Listen to New Voices on Studs Terkel our partnership with 826CHI-here! Read the Story

00 / 00

David Brokensha discusses African literature and writers ; part 2

BROADCAST: Dec. 19, 1960 | DURATION: 00:13:12


David Brokensha discusses African literature and writers. Brokensha also discusses African culture. David Brokensha reads an excerpt from "The Dark Child" by Camara Laye.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel You know

David Brokensha Yes I think it is, I think that this is some, something to do

Studs Terkel The powers that be of South -- isn't this a matter of protest perhaps? The way of showing their, their personality.

David Brokensha Yes,

Studs Terkel Whereas this is needed in, in Guinea.

David Brokensha In and Guinea and Ghana, no. But I think this is a, perhaps this can be exaggerated. I, I really, really got rather sidetracked onto the

Studs Terkel No, no. I know. The question I raise now is what happens to the African personality? We spoke of the matter of African personality. With the changes taking place, will the African personality change too?

David Brokensha Well I don't know what the African personality is. As I say I, I would be hard pressed to, to define it. I think that most Africans would because there is an essentially, an ambivalence about their concepts. By having our sort of education I say "our" using it in the western sense, they, I think this necessarily involves some sacrifice of the alteration of their whole personality and of their social system. You can't just take, as we know, you can't just alter one part of the social system without having effects throughout on all other parts.

Studs Terkel And this is, of course, making these changes, make itself felt among the younger, among the younger Africans.

David Brokensha Yes. Yes. And there is, of course, there is no such thing as an African personality. There's such a diversity as Camara Laye points out, such a diversity throughout the, the one country let alone the whole continent. There

Studs Terkel There might be a Ghanian personality as against a Nigerian possibly, or certainly Ghanaian as against a South African.

David Brokensha Yes, well in reverse I've noticed that I have, I know in Ghana many Africans from South Africa who come up and they feel as alien, or no more or no less so, as I do myself or say an American Negro going over or a white American or anybody else. We are all expatriates and some of the Africans from South Africa have been rather disappointed that they thought that, coming to a land which had its freedom, they would feel a, a great kin with the Ghanaians, but they find that they are, their, their customs are different.

Studs Terkel They're strangers.

David Brokensha They are matrilineal people. They, as one of them said, born too from South Africa, said in South Africa we, we think a lot of, of marriage, we encourage the marital relationship. Here in Ghana they, they deny that, and all their values are centered around death and funerals which we pay little attention to. And this is a gross oversimplification but there is something to it.

Studs Terkel Is there perhaps one of the -- of course before we wander onto the matter of cultural patterns in West Africa and other fields, and other arts, the life and other arts -- matter of the woman. In, in The Dark Child, Laye mentions the, the woman and her dignity and her strength.

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel Among the American Negroes this is so. I mean there is a st -- in the family relationship generally the mother is very strong.

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel This was the case during slave days too, leads the underground railway were women too.

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel Is this part of overall Africa too or is this only a, a West African aspect?

David Brokensha Oh no I think it, I think it is so in any, in any society. I think that certainly in Africa the, the women are not subservient. I have been asked about that during my stay in this country. I've been asked what rights women have. And I pointed out that they have traditionally, in African society, considerable rights within their own spheres, and even in the new spheres we have in Ghana a woman judge, only one, but it's a, a higher proportion probably than the States.

Studs Terkel Yes.

David Brokensha We have many women doctors. We are, although the, at, at the college there's only one, one student in, in 15 is a girl. More and more are coming in, into the higher education. And on the subject of women I, I would like to read one more extract, if you are agreeable, from

Studs Terkel -- Please.

David Brokensha From Camara Laye, talking about the, what happens when he does eventually go over to, to Paris and has to break the news of his departure to his mother and to his father. When he has been in the capital he has been offered a scholarship which he has accepted. Then he goes back to tell his people about a, the scholarship to go over to France. He told his father, he got his father on his side, and I think this passage is revealing of showing of the family relationship. I think it's authentic. The father, the goldsmith, reluctantly saw that this was, the son must do for the sake of himself, his family, his country and so they went to see the mother. "We went to look for her. We found her crushing millet for the evening meal. My father stood watching the pestle falling in the mortar. He scarcely knew where to begin. The decision he had had to make would hurt my mother and his own heart was heavy. He stood there watching the pestle and saying nothing. I dared not lift my eyes. But she was not long in guessing what was up. She had only to look at us to understand everything, well almost everything. 'What do you want?', she asked. 'Can't you see I'm busy?' And she began pounding faster and faster. 'Don't go so fast,' my father said. 'You'll wear yourself out'. 'Are you teaching me how to pound millet?', she asked. Then all of a sudden she went on angrily. 'If it's about boy's going to France, you can save your breath. He's not going. He's been away from me for so many years already and now they want to take him away to their own land'." And then Camara Laye comments, "We could only watch them turning and turning, the wheels of destiny turning and turning. My destiny was to go away from home and my mother began to turn her anger on those who she thought were taking me away from her. But by now her anger was futile. Those people are never satisfied. They want to have everything. As soon as they set eyes on something they want it for themselves. Finally her anger and her rage were spent. She laid her head on my shoulder and wept loudly". I think this indicates a sort of pattern of relationship between the father and the mother. The mother and the son. It's a poignant situation.

Studs Terkel Very poignant, very moving. And as you say this is almost symbolic of all developing countries. The young, breaking out of the old

David Brokensha Yes. Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel What of the three African writers you mentioned. Would you say these three pretty much cover the main aspects of, of West African writing? The, the, the cute, the cute Tituola sort of, if I may use that phrase, the Achebi with the more complex, you know, more, more and, and perhaps Laye with the simple direct very moving, very eloquent.

