Seeing the Mirage: African American Narrative and Change

Seeing the Mirage: African American Narrative and Change

(Paper presented at the Sixth Annual African Studies Consortium Workshop, October 02, 1998)


Lynda Hill

Temple University

[Copyright 1998, Lynda Hill, All Rights Reserved. This work may be cited, for non-profit educational use only, by crediting the author and the exact URL of this document.]

Such is the desert. A Koran which is but a handbook of the rules of the game transforms its sands into an empire. Deep in the seemingly empty Sahara a secret drama is being played that stirs the passions of men. The true life of the desert is not made up of the marches of tribes in search of pasture, but of the game that goes endlessly on. What a difference in substance between the sands of submission and the sands of unruliness! The dunes, the salines, change their nature according as the code changes by which they are governed.

--Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1939[1]

Our trip to the "liberated" zones began at 4 a.m. It was still dark, the desert wind brisk and the temperature low. We put on army clothes and were given headgear and goggles to protect us against the wind and sand. There were four cars and 21 men in our convoy. We passed the wreckage of war: burned out tanks and weapons, the remains of the town of Lebuirat. The citizens had fled across the rocky terrain on foot, by camel and car[Sigma].

--Lynda Hill, 1981[2]

I looked at Ahmed, another whose very physiognomy had been for me so deceptive. His was not the kind of visage I had been socialized to expect in a fearless guerilla soldier. He had a boyish, mild, almost angelic face. He was small, as were all of the Saharawi I had seen. And, like the others, he had a light voice. I had detected not a trace of swagger in any of these heavily armed men with their distinctly un-Western mien. During our rest stop at Lebuirat, one of the guerillas, with a shy smile and no other meaning, had even presented Lynda with a wild yellow bloom he had plucked from the desert.

--Randall Robinson, 1998[3]

Stories of dangers and pleasures encountered in the Sahara Desert continue to recur in travel accounts, journalism, and memoirs of the twentieth century. The examples quoted above, for me, invoke a series of reflections, as if I have been gazing into a mirror continually since a brief sojourn in the Sahara Desert in 1980. As when staring into a mirror, examining these quotes is an exercise in suspense, because there is someone there I know all too well, but there is also the impression that the image is arbitrarily connected to who I am, as if my persona is somehow distorted. More important, like the image in a mirror, the passages have an artificial quality, a semblance of intrigue and drama one must attribute to each writer's effort, including my own, to narrate a particular episode. In a mirror, this artificial quality is situated in the individual, for it is in one's perceptions, in the subjective point of view, where lies the conflict between what seems to be and what one would like to think should be. The conflict also can be characterized as an opposition between the image, which is visually projected, and an ideal, which is psychologically fabricated. Between the two, I would argue, there is an implicit ethics, a moralistic stance toward the subject of one's gaze, a composite of how one thinks she appears and how one thinks she ought to appear when seen in the best possible light. In this paper, I will attempt to reconcile two extremes of this disparity as they are manifested in African American writing that documents first-hand observations of Africa. When I say reconcile, I mean that I will try to explain how and why at least two widely divergent visions of Africa have persisted during the course of a long tradition of African Americans' writing about Africa. These contrasting perspectives underscore the politics of representation emerging amidst emotionally complex historical circumstances associated with cultural production in the United States.

Before sketching a trajectory of the history to which I refer I first wish to establish the immediate context for my own reflections. The purpose of my brief journey to Western Sahara, formerly Spanish Sahara, was to report the results of a fact-finding mission Randall Robinson, President of the lobby group TransAfrica, was conducting. I went on the trip in my role as an editor for the African American business monthly Black Enterprise, where I subsequently published the feature article "War in the Sahara." Because of the challenges I faced trying to contain in a 2500 word story the enormous volume of impressions and information I had amassed, I became acutely aware that it would be impossible for me to reduce into an article a cross-cultural encounter of complex dimensions. After all, observing a war, albeit during a hiatus in combat, if not an outright cease-fire, meant not only having to focus on material evidence but also communicating across language differences (the Sahrawis speak a dialect of Arabic and some also speak Spanish or French). Also, the desert itself as well as its surrounding environs, including Algiers, the port of our arrival, can affect the senses in ways that I can only describe as enchanting. The facts of a war combined with free-floating impressions (winding streets, the Mediterranean, prayers at dawn and dusk, the barren air strip at Tindouf, a barely perceptible horizon and vast expanses of dry soil) are sharp--to say nothing of the warmth and generosity of people under siege. (Morocco had occupied Western Sahara since 1976.) The excess of details I accumulated meant that an article would never be enough for me to make a complete statement. Consequently, an editor cajoled me into producing what I consider a hack version of the uncontainable novel-in-the-making I saw as the only possible form of narrative that could have begun to represent my perspective.

