It is a very humbling thing to be the one white person in a lecture about black literature. My cheeks burned as the shameful theology of the Sons of Ham was recounted to explain why westerners have looked down on African people for centuries. I felt my own presence questioned as missionaries were described as those who brought the gospel but didn’t know Africans well enough to really serve them with it.
However, the grace and humour of my fellows was the most humbling thing. They laughed at the inconsistencies in the Sons of Ham theology. They expressed compassion for black Americans, because they were surrounded by many other colours, whereas at least in Tanzania black is the norm.
I loved hearing the exhortations of my lecturer. She told the girls that their black skin is beautiful, and they ought not to bleach it. She called on everyone to think and speak of themselves as people of strength, wealth and intelligence. When I say things like this it can sound condescending, disingenuous, even hypocritical, but she could say it with more force and with more integrity than I ever could.
All of this was part of a lecture on Black Aesthetics. It’s a strain of literature which celebrates black people and their lives, in contrast to the way they are often presented in white literature, as poor or stupid, at best ‘exotic’ but always in some way ‘primitive’. Black Aesthetics refuses to use the literary theories and constructs of the west, or even the same content. This is an answer to some of the questions that have been raised in the course about the relationship of Swahili or African literature to western literature.
However, a challenge is that Black Aesthetics prefers to use African languages (understandably!) but they often struggle to find an audience which is broad enough to justify publishing. Thus many end up writing in English because it makes better business sense. This raises a stack of other questions. If the audience of these black writers is white, does that change what they write about or how they write it? I feel this myself. Obviously I am a white writer, and this blog is for the benefit of Australian partners rather than our Tanzanian colleagues. We are still non-Africans talking to non-Africans about Africans!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.