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Slavery--human bondage for labor exploitation in domestic or market contexts--is a theme that has been explored by the Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, the Nigerian Buchi Emecheta, and the South African-born, Botswana-naturalized Bessie Head--all women writers whose writing is contemporaneous. In addition to their interest in chattel slavery, the writers look at states that share some characteristics with slavery, notably oppression across class, ethnicity and gender, servility, and dependency. An effect of the explorations is a consideration of the metaphorical status of slavery. (1)
Appearing at a time when the tendency in African literature was toward a close reflection of the current social and political developments, these writers' depictions of slavery are remarkable. In quantitative terms, the thematic emphases of the literary and critical literature in Africa from the mid 1960s through the 1970s was not slavery but a re-evaluation of the meaning of political independence for the African societies that in the preceding eight to ten decades had been European colonies. No sooner than many African societies, already politically altered through the contact with Europeans, regained political autonomy, there arose a feeling in those societies that they were still trapped in a subservient position within a recalcitrant imperialist European economic sphere. The feeling as articulated in much of the literature was of betrayal by an independence that had brought many of the new African countries a myriad of political, economic, and social problems. The congruence of the theme of slavery in Aidoo's Anowa (1970), Head's Maru (1971), and Emecheta's The Slave Girl (1971) is, therefore, not a simple reflection of the temper of the post-independence period. But the congruence is also not a mere coincidence.
The interest in the theme of slavery in the work of Aidoo, Head, and Emecheta suggests a deeper structural analysis of historical time than a focus on the immediate independence period as a privileged moment through which the postindependence morass in Africa could be understood. Head additionally suggests in Maru that racial and ethnic bigotry comes from a universally expressed desires by one individual to dominate another. This article argues that the three writers together trace a trajectory in cultural interpretation different from a tendency to focus on Africa's immediate political realities. It suggests that the writers' representations of slavery are explorations of more remote or submerged causes of the problems frequently configured as neocolonial. Furthermore, it suggests that the writers' depictions of gender relations in the chosen texts are not the texts' exclusive destinations--as has tended to be assumed by much of the critical focus on these texts' gender discourse. The depictions of gender relations, and of the position of women in particular, serve a broader etiological purpose of accounting for "the state of things." Reading Aidoo's play and Emecheta's novel--both set in West Africa--in tandem with Head's novel, set in Botswana, also challenges a traditional historiography that tends to separate these regions in the discussion of slavery. (2) Thus this reading draws attention to a crosscultural dialogue in which the writers implicitly participate. Lastly, it tests a possible anxiety about the chosen texts' etiological discourse--that it might mask a fixation with origins. Although this reading focuses on Aidoo's Anowa, Head's Maru, and Emecheta's The Slave Girl (1977), it makes references to other relevant work by the writers.
The most prominent political events of Africa in the 1960s included political independence--the regaining of the rights to self-governance by African societies that had been colonized in the nineteenth century by Europeans. These events also included the consequences of the independence, and the continued struggles for freedom by African societies still in the throes of foreign domination. But prominent on the international scene in the 1960s was the Civil Rights Movement, whose goal was equality, initiated by blacks in the United States of America. The significance of the Civil Rights Movement for Africans would include the historical connection emanating from the dispersal of African populations to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, which was primarily though not exclusively through the transatlantic slave trade covering the same period. Although the transatlantic slave trade had been prohibited by the middle of the nineteenth century by virtually all the Western countries implicated in it, its unsettling vestiges remained into the mid-twentieth century (and beyond). One of these vestiges was the segregation and persecution of blacks in the United States by whites who were opposed to the prohibition of slavery and to a full integration of blacks into the American society. The segregation and persecution of the American blacks provoked the Civil Rights Movement, which resonated with the heightened struggles in the 1960s by South African blacks to combat apartheid--a system of racial segregation through which South African blacks had been politically and often economically disenfranchised. Apartheid had been formally adopted in 1948 by the politically ascendant forces within the white settler population in South Africa to keep the country's blacks in a dominated position. A common denominator of the political struggles involving Africans and the American blacks in the 1960s was a rejection of second-class status and other reminders or activators of enslavement. In their respective writing, Aidoo, Head, and Emecheta recall slavery and enslavement, conceived of as the ultimate antithesis of independence and of the rights to personal liberty, and through this thematic choice these writers reflect a sensitivity to a long view of the history of causes, or to an etiology that is simultaneously introspective and prospective. This long view of history or etiology looks for correlates in events across time and space and highlights causal relationships within and between these realms. The outcome of the long view of history is a suggestion of cultural interpretations that are historical and that at the same time analyze the metaphorical potential of events.
The three writers' description of their respective work gives evidence of their interest in the exploration of slavery as a means to understanding the causes of some of the quandaries associated with Africa's postcolonial era. The analysis that follows relates the writers' declared interests to the texts' actual representations.
Aidoo has stated that Anowa developed from a story that her mother had told her and which Aidoo had transformed (James 19). In reflecting on her work, Aidoo has also said, "I think that the whole question of how it was that so many of our people could be enslaved and sold is very important. I've always thought that it is an area that must be probed. It probably holds the keys to our future" (James 20). Aidoo underscores in her statement her special interest in slavery as a historical phenomenon and as a discursive subject. She manifests that interest through her recurrent poring over the theme. Anowa represents a process in her explorations begun in her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965). Set in Ghana in the early 1960s, shortly after Ghana gained independence from Britain, The Dilemma of a Ghost dramatizes a confrontation between a young black American woman, Eulalie, and the family of a young Ghanaian man, Ato, to whom she is married. The animosity between Eulalie and her in-laws arises from the two sides' mutually negative assumptions about each other. The two sides' images of each other are mostly distortions and stereotypes that have arisen from the experience of the transatlantic slavery. These images reflect the characters' largely unexamined heritage from that experience. To the members of Ato's family, Eulalie, as a descendant of slaves, is one who has been fundamentally altered in a negative sense, a rootless individual. Eulalie's in-laws conflate her historical origins and her biological origins--both misconceived by the in-laws--and initially reject her. In her own case, Eulalie regards members of Ato's family as savages--obviously reflecting the kind of cultural education that accompanied and survived American and European partial justification for participating in slavery. A prevalent discourse in the European countries; participation in slavery thrived on a Manichean construct that opposed savagery to civilization, African to European, and so on. (3)
Aidoo highlights slavery again in the short story "For Whom Things Did Not Change," the most sustained of the stories in the collection No Sweetness Here (1970). Set in an urban center in Ghana a decade after independence, the story shows a middle-aged steward at a rest house, Zirigu, who alternates between calling a guest, Kobina, who is a young black Ghanaian, "my white master" and "Master." The young guest is not only puzzled by the steward's choice of this form of address but is uncomfortable with the obsequiousness with which it is accompanied. Habituated to conceiving of employment relationships as master-slave or master-servant, Zirigu is adamant. As to the significance of the political independence, which is generally understood where Zirigu lives as the originating moment of the new era, Zirigu is totally oblivious. Zirigu was a servant and a soldier in the imperial British army during the colonial period. Through his colonial service he had learnt about the peoples and customs of other lands; the colonial service, however, had not given him an insight into the changes taking place in his own society. At the end of his narrative through which he describes his experience and shares his innermost thoughts with the guest, Zirigu asks with an ingenuousness that is incongruous with his middle age: "My young Master, what does `Independence' mean?" (29).
Aidoo's interest in clarifying the historical moment is reflected in a dialogue characterized by abruptness that is not attributed to specific characters in the story but that suggests a dramatized narrating consciousness:
`If you ask them, …