Why was a short mission so difficult to confine to the specifications of a standard feature article? Where I saw the need for artful simplicity and understatement, the editor saw a journalistic narrative of high adventure. Even a lengthy version of the story I wrote which, though fictionalized, was an attempt to capture the subtlety such a sensitive situation required, met with an incongruous response. A well-known Latin American novelist, Manuel Puig, upon reading the story found it too muted to be believable, even though I had hardly fictionalized any of the details.[4] In all fairness, he did not know the story was based on first-hand experience, since his role as a second reader for my MFA project did not bring us in direct contact; however, his reaction struck me as a debilitating type of irony, an unimaginable defiance against [resistance to] what I considered the power of facts to stand on their own merit. But to what extent does believing that there are such things as factual details, beyond our own projections, impede the understanding that is necessary to convey a convincing portrait of people, events and places such as I had seen, against a background of nationalist aspirations and conflicts? When national boundaries are drawn and destinies are at stake, how naive would one need to be to expect images depicting culture to be non-politicized--void of any partisan inflection? I would argue that to anticipate anything but coded interpretations suggesting cultural biases is to invite self-parody where one might have sought a high critical ground. [In other words], no matter how we struggle to make ourselves or others accountable as observers, no matter how sure we are that our observations are trustworthy, credible, informed by expertise--or how uninformed we may see another, counter point of view-- failing to see our own biases renders us absurd. Thus, in attempting to overcome the limitations of journalistic reporting, even though my factual account had been exaggerated into a first-person narrative, after publishing my article I sought examples of other writing about the Sahara Desert. I developed a fascination with the idea that neither journalism nor fiction could contain the story that would fully represent what I had observed, and I have since come to realize that no single genre of writing can reproduce, without reference to other genres, a completely satisfying portrait. Combining genres is one way to recreate the shifts in point of view that can occur in an observer's assessment of a series of episodes. There are moments when a narrator may be sure the evidence is convincing, but other times, particularly in the desert, when mirages are metaphors for mysterious experiences, such as the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery describes in his books which combine fiction with first-person recollections of the Sahara Desert and capture the elusiveness of desert culture as well as the terrain.

How do I justify looking at a French writer's work to support a point I want to make about American cultural production and African American writing? At the time, a French perspective seemed consistent with the post-colonial status of Algeria where the Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saquia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), military arm of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the representative government of the Sahrawi people, maintained its headquarters. From their base in Algiers, the Polisario disseminated publications pertaining to their independence movement. Because they were a displaced organization representing a colonized government, operating from a leftist former French colony, fighting against a Mahgreb neighbor who was allied with the United States, the situation involved the transgression of national boundaries and, in my view, ensured a transnational subtext even before my American point of view entered the picture. By transnational subtext I mean that everyone engaged in supporting or simply trying to understand the Western Sahara's conflict had to be prepared to accept that defining people along lines that correspond with national borders can produce personal tragedy with international ramifications. And, lest we forget the many foreign weapons sustaining the conflict, remember that writing about the topic involves mirroring, which means that casting my eyes on the scene would necessarily bring about further refraction of the lines assumed to be national boundaries. Here is where Saint-Exupery enters the mix.

His excursions by airplane brought him crashing into the desert, but being lost, weary and thirsty did not diminish his sense of awe. Recounting one of the episodes when he was forced to land in the Spanish Sahara, Saint-Exupery tells how startled he was to be, he insists, the first human observer of black stones he takes to be meteors that once fell from the sky in a storm. Using apples falling to the ground from a tree as a point of comparison, he explains that only stars could fall as rain from the sky. No matter how long ago the storm might have occurred, "a striking foreshortening of time that embraced thousands of years" made him feel as if he were a first-hand witness to the meteor shower. Why a witness? Because, he writes, "The marvel of marvels was that there on the rounded back of the planet, between this magnetic sheet and those stars, a human consciousness was present in which as in a mirror that rain could be reflected" (76).

