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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

Introduction: "Violences, Silences and Metissages"

Claudine Raynaud

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  • 1 See Jean-Loup Amselle, Logiques métisses: anthropologie de l'identité en Afrique et ailleurs (Pari (...)

1After much delay, Ethnic Voices II goes to print a few months after the execution of Nigerian playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, defender of the Ogoni people, whose work is discussed in the opening articles. His death by hanging on November 10th, 1995 is a terrible reminder that the ambiguous and unsatisfactory label "Ethnic Voices" still covers a political reality of violence and repression. Heir to colonialism and anthropology, the concept of "ethnicity," whose valence is tragically perpetuated by the current European and African context, harbors a troubled history.1 Here, the questioning of ethnicity is played up against neighboring and equally perplexing issues of racial and tribal identity and representation.

2This second volume is a companion piece to GRAAT 9 "Ethnic Voices," edited by Claude Julien. It reflects more closely than the first the international participation in our 1991 conference sponsored by the GRAAT of Tours, the CERCA of Orléans and the CETANLA of the Sorbonne Nouvelle. Thanks to Chantal Zabus we have been able to reprint a bibliography of Ken Saro-Wiwa's work to introduce the volume. The essays bear witness to the ongoing work of the participants, when the original papers could not be available or, when, in the case of Ozenwa Ohaeto, after numerous attempts, we were unable to help him attend the conference. In addition, contributions have been solicited from other critics in the field of African American studies for their work highlighted the theoretical position of some of the articles collected here, thus creating a fruitful dialogue.

  • 2 Jacques Derrida has countered these attacks, notably in: "'Racism' Last Word" Critical Inquiry 12, (...)

3Although necessarily limited in scope, this collection nevertheless attests to the vitality and diversity of critical approaches in the field of African Studies, African American Studies and Native American Studies. The essays range from those which take into account the specificity of the cultural context and the evolution of tradition to those which, borrowing their analytical tools from contemporary theories, test the appropriateness of these concepts when applied to "minority" or "Third World" literatures.2 Others still, in the wake of Henry Louis Gates's pioneering theoretical work, try to fashion concepts which stem from the body of literature and the culture studied. The usefulness of the process of "Signifyin(g)" in reading the black American literary tradition is made evident by Mae Henderson's demonstration. William Andrews, for his part, suggests that "call and response" might be a way of rethinking the concept of intertextuality.

4Ineluctably, the theme of silence links all these essays, for these historically muted voices speak up at the risk of being silenced and their texture can be heard against and with the textual silences woven into the narratives. Thus, Saro-Wiwa's execution is emblematic of the terror against which any "ethnic" voice ultimately fights to be heard. Mae Henderson shows the stakes involved in the recreation of the slave woman's voice together with the representation of the master's narrative in Williams's Meditation. The anonymous slave woman's words, as well as her silences recorded by the narrator, ultimately help the reader revision the tradition of the slave narrative and its contemporary heirs. Likewise, as William Andrews pointedly demonstrates, Morrison's novel Beloved is a rewriting of the slave narrative to rip the veil open on the unsayable of the experience of slavery. In Native American culture, as Kathryn Shanley reminds us, the mute stereotypical "Indian" is constantly recast in representations which perpetuate his oppression, even though surface cinematographic narratives support a more progressive vision of American history. Analyzing Ray Young Bear and Leslie Silko's works, David Moore asks readers to reinvest this area of silence with possibilities, to decipher the meanings of their structured silences.

5Sabine Brock, for her part, convincingly insists on the fact that silence goes together with physical oppression. The slave's body is the site of silencing: masters placed bits, bridles on their slaves, while reading and writing was a criminal offence. "Visceral signs" from the semiotic realm constitute the unescapable origin of black women's writing, which then emerge from that wordlessness to effect their entry into the symbolic. The link between writing and the body manifests itself in the dynamics established between the body as writing and the materiality of writing. This reciprocal relationship unwittingly recurs in the analyses collected here, for the physicality of the body — its imminent death as well as its biological survival — is the ultimate barrier against genocide. It is thus telling that the hero of Welch's Fools Crow does not die at the end of the novel, but rides to Canada. Similarly, David Moore closes his three-part demonstration on a vision of the subject ("agency without mastery") as a "positionality in a body without language." Beyond words, the Indian body is the primary ground, the native land, from which contemporary Native American narratives can and will be written.

