There is hardly a field of knowledge that did not elicit a keen interest from Cheikh Anta Diop. In each and every case, he delved deep into the subject with his usual gusto, but also with an unwavering rigor. It comes as no surprise, then, that Black African creative writing would eventually register on the radar of his intellectual concerns. In fact, he has always regarded creative writing as so vital that a sustained meditation on the subject runs through his work, infusing the latter with a certain aesthetic undercurrent, so to speak. One can already sense it in The African Origin of Civilization, although he was therein more concerned with the practical uses of African languages for scientific research and technical innovation. A little further back, in 1948, in the essay “When Will Be Able to Speak of an African Renaissance?” Cheikh Anta had already challenged writers to experiment with African languages in such ways that they could hold up a mirror to our wildest fantasies and deepest desires. He rehearsed the same argument in “The Genetic Kinship of Pharaonic Egyptian and African Languages,” and spelled it out again, almost verbatim, in Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology.
If Cheikh Anta elaborates at great length on what he then described as “an outline for an aesthetic theory of the literary trope in African poetry and novel,” it is mainly to expose the self-exculpation and self-estrangement of writers convinced, strangely enough, that they can only translate their inmost being with words borrowed from outside their primary social environment. Ever the perspicacious and balanced mind, Cheikh Anta does not state his case with irritation or in a brisk tone. He even denies reprimanding African writers for using, provisionally, a foreign language, for “there are actually no other means of adequately conveying their thoughts.” With tragic lucidity, he dissects what he calls the excruciating “predicament” of African culture, the fact that “we are forced to either use a foreign language or to remain dead silent.” The idea that one could hate a human language, even that of the former colonizer, was quite foreign to him. Diop readily concedes that philosophers, who are supposed to handle universal concepts, can dress their thoughts in the raiment of a foreign language. On the other hand, he is adamant that it is an altogether different matter for poets and novelists, owing to their complex approach to reality. Every writer of fiction knows that there is always a moment when the invisible company he keeps, i.e., the words of the tribe, vanish into the night, a moment when he feels lost and adrift in a sea of silences, where the sound of his own voice doesn’t register a single echo. The greater the gap between native and adoptive cultures, the harder it is to jump over this great fence wired with eerie silences. For Diop, African creative writers find themselves in such a labile situation that dooms them to a perpetual artfulness. True, there are some exceptions, and he cites Senghor and Césaire, poets who have been able to make it look as if anyone could gallivant their way across linguistic borders to translate their literary genius. According to Diop, this is a pernicious illusion, for at the end of the day, this so-called Black French poetry barely makes the cut above mediocrity. “A statistical study,” he wryly notes, “would reveal the relative paucity of the lexicon ‘Black French’ authors draw on to form poetic images. A very short list of epithets, mostly with moral overtones, such as ‘brave,’ ‘temperamental,’ ‘languorous,’ etc.” Diop is candid about the implications behind this: “Descriptive terms conveying nuances in colors, tastes, olfactory and even visual sensations remain formally inaccessible to Black French poetry because they belong to a lexical database specifically tied to geographical coordinates.” These remarks bring to mind the famous complaint of Haitian poet Léon Laleau:
ce désespoir à nul autre égal
de dire avec des mots de France
ce coeur qui m’est venu du Sénégal.
(this pain, this despair as yet without equal
of always coating with a French veneer the fullness of a heart born in Senegal.)
