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Afro-American Literature?

By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

I teach Afro-American Literature because I am trained in literature, and because Afro-American literature is the literature of my people, one of the most oppressed nationalitites in the world today. I make no apology for this categorization. Witness the profound alienation of Afro-American peoples, the malicious attempt to reduce us to beings only concerned with the satisfaction of animal desires, the undisguised genocidal practices to which Afro-Americans are subjected daily (over 50 per cent of the U.S. prison population is black), the gross unemployment of our youth (over 60 per cent unemployed) while billions go toward arms procurement on the ground that the U.S. commitment to European allies is more important than the livelihood of our people. There is a deliberate attempt to keep Afro-Americans in ignorance and thereby obfuscate their thinking clearly about the nature of their oppression.

I will insist that despite the pomposity of grandiloquent phrases about Human Rights and endless phrase-mongering about liberty and justice, one must always judge a nation by the quality of its humanism and the manner in which it answers these simple questions: Are your poor clothed and fed? Are your oppressed employed? Do they have access to free and high quality health care? Do they share in the fruits of your nation's bounty?

When, therefore, one speaks of Afro-American literature, one speaks about the literary expressions of the spiritual and emotional experiences of the people whose condition I have just described. Like all great art, literature reflects the historical content of a given age. As a pedagogical tool, it is nothing more than another means of trying to cognize the nature of physical and emotional reality. As such, Afro-American literature is simply the reflector of the life of Afro-American peoples, which shows us the manner in which they lived, the manner in which they lived, the manner in which they were treated by the oppressor class, the manner in which they transformed themselves in historical time and the various forms which have been used to capture the essential features of their ontological being.

Before I begin, I need to point out that I see truth as being central to any discussion about pedagogy. Therefore, I begin my teaching with what I call the three-fold synthesis of truth: I let my students know that I perceive the world in a particular manner and because I am a social being I possess certain values. Thus I am neither neutral nor unbiased in my presentation of pedagogical materials. I go even further. I say that each society has its own heroes and villains, its own ideals of man, and its own values. Whatever I do, I make my students understand that the Euro-centric perception of man and of beauty is not the only perception of man and beauty and that one has to employ an historical methodology to understand the truth of this statement.

Secondly, I remind my students that I am not the sole respository of the truth, that I am no guru to be deified nor do I possess all of the answers. Truth, as I see it, is an approximation. Truth, therefore, is never final, nor is it given in a final eternal form. Because the discovery of truth lies in process, we proceed by dialogue rather than by monologue. Collectively we begin a search to arrive at the approximation of truth, knowing always that one of the most important functions of our time is the ability to find a methodology which presents us with a framework for arriving at the closest approximations of truth. Because we are social beings who act and who correspondingly reflect upon our actions, we are possessors of that truth and we have a certain contribution to make in arriving at that truth. The instructor, because he possesses more information and has a vaster store of experiences his students, guides his students and in turn is guided by them.

Third, our approach to scholarship is profoundly humanistic. I insist, in the words of Fidel Castro, that artistic creations should be valued in proportion to what they offer mankind, in proportion to their contribution to the revindication of man, the liberation of man, the happiness of man."

Thus our value is humanistic. Our pedagogy, therefore, is a pedagogy of humanism where man stands as the supreme value. Not property, not the sacredness of man-made systems; not the elaborate web of superstitious practices, but man in his poeticised wisdom and folly, his strength and his weakness, his beauty and his ugliness... but always man.

What then is Afro-American Literature? To begin, it is a manifestation of the ethnic and emotional consciousness of Afro-American peoples. Our aesthetic concern is about a particular kind of man, the Afro-American man and woman, who have emerged under particular historical circumstances and whose aesthetic sensibilities were fashioned by a particular geography, a particular social setting and a particular type of economic arrangement.

My concern as a teacher and scholar is to find out what are the particular aesthetic forms which are used to capture the particularity of Afro-American man and woman in literature, through the explication of literary text. At once, therefore, I am concerned about the dialectical interrelationship of form and content, bearing in mind the Hegelian notion of the impenetrable nature of form and content, and the manner in which each penetrates the other.

This is part one of an article adapted from a speech given in the Cambridge Forum series this month. Part two will appear on this page next week. Selwyn R. Cudjoe is assistant professor of Afro-American Studies

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