6It will also be seen that hese critical studies demonstrate to varying degrees that "ethnic voices" must constantly deploy textual strategies so as to depart from the ideological thrust towards stereotyping at work in the dominant culture. Nigerian playwrights thus try to tap into tradition while refusing the trap of folklore. A similar resistance to nostalgic, "ethnographic" accounts, which would ossify culture and ultimately kill it, can be read in Native American writers such as Young Bear and Silko. Rafia Zafar, for her part, analyses how Smart-Grosvenor's becomes embroiled in the stereotype of the "black cook" when she attempts to write her cookbook cum autobiography. Appeals to the stereotype are undermined by a variety of rhetorical ploys. Such plays on representation are also present in Welch's technique, notably in his use of the "skulking" Indian figure. They also occur in Saro-Wiwa's play Sozaboy, whose major character is ostensibly portrayed with reference to the innately "cheerful" disposition of the natives found in colonial novels.

  • 3 Toni Morrison, "Faulkner and Women", 266.

7Finally, the liberating élan of the creative process which literature strives to enact, the freeing from the "shackles of history," are repeatedly brought to the foreground. Creative imagination is synonymous with survival; it helps rewrite history and to "humanize the past," to struggle with representation as it retains and reprocesses the orality of its origins.3 If the adjective "ethnic" bears traces of the oppressor's language and of the anthropologist's point of view, then voices will rise from and in the text as they are recreated on the page and expressed outside of it.

I. Ethnicity and creolization: Nigerian drama

8The reflexion on "voice" and "ethnicity" appropriately begins with a discussion of African drama. Ezenwa-Ohaeto contends that, in the wake of Chenua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, modern Nigerian playwrights make a conscious use of African culture to create a socio-political theatre which goes beyond narrow cultural boundaries. He analyzes three plays by dramatists Saro-Wiwa, Irobi and Nwabueze, who have responded to what he terms "the cultural imperative" while exploring the tensions and the contradictions of contemporary Nigerian society. African drama must go beyond a narrow use of oral tradition and the appeal to local color to fulfill its social commitment. Such is the case of Saro-Wiwa's Four Farcical Plays, which denounce rampant dishonesty, the debilitating consequences of sudden wealth, generalized bribery and the arbirariness of power. Similarly, Irobi's play The Colour of Rusting Gold explores the hypocrisy of contemporary Nigerian culture by dramatizing the fall of excellence through a flaw due to social circumstances. An analysis of the texture of the plays shows how innovative are: the evocative names of the characters, the language (either literal translations or poetic transpositions) and the use of proverbs and imagery. Nwabueze's A Dance of the Dead examines the effects of materialism, dishonesty and injustice in society. Focusing on the current issue of the family torn between modernity and tradition, it illustrates the move away from a single emphasis on culture towards societal concerns. The artistic use of language together with the embeddedness of drama in everyday experience makes these plays accessible to for most audiences.

9Chantal Zabus's linguistic analysis of the use of Pidgin, for which she claims the status of "post-ethnic voice," by modern Nigerian dramatists, and most notably, by Ken Saro-Wiwa, raises the issue of creolization. She distinguishes English-speaking Africa preoccupied with post-ethnicity, and Francophone Africa with its insistance on the stability and necessity of the concept of ethnicity. Pidgin has become the non-official lingua franca which has currency in the West Coast of Africa and in present-day Nigeria; it is evolving into a mother tongue. Her scientific demonstration points at the problems that have been plaguing artistic expression in Africa: which language should a writer use? That of his ethnic group, that of the dominant ethnic group (the official language), that of the colonizer, or perhaps, an "interethnic" language? As evidenced by Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy (1985), literary use of Pidgin transforms (m) other tongue cannibalism into a bilateral métissage of two or more registers. A transfer of legitimacy from the mother tongue to a communally-owned creole is being effected. The use of four different registers by the main character of Saro-Wiwa's play is both a reflection of the disarray brought about by the Biafran war and the sign that this "rotten English" can be the harbinger of a new post-ethnicity. At the same time, Saro-Wiwa denounces the "ethnicide" perpetrated by the Nigerian government against the Ogoni people. Nigerian Pidgin, whose former "levity" is now transformed into a new seriouness, seems to Zabus a satisfactory medium because of its vitality, its audience and its democratic character. Taking up Césaire's statement, she concludes by noting that, if "l'avenir est au métissage,” then ethnicity is a fixture of the present.