One still finds it hard to believe that a young man, fresh in his twenties, was reframing in such broad historical perspective the perennial issue of language bedeviling African writers. Diop was quick to point out a situation where one loses on both counts: not writing in More, Bambara or Wolof, yet not quite in French either. Inhabiting this no man’s land in-between languages, this lingo-in-limbo space, can engender a certain malaise, but one that is a structurally integral part of the act of writing. This hiatus raises a creative challenge that, from Nigerian Amos Tutuola to Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma and Senegalese Malick Fall, every writer tries to take on differently. Many formal innovations are rooted in this twilight zone of linguistic nonbeing, including all those concerted efforts at verbal assault, “to rape the French language and cause it to beget little bastards,” to use Massa M. Diabate’s truculent statement. This “ambiguous adventure” goes also a long way toward explaining the refreshingly thrilling effect of Tutuola’s novels and what could be called the “Kourouma model.” Without ever mentioning any practitioner of these language games in his own time, the essay on the genetic kinship of Pharaonic Egyptian and African languages probes deep into all these tactical moves geared to acrobatically hopscotch across the linguistic and aesthetic faultlines. Taking a cue from Sartre, Cheikh Anta reasserts the absolute need for the Black African poet to “spit out the whiteness” of French words, in order to be effective in his uses of language as a healing practice. The genius of Césaire, according to Diop, resides in that he has managed to craft “a language all his own” and thereby suffuse it with a vibrant authenticity that is greater than the sum of its parts, i.e., French and Martinican Creole. One could deduce from this astute observation that Césaire is the dark precursor of Kourouma, a distant forebear even wilder in his poetic rampaging through the hallowed grounds of the French language. Still, for Cheikh Anta the complete removal of all signs of Frenchiness from a so-called Africanized French, what Sartre called la défrancisation du français, is a mere palliative. In “Towards the African Renaissance” he wrote, “While acknowledging the great merits of African writers in foreign languages, we cannot fail to note that they belong in the literature of the language they use to write.”
In Decolonizing the Mind, and in far less sparing terms, Ngugi would state the case in a similar vein, regarding his peers writing in English. In my humble opinion, this damning point about the identity of the text applies even to works putatively subverting the norms of the borrowed language. It may well be the case that The Suns of Independences undermines and upends, from deep within its structures, the prosody, syntax, and what not, of French, but in the final analysis it remains a novel penned in French. End of story. By and large, Cheikh Anta Diop was telling writers of his time a cautionary tale: “Look, you’re heading straight toward a dead end. The worm is already in the fruit you’re so avidly sinking your teeth into.” It is worth pointing out that of the writers thus berated he counted many among his close friends and personal acquaintances. One can easily imagine that some of them attended his doctoral dissertation at Paris Sorbonne to provide much-needed support against a hostile and narrow-minded French academic institution. Also, presumably enough, he talked with some about their works in progress and manuscripts. This proximity with literary artists lends the dialogue a certain human quality, elevating it above mere armchair speculation. As is well known, it was a poet, Césaire, who first grasped the wide-ranging significance of The African Origin of Civilization, famously hailed in Discourse on Colonialism as “the most audacious book a Negro has ever written and [that] will count, without a doubt, in the awakening of Africa.” Yet this daring young Black intellectual was so unusual for his own time he may well have come from another planet. Diop’s instinctive grasp of the significance of the imaginary for peoples robbed of their history is embedded in his deep familiarity, from early childhood on, with poets most of his comrades in the Latin Quarter have simply never heard of: Serigne Mbaye Diakhaté, Mame Mor Kayré and Serigne Moussa Kâ. Did Cheikh Anta Diop even get a fair hearing from his contemporaries? Unhesitatingly, I would say no. The fact is, his argument was literally running against the major currents of his time. A little flashback may be in order here, to bring back to life that time of great ideological turbulences.
In 1956 and 1959, Présence Africaine founder Alioune Diop organizes the two Pan-African Congresses, held respectively in Paris and Rome. These are the halcyon years of Black internationalism, and the collective effervescence can be sensed in writings imbued with a certain poetic élan. Even pure theoreticians like Fanon often wax lyrical. All Black progressives and radicals consider their mission to be the vanguard of colonized peoples on their road to freedom, a long, arduous journey then felt to be drawing to a successful close. Time is on the move, and there is no room for petty squabbles and byzantine nuances. These young Black intellectuals are restless and tend to bristle at the cold complexity of world events. They want everything at once, here and now – not in some compensatory hereafter. All are acutely aware that the languages inherited from the colonial era are tainted tools, but they cannot afford to discard these: for now, it is needed to rally the troops and amplify the battle cries. That’s all.
However, one must not forget that this was also a period when orthodox Marxism was reigning supreme, so any naysayer can be charged with reactionary bigotry or suspected of questioning the primacy of the class struggle. Poet David Diop best conveyed the general mood of political urgency that prevailed at the time when he remarked, in his March 1956 contribution to the debate on the conditions for the emergence of an African poetry in African languages, that “in an Africa freed from all shackles, no writer in his right mind would consider expressing his feelings and those of his people other than through his recovered native tongue. In this regard, so-called African poetry of French expression, cut off from its popular roots, stands on the wrong side of history.” The author of The Pounding of the Pestle was thus among the first to put forward the notion of a “Black African transition literature,” an idea naturally germane to Cheikh Anta Diop’s radical views on creative writing.