I quote this passage where the author uses the mirror analogy to establish his awareness of himself as a mediator because his remarks astonished me when I first read them in 1981 as I wrestled with the different drafts of my Saharan narratives. How could he have captured the same [primeval] sense of witnessing prehistory that I had known for sure as my own perception? At some point during my musings I realized that two people writing about the same place across more than a 50-year time difference, across linguistic, cultural and "racial" differences, and even from different occupational backgrounds, need not mean anything more than that an important dimension of Western Sahara's legacy has to do with being transhistorical, as well as transcultural, transnational and perhaps even transcendental as another segment of Saint-Exupery's account suggests.

He implicitly raises the question of how significant culture, gender, and politics are when the distinguishing feature of the desert is its impact on the senses? Once the degree of impact is assessed, then it is possible to gauge one's reactions to people and their actions. This is why his reference to the vertigo he felt while lying sprawled on his back staring at the starry sky helps remind me that physically orienting oneself presents major challenges in the desert. As Saint-Exupery notes, even when lying still the sensation of movement persists. When I traveled 700 miles of desert terrain, observing the change from total blackness at 4 a.m. to eerie pastels at sunrise and then an unrelenting, bland whiteness in the fullness of morning meant only shades of variation in the landscape. Expert eyes were needed to navigate the unmarked route to our destination--the "liberated" zones. We deferred. What stood out against the monochromatic surroundings were people with convictions determined to bring international attention to their plight, even if it meant leading us astray of our plan (which was?) and risking our lives. Is this what Saint-Exupery perceived as the social dynamics he characterizes as a game?

Nowadays, to speak of crossing borders arouses thoughts of territorial disputes that are at times social and ideological rather than geographic and martial. But that day in 1980, when our convoy crossed the border into Morocco, all four categories of contest applied. The social and ideological were conflated in the very specific problem of our being without our passports in a part of the desert that was technically off-limits to our hosts--guerilla soldiers who were at war with allies of the United States government. As for the geographic, let me recall how we had dangled at the edge of a rocky precipice as we descended into this valley of death, where demolished vehicles and weapons were strewn beside the remains of human life.

Thus, I had become implicated in this foreign militia's plan to display evidence of its power. Had not the Polisario successfully invaded and conquered this outpost of Morocco's southernmost tip? Although the answer was yes, how could I determine the full import of their gesture when, at that moment, I no longer had control of the destiny they so relied upon to convey their position to the world at large? Randall Robinson writes with clarity of his willingness to accept full responsibility for the error of judgment that allowed him to defer to the soldiers who had led us into Morocco. His plan to advocate the U.S. government's ending arms agreements with Morocco and supporting the Sahrawi's struggle for independence from Moroccan occupation proved idealistic. Writing of his efforts on behalf of Western Sahara as a "failure for TransAfrica and African Americans in general" (119), Robinson draws attention to the impasses that are frequently encountered when causes that may have a basis in the philosophy of the U.S. constitution are beyond the concerns of mainstream politics. He returns from the desert feeling on the one hand compassion for "the women and children in the Tindouf tents who had fled on foot across the burning earth" (118) and, on the other hand, incredulity at the thought of "the American people who, with the rarest exception, had never heard of the Western Sahara, its people, their plight" (118). More important, he recalls that there is no answer to a Saharan elder's question about how "a great nation of free people like the United States" could aid Morocco in denying freedom to the Sahrawis. In his mission to attract support for political causes in Africa and particularly in his decision to write a memoir of this part of his career, Robinson enters into a long-standing discourse in African American writing. This discourse illustrates that the limitations on the capacity to envision viable policies toward African countries often are directly related to the limitations of the American imagination to visualize Africa beyond stereotypes rooted in assumptions about culture.[5]