II. Erasure and History: African American Voices

10Turning the lense on African American literature means both dealing with issues of invisibility and marginality in the Canon, while trying to devise the best means of putting an end to that exclusion. Concurrently, and at times antagonistically, the emphasis is shifted to a broader definition of culture: folklore, oral tradition, music, songs and, surprisingly, cooking. It also entails looking at the vexed question of the fictionalization of history as well as of the writing of the unsayable of that history (the Middle Passage, slavery). These issues of history, memory and writing are also central to any discussion of Native American literature, where myths and dream-visions figure as the narratives of the past as well as the condition of present and future writing.

  • 4 Amselle traces the connections between the terms "nation" and "ethnos," pointing out that the term (...)
  • 5 Gates is the general editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature.

11Michael Awkward's essay on the Canon and African American Studies raises the question of the inherently exclusionary violence of any canon, even if it is a counter-canon. Reviewing definitions of the notions of nation and ideology, Awkward traces the making of AMERICA as a "national idea."4 For instance, the Statue of Liberty obviously stands as the sign of the erasure of the plight of the African slaves. Canonical signs are sites of contestation for the excluded rather than loci of confrontation. A similar attitude pervades the canon debate where Awkward denounces both the excesses of the right and of the academic left. An alternative canon should define not so much which books should be read, but how books should be read. Meanwhile, American literary studies have become the site of a productive "dissensus," as no single unifying narrative can be written. Yet the danger lies in the institution of a double-voiced discourse which aims at canon building while condemning this enterprise when it comes to the official canon. A further difficulty resides in finding a way out of cooptation, on the one hand, or ghettoization, on the other. Ultimately, Awkward takes up the position defended by Gates, who sees canon building as a question of perspective: black texts should appear in their own tradition and in the American tradition, since they pertain to both.5 Repeating the difficulty of the position of American literature vis à vis English culture, black American literature is nowhere — no place — in its relationship to American literature. Awkward's conclusion is that the creation of a black American canon should avoid the pitfall of prescription and remain aware of the necessity of expansive geographies as scholars of African American studies seek to describe a liberating "constitutional" black difference.

12Such a modified approach to canon building can be illustrated by the following two essays. Respectively bearing on the blues woman and the Harlem Renaissance and on black women's cookbooks, they are informed by the impulse to take cultural production at large into account.

13By recalling Bessie Smith's memory, Cheryl Wall's essay centers on an analysis of the figure of the blues woman in the Harlem Renaissance which would lead to contemporary reinterpretations of her role and function. The blues woman was shunned by writers in her own times, with such notable exceptions as Langston Hughes in his novel Not Without Laughter. The sadness of the blues, not "softened with tears," is contrasted with the mood of the spirituals, echoing the protagonist Harriet's opposition to her mother Hager. With the blues, the life of the artist becomes a prototype for the collective. As she appropriates Jimboy's folk songs, Harriet, the blues singer exemplifies the evolution of the blues from the rural South to its stage performances. Not Without Laughter highlights the complex identities of the blues woman: refusing the polarity of the good/bad woman, it invests her character with moral and spiritual power. Yet the blues woman is absent from the fiction of women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Although she paid a personal homage to Bessie Smith, whom she had met in the company of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston typically resorted to a male figure, Tea Cake, to be Janie's mentor in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

14As we move from the public arena to the domestic sphere, Rafia Zafar brings black American women's cookbooks into the foreground as material for artistic expression. Texts which had been overlooked until recently, these cookbooks express personal as well as communal identity, are the sites of black stereotyping and of class (black cooking is low-class and transmitted orally) and can be approached from the point of view of history at large as well as from that of the evolution of gastronomy. Zafar chooses to deal with Smart-Gosvenor's Vibration Cooking (1970) and with the Darden sistèrs' Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (1976). These works can be read as cookbooks, of course, but also as a reflection on what it is to be black, American, and both. The influence of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements of the 70s runs through them, and they can in turn be read as a reflection on history. Vibration Cooking presents black cuisine and life in the process, gesturing towards Alice B. Toklas's own culinary and literary achievements, while Spoonbread is more historiographically oriented and elegiac in tone. Both support anthropological studies on food as the bedrock of ethnic self: food cannot be separated from personal, literary and social matrices. These works should be salvaged as autobiographical material.

