au·then·tic adjective 1. Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief.
2. Having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship; not counterfeit or copied.
plau·si·ble adjective 1. Seemingly or apparently valid, likely, or acceptable; credible.
from MS Bookshelf 99
How authentic is the historical background of Ama?
What historians tell us of the past is based on such evidence as has survived. The written evidence of the slave trade is largely that recorded by Europeans; and African oral history tells the stories of kings and famous victories, not those of the daily lives of commoners and slaves.
What I have tried to do is to fill in the gaps.
Ama is fiction and Ama is a fictional character. I sketched the circumstances of her life and asked myself how she would have reacted to them; and how she would have reacted to the other characters.
The story itself is a figment of my imagination.
The writer of historical fiction is not subject to the rules which govern the work of professional historians. That said, I have done my utmost to make the setting authentic.
Several incidents in the book are based on fragmentary stories recorded by contemporary observers and by later historians. Some of these stories are based on oral history.
One example is the "coup d'etat" which installed the adolescent Osei Kwame as the fifth King of Asante.
Another is the story of Tomba, from the time of his capture to the rebellion on board the ship.
My portrayal of Philip Quaque and of Richard Brew, real historical characters, is based on the writings of academic historians.
The basic facts of the Atlantic Slave Trade are reasonably well known, though there is some dispute about the numbers transported.
I have taken some liberties. The town of Kafaba, on the north bank of the Volta River, was indeed the site of an important slave market. I could find little by way of description so I based my reconstruction of late eighteenth century Kafaba on descriptions of the slave market at Salaga, dating from the latter part of the nineteenth century. At the time of Ama's fictional passage, more than a hundred years earlier, Salaga does not appear in the historical record.
As to the West African background, I have done my best. West Africans, I fear, might not find that good enough. I have lived in Ghana for most of my adult life but I know that there are complexities in the culture which I have yet to fathom.
The full text of Prof. Joseph Miller's Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, from which the boxed quote on the left is taken, is to be found on another page.
Aall my knowledge of eighteenth century Brazil, such as it is, comes from books. Fortunately there are several excellent books on slavery in Bahia, some written soon after the fictional events I describe and some with late twentieth century hindsight and skill.
The description of the slaves' worship in the Bahian forest is entirely speculative. However the fact that Candomblé, the Brazilian religion based largely on Yoruba beliefs, continues to flourish to this day, suggests that something like this must have happened, not once, but many times..
Related to the question of authenticity is that of plausibility. Here I know I am on shaky ground. It is impossible for a writer of today to enter into the minds of people who lived over two hundred years ago. All historical fiction is in that sense about the present rather than the past, for the writer cannot avoid passing the mental processes of his characters through a filter of present concerns. Fortunately perhaps, no critics have survived from Ama's time to say, “No, it was not like that at all.”
In this web site I have done my best to provide the honest critic who would fault Ama on the grounds of a lack of authenticity, with the tools to do so. As to plausibility, that must emerge from the quality of the writing, or lack of it, concerning which I have no defence.
In a question Rachel Langford raised on H-AFRLITCINE concerning the "generic understandings of selfhood" of individuals in a more or less distant past, I find an echo of my own concerns about plausibility in creating Ama's character. I recast Langford's example: "If I had been a young Konkomba woman, captured and enslaved in 1775 and sent into service in the Asante royal household (and subsequently that of the Dutch Governor of Elmina Castle and of a Senhor de Engenho in the Bahian Reconcavo), I would have come into contact with cultural practices designed to educate me into thinking about myself and my surroundings in ways deemed appropriate by my owners . . . What I don't know, and what I have tried to imagine, is what generic understandings of selfhood that young woman would have carried within her from her own social context . . ."
Kalamu ya Salaam, writing in FYAH! November/December 1999 (Issue V) (http://www.fyah.com/fieldnotes5.htm) (summarized below - see also the boxed quotes on the left) raises difficult problems concerning the writer's ideological orientation, problems which also concerned me as I wrote AMA and which also bear on the questions of authenticity and plausibility.
