The ALA Presidency and African Literature in African Languages

Thomas Hale interviewing griot Ibrahim Limbo at the Centre Ahmed Baba de Recherche et de Documentation, Timbuktu, Mali, Feb. 14, 1992.

My presidency of the ALA from March 1981 to March 1982 was a bit unusual because I was away on sabbatical in Niger for the academic year 1980-81 and missed the first half of my term.  On Oct. 23, 1980, Secretary-Treasurer and newsletter editor Steve Arnold, my successor in those positions, sent a telegram to report that the Executive Committee had decided to list me in the place of another candidate, who had withdrawn her name from the ballot.  Steve asked me to send a 100-word bio if I accepted. I did, but then forgot about the ALA because I was so busy teaching at the University of Niamey and doing field research on epics.

At first I wondered why the ALA had gone to such lengths to track me down thousands of kilometers away from the U.S. But then I realized that my career till that point was intimately linked to the founding and growth of the organization.  Perhaps someone wanted to preserve that history by drawing on my memory of the past, a bit like what one expects of griots, whose verbal art was the focus of my research in Niger. I do, in fact, remember quite clearly the events surrounding the launch of the ALA in 1974.

At the African Studies Association meeting in Syracuse in 1973, Richard Priebe proposed that those interested in African literature found an association. I volunteered to help. We requested a room at the ASA for the next gathering, in Chicago in 1974.  During a series of three meetings Oct. 30, 31, and Nov. 1, 30 attendees drafted a constitution, chose a steering committee, and designated Dennis Brutus as their leader.  I volunteered to serve as secretary-treasurer and began to collect dues--$2.00—from those present. Richard Priebe and I offered to edit the ALA Newsletter, which appeared in December.  Bernth Lindfors invited the founding group to hold the first meeting of the ALA at the University of Texas, March 20-22, 1975, in conjunction with a symposium on contemporary South African literature. The participants at that event modified and then ratified the constitution drafted in Chicago.  They also elected a slate of officers, presented papers, and met with a diverse group of writers from all over Africa.

The following years until the end of my time as secretary-treasurer-editor in 1979 were a blur of meetings, program planning, and membership record-keeping as well as editing, printing and mailing the ALA Newsletter. I devoted so much time to those tasks that colleagues and family members wondered if these efforts would slow work on my research agenda and diminish my chances to qualify for tenure at Penn State. But I enjoyed very much this involvement in the ALA because it broadened my understanding of African literature.  It was also very satisfying to see the membership grow from 40 to 500.  Finally, it was also exhilarating to meet so many students, researchers, and writers.

The experience of helping to create the ALA perhaps contributed to my election. On April 18, 1982, I received another telegram, this time from Aliko Songolo, acting president, announcing that the members had chosen me to lead the organization. But I asked myself what did the organization need from a president? Did I have a program to offer?  The answer was before my eyes in the vigorous oral traditions of the jeserey, or griots, of the Songhay and Zarma peoples of Western Niger.   For eight months, I had been recording epics and interviewing these artisans of words and music. It was a joy to conduct fieldwork using the language I had learned years earlier while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tillabéri, Niger.  Finally, it was a challenge for me and a team from the University of Niamey to transcribe, translate, and annotate epics that contained so many puzzles for both local and foreign researchers.

This project prompted me to revisit a question that Dan Kunene raised from the beginning of the ALA.  In a field dominated by literature written in Western languages, what was the place of oral traditions composed in African languages? Dennis Brutus and I were partly to blame for Dan’s concern.

At the ALA meeting in Austin in March 1975, Dennis and I sat down to sort out the proposals for the next meeting, scheduled for the following year at Northwestern University. The theme was the teaching of African literature. We rejected a late-arriving proposal from Dan in part because it was the only one on oral literature. We could not figure out how to fit it into a program focused on literature composed in European languages. Finally, we didn’t think we had time to attract more proposals.

Dan Kunene was elected chairperson of the ALA at the Northwestern meeting.  He announced that the theme for the next gathering, which he would host at Wisconsin, would be “Artist and Audience: African Literature as a Shared Experience.” In his “Letter from the Chairperson,” published in the Spring 1976 issue of the ALA Newsletter, he presented a strong argument for greater focus on oral literature.  He was encouraged by a resolution passed at the 1976 meeting in support of this neglected area of the field as “an important step forward.”