Obviously, these considerations do not readily apply, all cut and dried, to former British and Portuguese colonies, but there are some inescapable commonalities. In fact, the latter are so striking that in 1964 Ngugi wa Thiong’o would reach the exact same conclusions as Cheikh Anta Diop, without ever reading the latter. Moreover, Okot P’ Bitek’s Song of Lawino, published in 1966, is a landmark of African literary history, both in terms of poetic quality and the language in which it was couched, Luo. Why was it particularly hard for Cheikh Anta Diop to get his views across and find receptive ears, at that particular conjuncture? It was because of what I call the original sin of black African literature: from the outset, the writer claims to be a mouthpiece. He doesn’t speak to but rather for his people. However, from this emancipatory impulse arises a standoff with the colonizer that tends to over-determine everything else. In decrying the crimes and atrocities of the colonial conquest, the African writer wants, above all, to shame the oppressor, but this can only be achieved in the language of the former master. This is why so many committed, even ruggedly militant African writers were so comfortable with their resort to the French language. For some, the point was to simply tell Europeans: “See, you were all wrong in portraying us as savages.” At the time, Cheikh Anta Diop was anxious to see cultured Black elites act less confrontational and be less inclined to “write back” and disprove at all costs the tabula rasa theory, for it was clear to him this was a trap neatly laid out for them to fall into. It was around this time that he began to dismantle the spurious arguments advanced to deny African languages any literary or scientific merit. Thus, the original French version of the African Origin of Civilization entails translations in Wolof of Einstein’s theory of relativity, an excerpt from Corneille’s Horace and even the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. Diop also addresses the major claim of writers arguing for the default use of French and English: the supposed overwhelming multiplicity of African languages is a half-truth, as their underlying homogeneity is easily demonstrable. Basically, Diop was telling creative writers this: because Africa is the cradle of humanity, you are the masters of time. When others entered the world of “universal” history, you welcomed them with open arms because you had already found your rightful place in it. More crucially, he wanted to show them that it is possible to step back and put things in a larger perspective, reminding them of Ronsard, Du Bellay and the Pléiade authors who knew how to “seize the time” when historical circumstances called for mounting a challenge to the hegemony of Latin.
Cheikh Anta’s most ardent wish was to avert a tragic situation in which Africa, the birthplace of writing, would be the only continent where language and literature remain at loggerheads. But he and the African writers of that period were “talking at cross-purposes,” as he also said in reference to his dispute with Western Egyptologists. He was plying the mighty winds of History while all around lesser arguments were hurled at him, such as, “We must find a way to sell our books,” “Our peoples can neither read nor write” and similar trifles. Yet has anyone ever been able to read and write in any language without first learning it? On this specific count, Cheikh Anta often reminded his interlocutors of the exemplary case of Ireland, where Gaelic was revived through its forcible introduction into the school system. However, behind all the smokescreens, sophistries, and sly deflections of African intellectuals, he sensed, as he put it in Civilization or Barbarism, “a process of acculturation or alienation” that it was imperative to bring to an end, as soon as possible.
Acculturation and alienation, indeed. Here is a passage from À rebrousse-gens, the third volume of Birago Diop’s memoirs, where he directly answers Cheikh Anta Diop. At the time, both were young students in France coming back home to spend a few days of vacation. Their paths crossed in Saint-Louis, and Birago gives his version of the encounter in his characteristically nonchalant and sarcastic manner: “So I learned during the day that Cheikh Anta Diop was giving a lecture on ‘Teaching Mathematics in Wolof.’ Well, all I can say is that I was in attendance.” Out of friendship for the speaker, no doubt, for the topic is of no interest to Birago. By his own admission, he even tried to take his old pal to task with a trick question about how to translate the concepts “angle” and “ellipsis” in Wolof. Toward the end of his account, the writer reaffirms his admiration for “the embattled Egyptologist who has fought so many received ideas,” before issuing his final judgment on the matter with a snappy “I was and I remain unconvinced.” Birago demurely adds that at the time this did not only apply to his case: “Perhaps am I still too much of an évolué. So be it, then.” In my humble opinion, it would be wrong to take this confession at face value. Birago was by nature an irreverent skeptic, temperamentally inclined to deride anything that, to him, smacked of ideology, but he never denied his roots. Hence in a dedication poem from the Lolli volume, “Baay Biraago jaaSjëf” (Thank you, Father Birago), Cheik Aliou Ndao is mindful of this in the line “Dëkkuloo cosaan di ko galSgal” (You didn’t inhabit tradition, yet nor did you malign it).
