BOOK REVIEW / Canon to the right of them, canon to the left: Daughters of Africa Ed. Margaret Busby: Jonathan Cape pounds 30

Patricia Lee
Saturday 12 December 1992 00:02

THE STRAIN of a severe case of Political Correctness Anxiety is evident in the cumbersome subtitle to this book. Only PCA could be responsible for the qualifying tag 'An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent'. Such careful definition attempts to forestall anticipated criticism from all camps.

The international perspective allows contributions from women born and living as far from Africa as Brazil and Turkey. Not claiming the entries as 'literature' permits us to see in print some of the earliest examples of the oral storytelling tradition. But what is not spelled out is that here the only acknowledged daughters to have come out of Africa are black.

This excludes not only writers inspired by Africa, such as Karen Blixen, but also such children on the continent as Olive Schreiner and Doris Lessing. These make way for women who may never have set foot on African soil but whose skin is some shade of the requisite hue.

Why not? This is not an objective history or guide, but an anthology. It is also Ms Busby's anthology, so the choice is hers. But the editor of this anthology of work by black women writers seems uneasy about declaring the partiality which has defined her book. She is like a parent determined to be fair to all her offspring, when everyone knows which of her daughters she really favours.

She devotes the introduction to explaining her aim of 'celebrating a unifying heritage', which she then applies equally to girls brought up in Germany or Ireland, so limiting that heritage to skin colour rather than to lived culture. She cannot win: what is included in any collection tells of what had been left out. Her dilemma is greater because the object of her attention is a sexually as well as a racially exclusive group, the 'double jeopardy' category of those who are female and black. The conflicting demands of sexual, racial and class loyalties are lamented by Harlem-born novelist June Jordan in Declaration of an Independence I Would Just as Soon Not Have: the black movement largely ignores women, the women's movement excludes men and groups dedicated to the Third World include the potential for corruption.

The contributors neatly chart the historical progression of difficulties over the language of race. In the 19th century a journalist appealed to a Chicago newspaper to show racial respect by printing negro as Negro. By the 1940s a letter to the Washington Post wanted Negro banned as a hangover from the days of slavery and replaced by the more dignified 'colored'.

Within only two decades that term had also become debased and was replaced by black and latterly Black. On the gender track, even the existence of another collection of specifically female writings might be taken as a feminist stance if so many of the women represented did not repudiate that term themselves. West African women traders, for example, and those whose culture upholds their property rights often favour the more humanist approach of Alice Walker's 'womanism', with its commitment to the 'survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female'. Even the title Daughters of Africa came from a 19th-century essay addressed equally to the sons of Africa.

This is Catch-22 played out through almost 1,000 pages. Ms Busby challenges the notion of an accepted (male) canon of literary work, while the existence of her book might be taken as an attempt to establish a rival or at least a complementary (female) one. She seesaws between almost revelling in the lack of Establishment acceptance of some of her contributors as a mark of the uniqueness of their experience and celebrating the mainstream recognition of others - Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are Pulitzer Prize winners, after all.

The comparatively short history of work published by women in general and black women in particular dictates their subject matter. Barely a century out of slavery and with the first novel by a West African woman only published in 1966, it is unavoidable that a collection like this is concerned with social and political injustices.

This makes for uncomfortable and often distressing reading. The most memorable accounts are usually the most understated. A four-year-old girl begs to be allowed to share the experience of her older sister, who is being fussed over and given presents. Her wish is granted: she is pinned to the ground while female relatives carry out the ritual mutilation of her genitals. An American woman doctor weeps the first time she encounters a woman in this condition.

More heart-rending is the attitude of her patient, who cannot understand why she was being seen as an object of pity. It is not all horror and oppression. There is also beauty, humour and a bedrock of common sense. Many of the women explore the emotional complexities of polygamy, but one decides gleefully that any man who can maintain a peaceful household containing several wives and assorted offspring must have the wit and wisdom to make him an attractive proposition.

The historical and geographical range is impressive and the potted biographies useful, but arrangement by genre rather than chronology might have been more telling. Some indication of which entries were chosen by quality and which as representative or ground-breaking would also have been helpful. Is the sole poem by Maya Angelou, for example, an editorial acknowledgement that this author is already well read or merely a statement of Ms Busby's personal preference?

This book may seem to be about literature but in the end it is as much a testament to language: its power to create attitudes as well as its potency as a means of expression. When we read of lepers clamouring to be known as sufferers from Hanson's Disease it makes us wonder whether, if they had got their way, we would have had to invent a new term to signify social outcasts.

In the 1980s the ironical title of an American women's studies course noted such conditioning: All the Blacks Are Men, All the Women Are White, But Some of Us Are Brave. Bravery is the hallmark of this thought-provoking work, which may mark one more step towards offering a more rounded literary legacy to all our daughters.

Another step will be taken the day pilgrimages by the politically aware to Highgate Cemetery are undertaken in honour of Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian who founded Britain's first campaigning black newspaper. They might notice that buried alongside is a man called Karl Marx.

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