15Exploring various textual revisions of the slave narrative, the foundation of black American autobiography, Mae Henderson's essay bears on the relationship between history and fiction in the African American tradition. She examines, on the one hand, Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner (itself a re-writing of Thomas Gray's documents by the same name [1831]), and on the other, Shirley Ann Williams's "Mediation on History" whose reading she sees as mediated by Angela Davis's "Reflections on the Slave Woman." Williams's gesture is one of "critical parody" towards Styron. Her text explores the relationships betwen discourse, power and resistance in staging the tension between the vernacular discourse of the slave heroine (spoken language) and the formal discourse of the white male interviewer who narrates her story (written language). Williams sets up an author-character relationship which gives her the same control over Styron and Gray as the latter possess over their subject (Nat Turner). While Williams's work can be understood as a reflection on historiography, Styron's novel is meant to be a meditation on history. Gray's presentation of Nat Turner's story is destined to be a cautionary tale, while Styron's own version asserts the freedom of the novelist to deal with a historical subject.

16Henderson charts the relations between these texts as closely as possible: what Gray's Confessions is to Styron's novel, Davis's "Reflections" is to Williams's "Meditation" Williams provides the anonymous figure of the black woman with identity, and she effects a double emphasis: the slave woman is literally imprisoned in a social system controled by the slaveholders and is also literarily imprisoned in a text controled by them. Williams reverses the function of the prologue by giving us access to Dessa's reveries in lieu of white "authenticating" documents; she also inverts the social and rhetorical strategies of the slave narrative. The narrator is the author of a forthcoming book entitled The Work -The Roots of Rebellion and the Means of Eradicating Them, and as such echoes Gray's report. His discourse lays bare how his construction of "otherness" in turn defines his own self-concept through a process of negative identification. In contrast, Dessa refuses to be bound by the text, and it is her defiance of the social and of the textual order which leads to the neccessity of her eradication.

17Henderson traces what she terms "narrative insurgencies" as Dessa subverts the narrator's discourse; unlike Nat Turner, she refuses to "confess," and as the story progresses the narrator finds himself haunted by Dessa, unable to "capture" her in his text. One could say that Dessa "works roots," thereby "conjuring" the narrator's text. In order to escape, and in direct contrast with the will to subjugate which is inherent in the narrator's discourse, Dessa resorts to the oral tradition of the songs and to the reciprocity of the call and response pattern which these songs embody. Is Williams's text a self-consuming artifact? Although there might be an element of self-subversion, Williams's treatment ultimately redefines "historical fiction," basing it on unofficial records, on folk and oral tradition. She provides a model of how to read formal texts in which black and women's voices have been muted.

18Echoing Henderson's critical practice, William Andrews's contention that Beloved is in its essence a fugitive slave narrative, a fiction of the most shocking fugitive slave case that ever occurred in the United States, leads him to examine the novel in its intertextual reference to actual accounts of bondage and flight. Recasting this relationship within the black tradition, he portrays it in terms of call and response. Recalling the past is no desire to wallow in it, but rather a testimony to the constant wish to put that past at rest. Andrews shrewdly reverses the critical gesture and asks to assess the influence that the novel is likely to have on our reading of slave narratives. At stake is the issue of the fictionalization of history developed by Henderson's essay. Paul D's five escapes and his quest for freedom are paradigmatic of the slave narrative, but Andrews also highlights the revisionary character of Morrison's treatment of the theme of manhood through Paul D's troubled relationship with the white man's language. The test undergone by the characters marks the commitment of each to the humanity of the other, a commitment which occurs through resistance to the narrative of the other. Paul D's greatest challenge is his response to Sethe's narrative. Morrison's novel offers insight into the question of the uncensored expression of the fugitive slaves when the audience is black and open, and willing to believe the teller. Opening up a blocked channel to nineteenth century ex-slave consciousness, it restores to the process of memory what has been lost to collective communal consciousness.

19Sabine Brock's emphasis on the struggle in Beloved between the desire to rememory and the impossibility of finding a language in which to tell of slavery's horrors leads her to confront the inscription of history on the flesh and bodies of the slaves. Morrison's black female text "writes the body," goes "inside." The narrative is signed by scars, while the metaphorical is literalized. Symbolic language is broken down by con/fused voices. The overabundance of the signifier is countered here by the impossible wording of the deed. Taking up Derrida's notion of trace, Brock asks the question of what might exceed the play of signification. Isn't there a materiality that would be other than that traced by the sign? A semiosis, which she calls "visceral signs" and which in the novel becomes Sethe's "back of words," disrupts the symbolic and marks its limits, be they silence, sound without words, or dance and music. Through Morrison's writing, black female bodies claim a reversal of their function from signs (marks, traces) to the difficulty of authorship.