More than half a century after this little sparring match between two towering figures of Senegal’s intellectual history, it is clear that Cheikh Anta’s worse fears have come to pass. Black African literature in French is not doing as well as we are led to believe. Mine is an inside view grounded on the experience of someone who published his first novel in French thirty-five years ago. Today, all the action takes place in France. In a way, the stream is flowing back to its source on the banks of the Seine, where Cheikh Anta saw it first burst forth during the négritude movement. But there has been a lot of water under the bridge. A short period saw a couple of publishing initiatives in Senegal, Cameroon or Ivory Coast achieve a modicum of success, create sound literary institutions and promote well-respected authors. However, following the post-devaluation economic crisis, things took a turn for the worse, culminating in the Hexagon resuming its central position. Our works are published abroad, where they are vetted and validated in all sorts of ways, before coming back to us in our home countries with the seal of approval from foreign critics. Such works are hard to come by for well-known reasons, primarily prices and language, and thus we are writers by hearsay, our names abundantly heard through the grapevine, but that’s all: the public does not read us a bit. I would even dare say that many vaunted literary talents are nothing but offshoots of a certain “postcolonial quid pro quo.” The gravity of the situation can be assessed in the fact that in some countries no text of creative writing is published under normal conditions. One or two names make up the entire literary landscape. As for the rest, it is an assortment of handpicked circus clowns and egotists, carefully groomed for the Western media, and seasonally trotted out to hide the ever-expanding literary wasteland on a continent that provides the “background” for these pathetic tokens of success. In short, the seminal standoff with the colonizer is still the order of the day, but now the African writer is dipping his pen in red wine, not in the blood of victims past and present. It is also an open secret that today the only remaining niche market for traders and traffickers in “Africa” is Afropessimism, a stream of intellectual filth oozing from the same cesspool as the most rabid racism. The ideal profile of this new type of author is easy to sketch out: it is not enough for him to spit venom at Africa and Africans all the time, he must also claim to be born after the independences, and as such has nothing whatsoever to say about colonization and the Slave Trade, and would greatly appreciate it if we could definitively get it over with playing victims and blackmailing guilt-ridden Europeans and Westerners with our aberrant demands for reparations and repentance. In a nutshell: a literature that started out labeling itself “Black African” has ended up becoming “Black Parisian,” and everybody seems fine with such a state of affairs.
If I have painted such a bleak picture of the current situation, it is for the simple reason that we can no longer fool ourselves: this is as depressingly grim as it can ever look. I mean, thirty years after Cheikh Anta Diop’s death, the plain truth is that today you are considered a real African writer only if you use English, Portuguese or French. Often, one still hears writers from Diop’s generation or younger newcomers declare, with all the seriousness in the world, their preference for European languages. According to them, the complex situation prevailing in some countries on the continent is proof enough that writing in an African language is mission impossible and, even worse, potentially dangerous, for to promote Senufo, Yoruba or Beti and use them as tools for literary activity can entail some serious damage to the ever precarious “interethnic” entente. Surely, the linguistic fragmentation is quite a forbidding hurdle, but Cheikh Anta Diop, for one, never held it as absolutely insuperable. How to address this issue? Some have suggested a hardcore solution, i.e., to force the hands of Fate by erasing all our linguistic differences in one fell swoop. Yet this great Pan-Africanist, always