Breaking the Silence: West African Authors and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
This thesis explores how Syl Cheney Coker’s The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar (1990), Ama Ata Aidoo’s The Dilemma of a Ghost (1964), Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments (1970), and Buchi Emecheta’s The Slave Girl (1979) respond to the need to revisit and re-think the history of transatlantic slavery. The texts of these four contemporary West African authors provide symptomatic instantiations of the problematic of writing silence, and narrating a history whose archives are impossible to fully retrieve. By attending to the violence and silencing committed on the history of slavery, as well as the difficulty of writing, and narrating, history from the perspective of silence all the texts considered in this study perform acts of resistance against the forgetting enacted in and among their communities, and the silencing of colonial modernity, which has turned the history of transatlantic trade into a footnote. Although, all four authors come from different historical specificities and localities, and, thus, the ways they stage slavery in their narratives are informed by the local/historical urgencies they encounter in each contemporary political context, each, within their respective domain, provides powerful and influential examples of undoing historical silences and absences, not by imposing voices or presences, but by tracing the voids/gaps in the historical representation of slavery. The silent, but not silenced stories of the slave trade that these authors narrate in their attempts to speak to the history of slavery bring dis/order to the national and communal milieu, by unsettling a number of myths such as this of ethnic purity (Coker); of ideal “homes” for the diaspora (Aidoo); of national revolutions that putatively disrupt the colonial past (Armah); and of communal/national discourses that include the gendered racialised subaltern (Emecheta). These authors reveal the exclusionary practices of these myths, bearing witness to the fact that they proliferate at the expense of what they exclude. By bringing forth the excluded, the marginal, the “the othered” in place of the dominant, the central and “the same” they raise the impossible, and yet imperative, question of justice towards the “others”. The study intends to introduce the work of these authors to the current resurgence of interest on the literary trajectories of the Black Atlantic that tend to focus on the narratives of diasporic writers dwarfing the voices that speak form within the African continent. As I argue, close, symptomatic, readings of their texts through the lens of slavery attest to the fact that its spectral presence is intertwined in the cultural and communal fabric, and is used to comment and rethink issues such as questions of belonging and ethnicity, the quandaries associated with the neo-colonial condition, the role of the intellectual, violence and gender issues. Following the complexities raised by each text, my chapters explore a number of concepts such as “diaspora”, “ethnicity”, “trauma”, “memory”, “violence”, “the city”, “subaltern agency” and “the body” that invite cross-disciplinary links between post-colonial studies and a number of fields such as history, geography, feminism, psychoanalysis, philosophy and political theory. One of the ambitions of this study is that these initial forays into a largely unexplored field will lead to further research in African representations of the history of slavery; at the same time, its larger goal is to provide the stepping stone for trans-Atlantic dialogues between African and diasporic writers, who will re-think the history of the Atlantic from the perspective of its spectres, from the perspective of the footnoted.