III. Stereotypes, silences and myths: Native American Literature

20Kathryn Shanley takes a scene from Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians as emblematic of the image of "the Indian" as the mute ground against which non-native Americans define themselves. She points at the disjunction between ways in which films decode the Western expression of oppression and yet continue to reproduce the same images of the Indian. They consequently fail to have an impact on Native American lives. Non-Indian America looks at tribalism as a way of holding on to the past, and it refuses the political implications that this might have for the present. Shanley argues that Native American writer James Welch attempts to deconstruct, reappropriate and transform stereotypes of the Indians for the Indians. An analysis of Fools Crow shows that Welch's technique represents a compromise between historical reality and Indian kitsch. Welch subverts the stereotype of the "skulking" Indians, as actions are explained in the cultural terms provided by the text. Thus, headhunting is a means for the Pikunis of coping with grief. The point of view is resolutely Indian; it is related to Indian culture and to the devastation brought upon them by the whites. The scene of the killing of the white man is also drawn from the point of view of the Pukini people: the hero does not die but rides to Canada. Actual and mythic time blend in Welch's fictional oral tradition where dream-visions mitigate the expression of ultimate defeat.

21Using Foucault, Lacan and Derrida's theoretical findings, David Moore analyzes the works of Ray Young Bear and Leslie Silko. His analysis amounts to a re-formulation of the convergence of ethnic literature and the "post-modern." He argues that their texts create possibilities for the Indian subject beyond the opposition between colonizer and colonized. Thus, Silko's Ceremony exposes a quest for an alternative to a destructive dualism in interaction and interrelation. Likewise, in Young Bear's The Invisible Musician, the shamanic figure of old man Bumblebee tries to effect a symbiosis between native present and native past, between history and myth. This vision of relationality in culture is supported by Clifford's work as well as by Foucault's notion of new "visibilities." Borrowing Lacan's distinction between the look and the gaze, Moore points out the relationality without center, the constant changes and multiple transitions which the works he studies exemplify. For instance, by juxtaposing references to geology and American pop culture, by resorting to pastiche, Young Bear forces incongruity into relationality. Power relationships should equally move beyond the dualistic model of resistance and absorption to what he terms "agency without mastery." The third element of his demonstration concerns the subject caught in this web. In the light of Elaine Scarry's work, the body emerges as the ethical and political position in this interrelational system. How can one express this body in the text? The answer lies in the structured silences of the text itself, once the bodily ground has been established: "a positionality in a body without language." Beyond determinism, dichotomy and marginality, Native American writers create new possibilities in their fictional writing.

22The moments of silence found in such works weave together the insistance on the body which Sabine Brock has identified as the omnipresent "visceral" referent of the narrative of slavery. Because of their refusal of oppositional strategies, their elaboration of varied positions, these fictions also point to a logic of métissage which Zabus opposes to the actual reality of "ethnicity."


1 See Jean-Loup Amselle, Logiques métisses: anthropologie de l'identité en Afrique et ailleurs (Paris: Payot, 1990). The Greeks opposed polis and ethnos as two forms of society, the former being organized and valorized, the latter designating groups of people who are different because of their origin, their number and their political organization. In Latin ethnicus designates the heathen. For a brief history of the concept, see Zabus's article in this volume. Another useful tool is Philippe Poutignant and Jocelyne Streiff-Fenart, Théories de l'ethnicité (Paris: PUF, 1995).

2 Jacques Derrida has countered these attacks, notably in: "'Racism' Last Word" Critical Inquiry 12, 1 (Autumn 1985): 290-299, and in: "But, beyond..." (Open letter to Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon), ed. Henry Louis Gates, Race, Writing and Difference (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985): 354-370.

3 Toni Morrison, "Faulkner and Women", 266.

4 Amselle traces the connections between the terms "nation" and "ethnos," pointing out that the term "nation" gives way to that of "race" only when the idea of a classification and a hierarchy among different societies emerges under the combined influences of comparative naturalism, German romanticism, nationalism and evolutionism (Amselle, 1990,18).

5 Gates is the general editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature.


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