Ten years ago, when I was just beginning PhD research on the slave narrative tradition in the Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh, another graduate student asked me why on earth I was working in this area: surely, academic interest in early African writing is little more than a passing fad? When I mentioned these comments to my supervisor, the late Professor Paul Edwards, he said, "Save your breath: let Equiano answer." Given the current range and quality of scholarship, Edwards's confidence in the material hardly seems noteworthy, some three decades after his abridged Equiano's Travels (1967). Edwards also edited a small anthology, Through African Eyes (1966) to make African writing available to his pupils in Sierra Leone and, a year later, Philip Curtin published Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans From the Era of the Slave Trade (1967), but the subject of these books was pretty unusual, and they did not herald a publishing trend. In the 1960s and '70s, Edwards's interest in early African writers in their literary, historical, and African Diasporic contexts may very well have been judged eccentric, greeted with the sort of dismissive sneer that I encountered from my fellow graduate student. However, by the time I undertook graduate studies, that sneer could be--and still is--answered not only by Equiano's and other African writers' own words, but also by vigorous literary and historical scholarship in Africa, Britain, and North America, excavating long-neglected texts, making them more widely available through publishing and teaching, engaging in critical debate about language, theory, literary traditions, and historical contexts. Increasingly, a sharp critical eye was being brought to bear on "new" old texts, resulting in fresh angles of vision that have shaped how we can understand the dawn of modern African literature.
The buzz and hum was audible: in the 1980s and early '90s scholarly work included a wide range of American scholarship on the slave narrative tradition (Sekora and Turner, 1982; Baker, 1984; Davis and Gates, 1985; Andrews, 1986; Yellin, 1987; Gates, 1988; McDowell and Rampersad, 1989). At the same time in Britain, Edwards produced some of his finest scholarship and, with David Dabydeen, was general editor of the Early Black Writers Series. Five titles were produced before Edwards's death in May 1992.(1) He also collaborated with historians of African and black British history, editing with James Walvin Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade (1983). Edwards shared his research with students and colleagues who congregated daily at his office, including his correspondence with Chinua Achebe about Equiano's African home and early life. The novelist Caryl Phillips introduced himself at a conference, after which Edwards agreed to comment on early drafts of Phillips's Cambridge (1991). Being party to this convivial scholarship pushed me towards an interest not just in the early texts but also in how they inspire contemporary fiction. Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) and Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose (1986), like Phillips's novels that draw on the historical record by and about the enslaved, triggered my fascination with the elasticity of early African writing in English, its capacity to speak to the historian, the literary critic, the creative writer, and artist.
This special edition, dedicated to Paul Edwards, aims to reflect these capacious possibilities. I am grateful to the editors of Research in African Literatures for agreeing to honor Edwards in a journal to which he contributed over the long span of his academic career. Some of the contributors were his friends, students, and colleagues; others never knew him, but no doubt he would have encouraged, collaborated with, and learned from them all, such was his keen drive to know, and his scholarly generosity. The illustrations for this issue were selected from the exhibition Roots: The African Inheritance in Scotland(2) to roughly coincide with the period mapped out by the articles, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, as well as relevant contemporary material. Of course the illustrations are more than a visual time-line. As the curator of the exhibition that used the images shown here, I was often struck by how, on the one hand, visual material can tell a nuanced story but how, on the other hand, some of these stories were incomplete without the words of the African and Caribbean men and women represented visually. The illustrations and articles gathered together here suggest just how rich the intersection of historical, visual, and written materials can be.
Henry Louis Gates's piece on the sixteenth-century "Ethiopian Humanist," poet, and academic Juan Latino, and Mollie Olsen's "Negros horros and cimarrones" help to chart the wide temporal and geographical scope of the first stirrings of modern African literature. It was not unusual for African men and women to live and work in Europe at this time, though their presence was not numerically significant and …