Ancient Kemet in African American literature and criticism, 1853 to the present.

Author:Temple, Christel N.

The Kemetic heritage penetrates the literature, the orature, the pottery, the burial rituals, the procreative myths, and the modes of thought of Africa. It is the classical African civilizations themselves that have given us so much organic contact with the history of ideas. The vivid example of the massive memorials to African genius, Karnak, the temples of the Valley of the Kings, the major shrines. When we feel, even now, the rhythms of creation in dance, art, literature, music, and talk the African intimacy with nature and fullness with life, we are experiencing our own standards, values, and codes exhibited in our approach to life thousands of years later. The festivals, the color, the vibrancy, the appeal to the deities, the incessant discussion, the dance, movement, show us ourselves dancing with the gods along the banks of the Nile.

--Molefi Kete Asante (1)


As a matter of methodology in Africana literary criticism, anteriority--an awareness of the continuum from ancient to modern origins and historical developments--informs the practices, procedures, guidelines, and techniques for the development of the literary tradition. It is to anteriority that African American thinkers turned to for guidance, inspiration, and models, whether concise or romanticized, as they consciously instigated Africana creative production since the nineteenth century. It is a limited contemporary notion to credit Afrocentricity, alone, for prioritizing the record of Ancient Kemetic achievement as a catalyst for advancing African agency. Instead, the approaches African American forebears managed in the processes of engraving a new identity on American soil are examples of African-centered creativity, often pursued under conditions of socio-political duress. There is a hearty tradition of African Americans thinkers who surveyed the broad African past to excavate its cultural and historical record for their generation's contribution to "beginning again." (2) African American thinkers responsible for non-fiction and fiction literatures as well as groundbreaking literary and cultural movements summoned and sampled the ancient Kemetic aesthetic over a century before Molefi Kete Asante institutionalized the legacy of their intellectual activity as Afrocentricity. Reinstating this legacy into the record of African American literary criticism is both a corrective that fine-tunes the role of early and continuing Afrocentric behavior in the literary tradition and a map that demonstrates the methodological possibilities of advancing a literary tradition as representatives of a "nation within a nation."

The first part of this essay is a survey of how the corrective and the map offer guidelines for launching literary movements, for excavating tools (such as ritual and pageantry) for framing practices of genre (particularly in African American theatre), and for the unfinished business of embracing Kemet as an African past with usable cosmologies, archetypes, and structures that hold promise for literary productivity of future generations. The latter part of this essay introduces a notable cadre of recent scholarship that offers unprecedented and visionary re/interpretations of how Kemet and cosmology function in the discipline's literary record. Some of the current literary applications layer diverse African-derived cosmologies, which can range from Kemetic, Bantu-Congo, Yoruba, and so forth, but most feature Afrocentric discussions of Kemetic conceptualizations of literature. Collectively, the literary models and practices highlighted in this essay are central aspects of an emergent Afrocentric literary criticism.

Afrocentricity, the liberating African-centered orientation to phenomena that prioritizes people of African descent as subjects of their experiences, has provided useful tools for location, methodology, and directives for innovation to advance Africana literary study and analysis. The proof is in the diverse strategies, interpretations, and models that have been applied to literary analysis since the early 1980s when configurations of Afrocentricity began to appear in print. The revised approaches to orientation negate the insightful critical approaches of neither the past nor the present. Instead, they layer humanistic points of information, often corrective or revisionist, over traditional analyses in order to better situate the role and meaning of culture--worldview, logic, antecedent, function, and vision--found in creative scenarios imagined by writers of African descent. This is an effort toward a thorough, discursive essay--a forthright and candid narrative--that weaves a web of literary history and methodological developments to firmly address the ways scholars are utilizing and operationalizing Kemet and Afrocentricity in literary criticism.