clear-headed and suspicious of easy, hand-me-down solutions, did not hesitate to write, in the African Origin of Civilization, “The idea of a single African language spoken from one end of the continent to another is inconceivable as much as today is the idea of a single European language.” It can be further added that such an idea incurs the risk of a terrible impoverishment, turning the dense forest of our symbolic imaginaries into a barren, crackled desert landscape, literally a literary Sahara. I have heard some intellectuals accuse Ayi Kwei Armah of pushing such an agenda, that is, the creation of a common African language. However, I have a very different reading of the chapter in Remembering the Dismembered Continent where the great novelist tackles what he calls “our linguistic conundrum.” Armah simply proposes a pragmatic political approach that would see Kiswahili or – his preference – an adapted modern version of Ancient Egyptian become the prime communicational tool for all Africans. This dovetails neatly with Cheikh Anta’s idea of an “African Humanities” curriculum modeled on the so-called European Renaissance, with Ancient Egyptian playing a role similar to Greek and Latin. Yet the hard truth is that in countries such as Cameroon, Gabon or Ivory Coast no solution can be envisaged at the moment. Is it ground for resignation and meek acceptance of the status quo? I don’t think so, for this would mean that every time we fail to overcome a particular obstacle, we must all remain at a standstill, passively waiting for that ever-elusive breakout moment. On the contrary, I believe that whenever the situation calls for it, one must set a process in motion, get something, anything started, and bet on a future where exemplary achievements will generate a ripple effect. This morning, brothers from Mali, Mauritania or Burkina Faso will share with us their firsthand experiences. For my own part, I’ll try to sketch out a short overview of the situation in Senegal, as a way of providing some idea of the extent to which the country is immensely indebted to Cheikh Anta Diop’s intellectual legacy.
In the preface to the 1979 pocketbook edition of African Origin of Civilization, Cheikh Anta himself tells the story of Césaire’s DiogenesSlike wandering around Paris, “after reading the book’s first part all night long,” in a desperate search for “progressive minds or specialists willing to join him in supporting the claims advanced in the book.” It was to no avail. The poet found himself utterly alone. Césaire, as noted earlier, immediately grasped the full import of the text that, to this day, has had one of the deepest and most enduring impacts on Blacks all over the world. In the poem “Nan sotle Senegaal” (Let’s Take a Stand for Senegal) from Taataan, Cheik Aliou Ndao states unambiguously that African Origin of Civilization is the book that made him want to become a writer in the Wolof language: “Téereem bu jëkk baa ma dugal ci mbindum wolof/Te booba ba tey ñàkkul lu ma ci def.” (His first book instilled in me the desire to write in Wolof/Ever since I try to stay true to that calling). The author of Jigéen Fayda and Guy Njulli is also alluding to the famous Grenoble Circle, a direct emanation of Cheikh Anta Diop’s masterwork. Reading the latter led some Senegalese students – Saliou Kandji, Massamba Sarré, Abdoulaye Wade, Assane Sylla, Assane Dia, Cheik Aliou Ndao, then the youngest – to create a focus group on national languages, resulting in a Wolof syllabary called Ijjib wolof. Later on, the works of Sakhir Thiam, one of the heirs Cheikh Anta endorsed in the 1984 testament-lecture delivered in Thies, Yero Sylla, Arame Fal and Aboubacry Moussa Lam, further carried the torch. Likewise, the short-lived review Kàddu, launched by Pathé Diagne, Sembene Ousmane and the unsung hero and driving engine behind the whole venture, Samba Dione, is also inscribed within Cheikh Anta’s legacy. These are some of the pioneering figures who laid the groundwork for ongoing efforts. It is striking and particularly moving to note that it was only after his death, toward the end of the eighties, to be precise, that the Senegalese scientist was able to act as the catalyst for a radical historical process in his own country.