Recognizing the autonomy of African governments is part of a larger program evident in a tradition of African American writing that espouses a strong identification with the continent as well as a philanthropic attitude. In the eighteenth century, Oulaudah Equiano recalls with nostalgia the way of life he had left behind when he was stolen from his village in Benin.[6] Equiano expresses nostalgia and respect for his culture. After years of traveling worldwide and eventually settling in England, however, he becomes acculturated, has a conversion experience, and decides to pursue missionary work in Sierre Leone but returns to England because of administrative problems. His allusions to what he sees as a humanitarian program of "uplift" in Africa aligns him with other African descendents who have crossed the Atlantic to advocate or to participate in bringing about change. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, for example, W.E.B. Du Bois began what would become a lifelong pursuit of scholarship pertaining to Africa, and moved to Ghana in 1961. He published numerous articles and books on Africa, and has been called the father of Pan-Africanism. In 1934, the Negro anthology edited by Nancy Cunard was published and provided a comprehensive collection of articles by scholars writing on international themes pertaining to black cultures in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. An important parallel among all of these sources has to do with the transnational feature of their work. From Equiano to Du Bois, and the contributors to the Negro anthology, border crossings are a consistent part of interpretations seeking to evaluate African and African American cultures.

A strong desire to connect with Africa and aid in nationalist and Pan-Africanist movements is a major theme in African American writing; however, a counter theme that takes a critical view stressing cultural differences between Africans and African Americans has prominence as well. Before examining two examples of the counter position, I would like to turn my attention briefly to Marita Golden's fictionalized autobiographical account of her experience in Nigeria, Migrations of the Heart.7 Her work provides a woman's point of view, which helps to address the question of whether there are different expectations for women in cross-cultural situations involving African and African American women.

Golden's point of view can be seen as a pivotal point between two perspectives dominating African American writing that pertains to perceptions about Africa. These two perspectives consist of, on the one hand, a Pan-Africanist orientation, as illustrated in the work of Du Bois and Robinson and, on the other hand, a critical position that questions whether the basis for nationalistic identification across the Atlantic is valid, as in the work of Richard Wright and the contemporary journalist Keith Richburg. Between these two perspectives emerges Golden's personal narrative of a quest for "roots" not only through identification with a romantic concept of Africa as a homeland, but also through assimilation of an African culture by marriage to a Yoruba man. Her "migrations"--again, suggesting a transnational theme--lead the reader through a series of rites of passage that bring the narrator back to a self she had sought through a cultural odyssey. Her odyssey leads the reader to conclude that the belief in similar values shared between an African American woman and a Nigerian man are founded on flawed expectations men and women have upon marrying. Nevertheless, there are larger cultural implications, since she suggests that the narrator's marital conflicts are as much due to cultural differences as to gender-related challenges. Although it is improbable that culture and gender can be separated, the perspective presented in Golden's book assumes that the cultural content of gender-related conflicts varies dramatically from culture to culture, even when the similarities are equally pervasive. Thus, women may seem to have more limitations placed on them in an African context compared with an American context, but when examining the customs surrounding rites of passage such as courtship, marriage, and childbirth, the differences wilt away. And where war and social conflicts that lead to cultural and political upheavals are involved, where variation and improvisation are the norm, it is difficult to see an absolute line between one cultural context and another.

Taking my own experience in Western Sahara as an example again, I note my response to questions about how my traveling with 21 guerilla soldiers was effected by my being the only woman. To these questions I reply that my gender was only tangentially at issue, and in this sense I was no different from the Sahrawi women I encountered. Because of the war, the status of women had changed so that women were now performing duties they might not have before the war. For example, women were the administrators of a school we visited. It was here that we learned that, like the men, women in responsible positions could be very young and if unmarried, were dressed, as the men, in fatigues and were combat ready in the event of an attack. Indeed, women were trained for combat, although they were not employed as front-line soldiers. This fact I would compare with the struggle at the time for women in the United States armed services to engage in active combat, and it would seem that here the women of Western Sahara were less rather than more limited by their gender. Even married women were part of the work force, employed largely in what could be called gender-coded tasks such as sewing, but again parallels can be drawn with the status of women in the United States. For that reason, in my role as a writer for a magazine accompanying a politician on a research tour, a certain amount of privilege accrued to me. My own peculiar status as well as my observations of the shifts in roles that had occurred among the Saharawi women helped me to see how fluctuating social circumstances can challenge our preconceptions about women's roles in developing countries and cause us to rethink our presumptions about the supposed independence we have as Americans.