David Brokensha Yes. Yes. Yes. I should say so except that I haven't mentioned, I've been dealing with the, apart from Laye, writers who write in English or have been, Laye has been translated. There is a very important group of writers who write in French who've written mainly for the Journal Présence Africaine. And, and I'm not sufficiently familiar with their works to be able to talk about them, but I think that they are probably more, very significant.

Studs Terkel What of Africa and the other arts? Now we have literature. You mentioned in -- Laye's father, goldsmith, I noticed the goldsmiths.

David Brokensha Yes. Well these, often the goldsmiths, blacksmiths usually crafts which go in families. And Laye has in his book an extremely interesting, and valuable from a sociological point of view, account of his father's ceremony of how a woman wants a necklace made or a little gold earrings made. She brings the gold along, his father goes through the ceremony. There are certain rights and prohibitions. He will abstain from sexual intercourse before the ceremony is done. This is a common pattern. He will ask the blessing of, of the gods on the, on what he is going to do. His pet snake may come out, if it does this is an omen that all is going well. And then he will combine technical skill with the traditional ceremony and hope to produce this wonderful

Studs Terkel The craft then is almost a religious

David Brokensha Yes, it is, yes. And, and these goldsmiths are, one can still find examples of their work, and it is of considerable merit. Not just because it's made in an African village, not just on, on these sort of curio standards, but as on artistic ground, intrinsic artistic merit. It can hold its own meaning in much

Studs Terkel West African, this, I imagine, goes back centuries, century, the West -- the highly developed then, this, it's been the land before the kidnappings by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French and the English.

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel There was a highly developed culture

David Brokensha Yes there were. Some of these, some of the empires, the Empire of Old Ghana flourished in, in the 10th century. The Empire of Mali, the old empires from, from about the 6th to the 18th century. There were a succession of old empires, some of them like Ashanti and Dahomey, more militaristic, but all of them with, with the some culture of their own. And this is interesting. Going back to what we were saying earlier about the African personality, that many Africans tend to exaggerate, not surprisingly, exaggerate the glories of the emp -- of the old empires. I say exaggerate because I think that in many cases there's not sufficient historical or archaeological evidence to support. We just don't know about many aspects. But there's a tendency among some of the more nationalistic Africans to assert themselves and to say that these empires were really rather better than

Studs Terkel I suppose its natural to make up, to make up for the stereotypes of the past century or so in which they described as a primitive

David Brokensha Yes, it is of course a reaction against us.

Studs Terkel And what of the plastic arts and the graphic arts? What about West Africa?

David Brokensha Well there, there are, of course the, the traditional woodcarvers in, in -- not so much in Ghana, in parts of Nigeria, in, in Dahomey, in, in Ivory Coast. There are certain villages which have been known for generations as centers of carving and where one can still get very beautiful woodcarvings. One can also find sculptors working in modern medium. One friend of mine a well known doctor is a sculptor in the modern abstract style and produces very effective, very startling pieces of work in stone. And there are people who, who use the traditional styles in brass and in wood and others who are working in the modern idiom.

Studs Terkel So here too then, as in, in literature, so too in the plastic arts you find this, this ambivalence both.

David Brokensha Yes. Yes. Yes. Some have been very successful in making a reconciliation. Some people in eastern Nigeria produce the work in the traditional methods, but they have been subtly influenced by, by modern innovations. And I think, I see nothing wrong with this. This has been the process of, of all the arts throughout the ages, has been accepting innovations, accepting improvements. I think it would be wrong to try and regard it as static.

Studs Terkel Isn't just the phrase that Camara Laye used about the artificial preservation of that which has had its day?

David Brokensha Yes, I, I say that he implies this, he doesn't say it explicitly but he does imply.

Studs Terkel Mr. Brokensha you, you've offered us these insights through, through three writers whose work you've, you've read and your own observations. And we know more now of a nation -- land, number of nations of which we should know infinitely more than we do, and through these writers and through visitors like you. Is anything else you care to say about the arts, the fine arts, the

David Brokensha No. I'd just like to, to add a rider that I doubt if I offered any insights. But I think that, I, I think it's worth growing attention to, to writers like this. I think that they are, they are interesting for the many people in this country who are genuinely interested in Africa. I've often been asked what books I would recommend, whether they were for students or for people who are interested. And I firmly believe that the novel is often a more, not only much more readable than most of the stuff that sociologists turn out

Studs Terkel More insights in it.

David Brokensha More insights. Yes I think that they can be a very, very useful

Studs Terkel Perhaps we should repeat the, the, the names.

David Brokensha Well the three, yes I mentioned, would you?

Studs Terkel The Palm-Wine Drinkard of Amos Tituola, that's Grove Press. And then there's Achebe's book Things Fall Apart, I wonder who the publishers

David Brokensha I haven't the publisher, but it has been published in this country.

Studs Terkel Chinua Achebe, A C H E B E, Things Fall Apart, and finally The Dark Child of Camala Laye. That too is available

David Brokensha It is, yes. I think in paperback.

Studs Terkel In paperback. That possibly might be Grove.

David Brokensha Yes.

Studs Terkel But The Dark Child of Camara Laye. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe and The Palm-Wine Drinkard of lesser, at the same time

David Brokensha But of interesting, yes.

Studs Terkel Amos Tituola.

David Brokensha And, and of -- perhaps useful for bedtime stories for children who, who, who have a taste for the rather gruesome.

Studs Terkel David Brokensha, thank you very much. I hope when you pass through Chicago again, some more writers from West Africa or more novels by these we've heard, and more, and I repeat, insights on your part. Thank you very much.