It was his view on the subject and also my research on oral traditions in Niger that influenced my letter to the ALA membership in April 1982.  I spoke directly to Dan, “repenting for a hasty decision made six years earlier.” But I went on to emphasize that not only was oral literature important but also literature written in African languages. I promised to establish a working group of ALA members to survey “the kinds of African language instruction available to the membership via the Foreign Service Institute, the large African Studies units funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI program, and the African Linguistics Group of the American Linguistics Society.” Citing an image from Achebe, I argued that “we must bring African languages into the center of the ilo rather than leave them among the African masks moldering in the shade.”

In “Kikulacho Kiko Ngoni Mwako*: A Messsage from ALA President Hale” [*Swahili proverb in Ngugi’s novel A Grain of Wheat, meaning that which bites you is in your pants], ALA Bulletin volume 8, no. 1, Winter 1982, I returned to the need to learn African languages. In particular, I encouraged members to attend both a panel on resources for learning African languages and mini language lessons offered by the organizers of the 1982 meeting at Howard university.

I don’t remember there being much of a response to my pleas.  But in subsequent years, I continued to try to raise the awareness of ALA members to the importance of African languages. For the 2007 meeting at West Virginia, I called for contributions to a panel on African literatures written in African languages. Wendy Belcher was the only ALA member who responded.  Nevertheless, the meeting organizers offered us a slot on the program. Wendy gave an overview of African literature by writers in Africa as well as by early migrants to Europe for several centuries. My own paper focused on a love song in Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics from around 1200 BCE. But we were both discouraged to learn that of eight projects proposed by the ALA Teaching and Research Committee, not one was on verbal art—written  or oral—composed in African languages.

The problem is that scholars in African literature today remain trapped in their own disciplinary areas and are, in a sense, products of the colonial enterprise. Researchers with degrees in English, French, or Portuguese work on African literatures composed in these languages. To many, there is no literature written prior to the 1930s, in spite of the fact that we can identify literary texts that go back 5,000 years.

There are many exceptions: those who graduated from Comparative Literature programs with a global rather than simply European perspective; students and faculty in the Department of African Languages and Literatures at Wisconsin;  folklorists, anthropologists,  and linguists;  and individuals who learned African languages as part of their work as missionaries or volunteers in Africa. Finally, of course, there are many African members of the ALA, some of whom conduct research not only on authors who write in European languages, but also on literature—contemporary or ancient, written or oral—in African languages.

Many of those scholars who study oral literatures from Africa joined to create the International Society for the Study of Oral Literatures in Africa in 1991. I don’t know how many them also contribute to ALA meetings today.  But the separation between ISOLA and the ALA offers both positive and negative signs—positive, because the newer organization provides a forum for research by more people on African literature, and negative because it widens the divide between researchers in two areas of the same field, composition in European and African languages.

As for me, I retired in 2012, dropped all of my professional memberships, and no longer go to meetings because I’m now working mostly on personal and family projects not related to African literature.  But I continue to do research for one final study that includes literature.  It is a book on the synergistic relationship between the International Organization of Francophonie, the body that promotes the use of French, funded 75% by the government of France, and Françafrique, the term to describe France’s corrupt efforts to influence African countries.  This French project is not a form of neo-colonialism, a term that does not fit, but rather a continuation of colonialism.  For a lengthy article that forms the heart of the book, see “Le Manifeste des Quarante-Quatre, Francophonie, la Françafrique and Africa: From the Politics of Culture to the Culture of Politics.”  International Journal of Francophone Studies. Special issue on “The Literary Politics of Twenty-first Century France,” vol. 12, nos. 2-3, 2009. 171-201. Reprinted as “Paradoxes and Myths of Francophonie.” Francophone Cultures and Geographies. H. Adlai Murdoch and Zsuzsanna Fagyal, eds.  Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013. 292-308.

I thank the 42nd ALA President, Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi, for the invitation to revisit the past.  The research in my ALA archives brings back wonderful memories. I wish her and ALA members good luck in diffusing knowledge about African literatures—written, oral, ancient, and modern—to new generations of students and to the wider public.

Thomas Hale, February 6, 2017