The canon of critical perspectives on anteriority, or the significance of the Kemet classical model, in the archive of the African American literary tradition, is a key beginning feature of any discussion of Afrocentric literary criticism and its tradition. It has the potential to advance an Afrocentric structure in Africana literary pedagogy as practitioners fear not the question of "Where is ancient Kemet in African American literary criticism and history?" The answer lies in both non-fiction and fiction forms of the tradition and demonstrates the vast possibilities of the influence of philosophy, ethical and moral thought, structure, and theme invoked by the oldest African sources as models. The forefathers and foremothers of the radical Black intellectual tradition knew of its achievements two centuries ago when African American literature's content relied mostly on non-fiction elements such as the formal essay and largely semi-autobiographical trends such as the ex-enslavement narrative.

Martin Delany's essay on ancient Kemet's legacy, "Origins and Objects of Ancient Freemasonry," (3) which scholars view as a seminal speech-essay in his career that served as a crucial start of his literary and political career, appears in 1853--the same year William Wells Brown published the first African American novel, Clotel. (4) He writes, "Being a people of a high order of intellect, and subject to erudite and profound thought, the Egyptians and Ethiopians were the first who came to the conclusion that man was created in the similitude of God". (5) Delany transcribed his knowledge of Egypt during the enslavement period when it was a crime in many states for Africans to read and write, thus his non-fiction engagements of Kemet are part of the canon representing Kemet in the African American literary tradition.

Scholars who contributed to what we now regard as the Negro Studies movement, featured histories of ancient African traditions as early as the antebellum period (6) so that by 1983 when Harold Cruse reminded agents of institutionalized Black Studies to create "original fiction and drama depicting ancient Antiquity" that draws on "the fictional recreation of everything William Leo Hansberry or Chancellor Williams ever contrived to put in print," knowledge of the ancient Kemetic legacy was pervasive, even in a general form. (7) Hansberry was born in 1894 and Williams in 1898. Hansberry's youth was a quest to find mentors and sources that corroborated Africa's ancient role in world civilizations, and by 1922 when he taught his first three courses on topics of African anteriority at Howard University, he had become a national critical voice on African anteriority. Williams' work, though not published until 1971 as The Destruction of Black Civilization (8), is the culmination of teaching and administering grade school in the 1930s, researching Africa in the 1950s, and teaching at Howard University from the 1980s until his death. Thus, the historical research essay and ancient African historical studies play a major part in Black public consciousness of an historical race pride. Awareness of the transmission of African history is also a key element that infuses African American literary content and timelines with a continuity of African ideas in creative production.

African American literature is a testament of how people of African descent have and continue to translate the culture's identity, experiences, communal aspirations, challenges, and hopes into a creative narrative. Writers have summoned the evidence of survival, intellectual activity, and productivity of ancient Kemet, in both general and specific terms, as cultural defense and as a means for advancing wholeness for Africans in America. These are understated references to the sustaining pride and cultural instinct of Africans in America, and anteriority's subtle appearance in literary texts is meaningful to the Afrocentric literary critic or reader. Without much ado, yet with visceral cultural testament, writers infuse their narratives with passing, yet indisputable references that indicate the value (even if characters do not yet realize it) of anteriority in their worldviews. The analysis would benefit greatly if we could discover morsels from the archives that reveal the philosophy and thinking behind these writers' casual references to Kemetic and anterior worldviews. In Invisible Man (1947) Ralph Ellison's protagonist observes the destitution of an elderly evicted couple, noting:

Yes, these old folks had a dream book, but the pages went blank and it failed to give them the number. It was called the Seeing Eye, The Great Constitutional Dream Book, The Secrets of Africa, The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt--but the eye was blind, it lost its luster. It's all cataracted like a cross-eyed carpenter and it doesn't saw straight. All we have is the Bible and this Law here rules that out. So, where do we go? Where do we go from here, without a pot--? (9) Ellison signifies on the divine things African Americans have lost through their sojourns. Next, as a general literary reference informed by African-centered...

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