Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Dear Students: I forgot to mention two things in class, which came up on your papers on your prior reading of the literature of African American slavery.

First, some students listed Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which is not a work of African American Literature and does not deal with African American slavery (although there are some incidences of internal slavery). Things Fall Apart is an African novel, the first really important one published in English. Achebe is Nigerian Ibo and portrays life before and during British colonialism in his part of the work. Although the novel is fictional, it is nonetheless set in the historical context of the turn of the century. Achebe wrote it in part in response to Joseph Conrad's portrayal of Africa in Heart of Darkness, which at least one other person mentioned in our survey of African American Literature. Of course, Heart of Darkness isn't African American Literature either.

It is written by Joseph Conrad in 1903 (the same time as Souls of Black Folk) and it deals with the Congo (Central Africa), which was at the time a private and illegal colony of Belguim's King Leopold II (one of the scariest of the European colonial interlopers on the African continent). Conrad is Polish (not African, not African American) as I recall and his story is both symbolic and fictional. Nonetheless, he does a good job of capturing the hopelessness and despair of the Congo for its inhabitants at the time.

Both books are extremely important and bear upon the colonialism and imperialism visited upon the African continent pretty much as an adjunct to the period during which millions of slaves were transported to the New World in the African slave trade. It was yet another way of exploiting the continent's riches, but with little historical overlap. African American slavery ends in the last of the New World colonies in the 1890s, at the same time that the so called "Scramble for Africa" begins in earnest among a number of Western European nations in which they divide up the largely undeveloped terrain of the African continent--North, South, East and West--between themselves. It was possible to do this without necessarily consulting the inhabitants or the existing infrastructure (the way Achebe describes it in Things Fall Apart) and much as Americans and Europeans divided the Americas without reference to the existing infrastructure of the Native American tribes already on the land.

Sometimes they briefly negotiated with and managed the tribes. Alternatively, Other times in an extremely helter skelter fashion, they massacred them. One mode of almost certainly resulting in random violence skirmishes and ultimately genocide would be to open up a piece of land to American or European settlement. Such pioneers would rush in to claim their plot, and deal without whatever or whoever got in their way. They were always armed and they were brainwashed to considered the current inhabitants of the land as savages and inferior beings, like the buffalo.

Anyhow there are some interesting connections here. Hope this helps. Thanks.


Dubois Concerning Black Music

Overwhelmingly the mass of writings on African American music have been written about music produced in the 20th century owing to the importance of the invention of recorded sound as a reliable object of study.   However most studies which include discussion of early African American music and its religious inflections will include some speculation on its relationship to slavery, Reconstruction and the semi-freedom of the Jim Crow Period.

In the further pursuit of materials related to Du Bois discussion of the development of the music of the slaves in Chapter 10 "Faith of Our Fathers" and in his final chapter on the Sorrow Songs in The Souls of Black Folk, the following crucial texts come highly recommended by me:

Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. University of Illinois Press 1977.
Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons and Speech. Beacon Press 1992.
Robert Darden, People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music. Continuum 2004.
Michael W. Harris, The Rise of the Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church. Oxford University Press 1992.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition. University of Nebraska Press 2001.
Eileen Southern, Readings in Black American Music. Second Edition, Norton Press 1983.