Rachael Langford on Subjectivity
H-NET List for African Literature and Cinema [H-AFRLITCINE@H-NET.MSU.EDU] Subject: African subjectivity Wed 26-01-00 5:33 PM
Could anyone help me with references on the issue of subjectivity in African philosophy? I don't really mean identity here, but the sense of self and the recognition of 'oneself as another'.
From: "RACHAEL LANGFORD" <LangfordRE@Cardiff.ac.uk> Sun 30-01-00 7:47 PM
. . . I agree with you that cultural products both express and construct subjectivity through language. I appreciate that talking about 'African subjectivity' is falsely to homogenise a whole variety of thought from different periods and approaches, in the same way that talking about 'colonial discourse' is to connive at creating a false and monologic monolith. I realise that European culture has had contact with African culture from the earliest of times, and that attempting to find some sort of 'pure' African thought is to misrecognise the nature of cultural exchange throughout history. I don't agree with you or with post-structuralism that the subject is an illusion created in discourse, though I don't discount the fruitfulness of this idea for many.
So let me make my query more concrete. If I had been a Wolof-speaking Senegalese six year old in 1935 and had attended an elementary school run by a mission or by the colonial administration, I would have come into contact with materials produced to educate me into thinking about myself and my surroundings in ways deemed appropriate by (various branches of) colonial discourse. As a researcher now, I can reconstruct some of these colonial discourses and trace what some of these 'appropriate' conceptions were. What I don't know, and what I'm trying to find out, is what generic understandings of selfhood that six year old would have carried within him from his own social context. I know these horizons would have varied according to his family's socio-economic status, religious affiliation, language group (amongst other co-ordinates) and according to his gender. Nevertheless, societies do imagine themselves, through narratives and other social practices, in general terms as a unitary whole and in terms of the place of discrete individuals within them. But my imaginary six year old didn't go on to become a novelist or an essayist, and the teachers in his school didn't record what resistances they came up against when seeking adherence to their view of the world.
I guess you would contend that I can find a text about the period by an African writer about this kind of experience and find there exposed in language a vision of the African subject. But language is the crux of the issue here, as we can see from Oyono's Une Vie de boy. If the subject is merely an effect of language as you contend (I don't really subscribe to that view) and I read a Francophone African novel, then I get a view of the French-speaking African subject-effect-of-language who has to a greater or lesser extent integrated European models of subjectivity into his worldview through his 'apprentissage de langue'. The other difficulty here is the old anthropologists' and ethnographers' problem of perspective. As a European educated in a European tradition of humanities/liberal arts, I am a reader rooted in a particular philosophical tradition. However informed and culturally aware I am, when I analyse a text by an African I am a located reader. You say that you would 'hope to see a study of the subject based on the cracks and crevices in the conventional readings/writings of African literature'. By conventional, do you mean those produced in the Western academy? - for I would not like to see my understanding of Africans conceptualising selfhood delimited by what liberal arts-trained Westerners such as myself identify in African literature as meaning-bearing; I don't say this to be politically correct, but because I know that there is a whole lot that I am ignorant of when it comes to how the multiplicity of different social formations in Africa think themselves and the individuals in them. I would hope rather to see study of conceptions of subjectivity in Africa based on an understanding of how different African communities think self and other through the syntactical structures of their (non-European) languages; and based on some familiarity with philosophical thinking, rather than narratives, about selfhood and subjectivity by Africans; and based on an understanding of how Africans may have rethought social relations in the face of colonisation, in order to theorise forms of political or cultural resistance, for example. (Here again you will think I am homogenising, since the conceptions of a young Tanzanian don't necessarily hold for an old Tanzanian; what holds for a rural Anglophone Cameroonian doesn't necessarily hold for an urban Francophone Cameroonian.)