Cheikh Anta Diop came, planted his seeds, and then left the field. In his own lifetime, he never heard of ARED, Papyrus-Africa or OSAD, to cite the most prominent grassroots cultural agencies in present-day Senegal. In 1986, Cheik Aliou Ndao, widely acclaimed for his historical play L’Exil d’Albouri, hadn’t yet published a single of his fifteen works in Wolof, spanning the entire spectrum of literary genres (poetry, drama, novel, short story and essay). One could perhaps add to this catalogue the collection of interviews with Góor Gi Usmaan Géy, in which he reminisces in vivid words a chance encounter with Cheikh Anta Diop in Pikine, at the house of a common acquaintance, old man Ongué Ndiaye. Likewise, Diop did not have the good fortune to hold in his hands Aawo bi, by Maam Younouss Dieng, Mbaggu Leñol, by Seydou Nourou Ndiaye, Yari Jamano, by Mamadou Diarra Diouf, Janeer by Cheikh Adramé Diakhaté, Séy xare la, by Ndèye Daba Niane, Booy Pullo, by Abdoulaye Dia or Jamfa, by Djibril Moussa Lam, a text that specialists in contemporary Wolof literature regard as a genuine masterpiece. Doubtless, CLAD was already doing a tremendous work, but the bulk of the influential scientific work by Arame Fal and Jean-Léopold Diouf would only be published after Cheikh Anta’s death. If he were to come back to life, he would find it hearteningly reassuring that today in Senegal a representative unable to speak the langue de Molière does not elicit condescending smiles from his educated peers anymore, for the Senegalese parliament avails of a simultaneous translation system interconnecting all national and official languages during plenary sessions. Yet what he would find most uplifting of all is that young people, often born after his death, are currently taking major advocacy initiatives such as roving the whole country to gather signatures for a petition demanding that his teachings, for so long under an officious ban, be officially put on the curriculum. To further compound his sense of ultimate vindication: in October 2014, one of the originators of this petition completed the first documentary on Serigne Mor Kayre, out of his own pocket, and is about to wrap up production for a second feature on the poet he calls “the larger-than-life Serigne Mbaye Diakhate.” In Saint-Louis, Gaston Berger University has just awarded degrees in Fulbe and Wolof studies to the very first cohort of specialists. However, Cheikh Anta would not fail to note the glaring absence of political leaders from all these initiatives, in a country that obstinately clings to its francophone “roots” when all around the fruits from the soil are telling a whole different story. A rider, however: the Senegalese State did fund a significant portion of the output in national languages, and it would be unfair not to give credit where it is due. Still, most of these achievements came as a result of grassroots projects designed and implemented under extremely adverse circumstances, often at the cost of tremendous personal sacrifices from Diop’s former disciples.
To frame our initial question in the reverse order: what, in contemporary creative writing, would feel extremely relevant to Cheikh Anta? It can hardly be doubted that without him this emerging literature in national languages would be resting on sand and ballast. In 1987 a special issue of Éthiopiques, prefaced by Senghor, entitled “Teraanga ñeel na Séex Anta Jóob” (The Highest Honors are Due to Cheikh Anta Diop) included, among others, eulogistic contributions from Théophile Obenga,
Buuba Diop and Djibril Samb. For its part, thanks to Arame Fal, IFAN has published an anthology of poems, all in Wolof. The collection came out in 1992, but most of the 23 pieces were composed in the immediate aftermath of Diop’s death in 1986, when their authors were still reeling from the news of his untimely death. All pay homage to the intellectual powerhouse but, more crucially, to his outstanding qualities as a simple human being. The contributors to this landmark anthology are fully aware of their indebtedness to Cheikh Anta, but theirs is far from being an isolated case. Other contemporary or younger authors did not compose a eulogy, yet dedicate this or that particular work to Cheikh Anta or recall his lasting influence. One can cite, among others, Ceerno Saydu Sàll with Suuxat, Abi Ture, a young woman author who published Sooda, lu defu waxu in 2014, and Tamsir Anne, another new author who published in 2011 Téere woy yi, a translation in Wolof of poems by Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Brecht and other prominent German writers. The posthumous recognition for Cheikh Anta’s lifetime work was long overdue, and therefore this is anything but a trendy display of intellectual pedigree or some self-serving career ploy. One could even consider it as a specific form of writing.
On a more cautious note, and to ward off any feeling that maybe I’m being overoptimistic here, we still have a long way to go, for the reactionary forces that were bent on silencing Cheikh Anta Diop never let up. Our mental territory is still under a severe, ruthless occupation, our every move caught in a grid of tight cartographic constraints. I can only say this: the desire to chart the course of a linguistic destiny written in the stars, as it were, is far from drawing a large constituency in contemporary Senegal. Still, one is impressed with the stellar achievements recorded in only a few decades in the emerging domain of literatures in national languages. If, to gloss on Joseph KiSZerbo, we refuse to lie down because we cannot afford not to stay alive, then it is only a matter of time before Cheikh Anta Diop’s lifelong dream comes true.