. Afro-Europeanism was born when the first ships of slaves docked on the coast of the Western world and has continued to flourish with the global movements of African immigrants. Afro-Europeanism is still inherently violent despite its prevalence. Within the confines of colonization, this new type of literature may equate to assimilation into whiteness, which basically means betraying the self and other African people in exchange for class privilege as told by Thiong’o. But, the truth is no amount of class privilege and proximity to whiteness can ever protect an African person from the violence of colonization, capitalism, and white supremacy. It is only an illusion until the next inevitable encounter with anti-Blackness disrupts that fantasy. So, yes, let there be Afro-European literature.

Though, I do contend that if Afro-European literature is to be a category that is recognized and respected, it must only involve contributions to freeing Africa and all African people from oppression and slavery. There is no space for works that emulate and worship colonizer values to achieve a crumb of success in their violent racist system. For Afro-European literature to exist, it requires radicalism. The goal for Afro-European literature should entirely move away from the integration of Africanness into white supremacist thought processes, and completely avoid making space for white guilt and fragility. Otherwise, this new category will only be a channel for racist systems to become more sophisticated and keep Africans tolerant of their own trauma/oppression. There should be a collective refusal among Afro-European writers to peddle the trauma of their people to the ever-watchful gaze of whiteness for monetary gain. The European intellectuals do love themselves a gut-wrenching story about Black pain that they can analyze and tokenize, and the existence of Afro-European literature will give them the perfect opportunity to continue demystifying the “African experience” for themselves and the systems that their identities uphold. It is my hope that African writers, especially those that write about the sufferings of the African and also are obliged to appeal to white audiences, are aware that they are keeping white fragility comfortable enough to not have to face its own horrific violence and shameful complacency.

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