Perhaps a personalized woman's view helps us to imagine whether there be a prospect for reconciling the two extreme positions represented by the Pan-Africanist versus the critic. Richard Wright's well-known critical travelogue of his visit to Ghana, Black Power, has for years presented the Pan-Africanist perspective with the problem of what to do about the turncoat African American who takes a hard line of argument against using colonial status as an explanation for social and economic crises.[8] However, Wright's argument also makes it possible to further draw a wedge in the rigid categories that polarize along racial and cultural lines. More recently, Keith Richburg's narrative, Out of America, also examines conflicts in Africa resulting from ideological differences internally and with the West.[9] Both Wright and Richburg argue that being black gives them no more than a superficial basis for identifying culturally with African people and still less basis for understanding specific features of social and political life. As Wright struggles to understand Akan religious rites, on the one hand, and a Christian church service, on the other, he fails to see that the role of religion in Ghana has any bearing on changing central problems of social and economic life. Although his failure to see comes across as insensitive, his study is not easy to dismiss considering the damaging consequences the book had for Wright's relations with Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah. I mean that Wright apparently had not intended to mar his relationship with Nkrumah because Wright was committed to a Pan-Africanist program for African independence. Consequently, offending Nkrumah indicates that Wright saw himself confronting serious faults in the Africa he observed; however, his lucidity exposes his contradictory perspective, his Western bias. Since the book negatively affected Wright's credibility as a spokesperson for Pan-Africanism, it is easy to see that his critical remarks strike an antagonistic note but not easy to see the extent to which he meant his criticism to be destructive of a Pan-Africanist agenda. Rather, he meant for Pan-Africanism to be modified, brought into parity with Western ideologies. In a sense, he was testing the permeability of the boundaries setting newly emerging African nations apart from the West. Some of the reasons Black Power inspires discomfort can be found even in a cursory reading of Wright's opinionated observations. He is candid about stating that Africa has learned what he considers the wrong lessons from exposure to Western culture, while not taking advantage of the lessons that have the potential to bring about progressive change. Similarly, Richburg laments that tragedies in Somalia, Rwanda, and other conflict-ridden areas can be attributed to the absence of Democratic and humanist traditions rather than to colonialism's damaging effects. Both Wright and Richburg deny that being African American makes them particularly insightful about Africa, even as they both come to terms with their prior perceptions of how being black made them inclined to assume a proactive role in visiting the continent and (for Richburg) in working there, with hopes of revising American perceptions.

It is impossible to avoid the subtexts that are overlooked in using oneself as a source or an authority--subtexts such as implied political ideologies, cultural biases, and other qualifications. These qualifiers not only tip the balance of power in favor of the person doing the interpreting, but also, and more important, can be misleading. The main point I wish to stress is that we must be vigilant if we mean to resist giving credence to our previously formulated ideas about the people and places that we encounter. Whereas our impressions may either mesmerize us (as they did for me and as they had done for Saint Exupery) or alienate us (as Wright's and Richburg's testimonies exemplify), we must take these impressions as cause for us to re-examine our concepts of empiricism, fact, evidence. Along with questioning our allegiance to Western methodologies, we might also examine the assumptions that lead us to re-encode nationalistic meanings in our representations of Africa. As with Wright, allegiance to more than one national perspective can mean being relegated to dubious interstices, rather than being positioned, as desired, on a bridge across transnational borders.

[1] Wind, Sand, and Stars (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1940; Harvest Books, 1969) 127.

[2] "War in the Sahara," Black Enterprise, February 1981, 54.

[3] Defending the Spirit (New York: Dutton, 1998) 117-18.

[4] He read the thesis anonymously, and his comments were later made available to me.

[5] See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), for a discussion of what these problems are with reference to social identity.

[6] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1814)," in The Classic Slave Narratives (New York: Penguin, 1987) 1-182.

7 Marita Golden, Migrations of the Hear: A Personal Odyssey (New York:Doubleday, 1983).

[8] Richard Wright, Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (New York: Harper Brothers, 1954).

[9] Keith Richburg, Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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