Kalamu ya Salaam on DOING BATTLE ON THE CULTURAL FRONT
(Shortened - please check the link for the full text - MH)
. . . cultural workers occupy a critical position. Through the power of our artwork, we artists can either reveal the truth or maintain myths; can wake up the consciousness of our audience to the realities of our world or hypnotize people into believing that beliefs are synonymous with truths. The invaluable role that entertainment plays in stabilizing the status quo is why artists as entertainers are paid disproportionate to other workers (such as teachers and farmers) in modern American society.
Perhaps here we need to clarify the distinction between artists and entertainers, that is, assuming there is a distinction. First of all, all successful art entertains, i.e. engages the imagination and emotions of its audience. That is the essential power of any art. So then being an entertainer is part and parcel of being an artist. An artist must be able to move people.
. . . An essential difference between art and entertainment is that art reveals the realities of history and the status quo, and proposes a vision of a significantly altered future, whereas entertainment reinforces social myths and proposes the futility of revolution past, present or future.
Judge for yourself, but sooner or later, those essential characteristics will manifest themselves in all artwork. You can deal with this or you can deal with that, one way or another, you either conform to or transform the status quo. Given our current state, which is a contradictory mixed bag (i.e. we both conform and transform, but tend to conform more than we transform), the real question for us as artists is how to mount and sustain cultural warfare with the avowed goal of winning the hearts and minds of our people away from conforming to the status quo, win our people over to transforming the status quo reality.
So that is the revolutionary duty of the artist: to reveal the truth. This is intrinsically a revolutionary duty because in a period of cultural domination the revelation of truth in and of itself is oppositional to the status quo, which works to maintain hegemony.
. . . an artist who has not come to grips with the patriarchal and dominating nature of a so-called "universal" sky god, is an artist unable to break the psychological grip of Euro-centric thought, and hence, regardless of the so-called political content of their work, that artist will invariably end up supporting the status quo, and thus in the long run end up being an entertainer. Of course, there is much more to discuss in this context, because this is a very complex topic, but I think you see the general outlines.
All of this is the context within which I think our battle for cultural equity and cultural diversity takes place. I believe what we are struggling to do is defend and develop ourselves based first on revealing the truth of our day to day lives and our history, and second on taking responsibility for the shaping of our future.
Our social truths are tough and complex in that they include all kinds of contradictory social realities, some of which are shameful, nearly all of which are painful to reveal. Our failure to stop the colonizer was often because of a failure to unite with others who had a common battle to wage even if they were historically our enemy; a failure to curtail collaboration with the enemy; and ultimately a failure to overcome our own weaknesses in thought and action.
The fact is we were enslaved by the millions and the magnitude of that slavery could not have taken place without strategic mistakes and critical sell-outs. Fortunately, as our ongoing struggle makes clear, we have been delayed but not denied. So the task of our artist and art institutions is to reveal both the perfidy of the enemy and the pitifulness of our own weaknesses. You see when we talk about what needs to be attacked, the internal contradictions must be very high on our list. Most of the major slave revolts in the United States were betrayed from within.
So art must look unblinkingly at the past and the present if it is to offer a clear-eyed vision of the future. Furthermore, the future of our struggles for equity and diversity, for empowerment and tolerance, must be grounded in specific realities and aimed toward a general embracement of the oppressed and exploited including huge sectors of the so-called "white" world who are more confused than we are, and certainly more spiritually and emotionally bankrupt than we have ever been. We may not have much wind in our sails, but there are literally millions of white Americans running on empty who live in a world of dread and angst. While I feel no moral responsibility to save them as whites, I do feel a responsibility to address them as human beings.
I do not fool myself into thinking that the majority of people who think of themselves as white will heed my words, but, at the same time, I am wise enough to understand that I in no way diminish myself by helping others, even if those others have historically bought into their alleged superiority over me. For you see, deep down in their souls they know, just as deep down in my soul I know, that none of us are superior, we are all humans struggling to survive, procreate and find a measure of peace and happiness.
The effort to accurately communicate the complex and contradictory nature of truth is the battle I envision as a human being, the battle I wage as an artist.
Let your light shine/a luta continua.
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