Toward a Critical Vocabulary for African Diaspora Expressivity

TOWARD A CRITICAL VOCABULARY FOR AFRICAN DIASPORA EXPRESSIVITY

By Paul Carter Harrison

As far back as the 1920s, the highly esteemed scholar Alain Locke, one of the leaders of the New Negro Movement, challenged black artists to break away from the limitations of the established aesthetic conventions proffered by the movement’s paternalistic white patrons at the Harmon Society by reaching back into the repository of African culture for ideal expressive production that might pave the way toward an alternative style of work not limited to Western traditions.

 

In 1971, the late scholar Addison Gayle observed in his introduction to an edited

collection of essays, The Black Aesthetic, that the “black artist of the past worked with the white public in mind. The guidelines by which he measured his production was its acceptance or rejection by white people. The invisible censor, white power, hovered over him in the sanctuary of his private room-whether at the piano or the typewriter-and, like his black brothers, he debated about what he could say to the world without bringing censure upon himself. The mannerisms he had used to survive in the society outside, he now brought to his art…the result was usually an artistic creation filled with half-truths.”

Nearly a half-century has passed since the robust Black Arts Movement of the Sixties initiated a vigorous endeavor to reclaim African heritage as the foundation of artistic expression. In an effort to encourage self-definition of African American humanity and rescue African American expressivity from the rapacious commodification of dominant culture, the poet, Larry Neal, issued a challenge to African American novelists, poets, musicians, and visual and performing artists, to abandon the aesthetics of the Western Canon and pursue aesthetic constructions in their expressive practices that reflected a culturally specific “symbology, mythology, iconology, and critique” consonant with the retention of an African worldview within the African American experience.

Cultural scholar, Houston Baker has noted that “the guiding assumption of the Black Arts Movement was that if a literary-critical investigator looked to the characteristic musical and verbal forms of the masses, he could discover unique aspects of Afro-American creative expression—aspects of both form and performance—that lay closest to the verifiable emotional referents and experiential categories of Afro-American culture. The result of such a critical investigation…would be the discovery of a “Black Aesthetic”—a distinctive code for the creation and evaluation of black art.”  One need only to listen to Thelonious Monk’s discordant harmonies and tonal vamp on the familiar Christian hymnal, Blessed Assurance in the Fifties, or the hallowed dirge inventions of Albert Ayler’s Holy Ghost in the early Sixties, to recognize that the reclamation of a distinctive code was in progress.

Neal had presaged that without a distinctive code, artistic expression of African Americans conceived under the rubric of Black Art  would be marginalized within the dominant culture and provided minimal financial or developmental support from major institutions –including foundations, government agencies, universities, publishers, and  most egregiously, regional theaters– unless the expressive product conformed with the familiar ethno-centered representations and aesthetic formulations consistent with the marketing expectations of the dominant culture.

 

Black Theatre institutions in America, lamentably, do not have the resources to develop new, ethnic-centered work.  As a result, paradoxically, they tend to program their seasons with the work that white institutions have sanctioned as accomplished black work, irrespective of the limited aesthetic and political—and rarely spiritual—insights which do serve to affirm or enlighten the black community.  Further, the penchant of writers of the current generation to distance their work from being critically labeled black is a reminder that black artists are still confused about the aesthetic moorings of their work beyond color.  Rather than pursuing or at least inspecting the layers of symbolic references retained in what Wole Soyinka refers to as the metalanguage of African Diasporic cultures—excepting Tarrell McCraney’s cogent appropriation of Yoruba archetypes to identify contemporary characters in his ritualized The Brother’s Size at the New York Public Theater, and the compelling re-figuration of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes with Greco-Yoruba insinuations in Will Power’s  Seven at the New York Theatre Workshop—most expressive output of new black work developed at white institutions is usually subordinated  by the popular receptivity of the content by the subscription base of the mainstream theaters, and systems of critical logic codified by the aesthetics of the dominant culture.

 

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Over the past 40 years we have accepted the convenient rubric of Black Theatre, Black Music, Black Poetry, Black Dance, Black Visual Art without a culturally specific critical language to make valid assessments about what makes the expressive product black. Generally, a work is considered black if it is framed in a black milieu, or figured as a familiar or popular black icon on a canvas, or  speaking-in-the-tongue of Blues in poetry and song.  Representation of blackness, and worse, the performance of blackness cloaked in the stock Negro Performance that reliably shows up on Broadway Driving Miss Daisy, is only a convenient, and certainly flawed index to validate an expressive experience as being black.  Clearly, the mere presence of black actors on a stage should not be the factor that constitutes Black Theatre, nor otherwise the dramaturgical contrivances that freeze the black experience in familiar replications of black life so often illustrated in melodramas.   The expressive trajectory should be toward crafting the appropriate culturally specific riffs and vamps required to distill from mundane experience the kind of emanation of a heightened revelation achieved in the vocal dexterity of James Brown or the poetic vision located in the spare, rigorous,  metalengue ritual-texts of Adrienne Kennedy.  Thus, the dramatization of black experience in all genres, without the benefit of an expressive mode that illuminates The Souls of Black Folk, is a defused spectacle of life frozen in the snapshot of causally related sociological description. Such expressive products do not release the transformative wisdom of black expressivity. They are, rather, much like journalistic slices-of-life, a chronicle of mundane experience arrested in an expositional tableau.  African Diasporic expressive production requires a ritual that is transformative, the inevitable outcome of a poetic vision, a style of work informed by the expressive strategies minted from African memory.

 

Yet, the critical establishment, using the yardstick of the Western Canon, has been the arbiter of which works are most representative of the all too familiar social pathologies, chronicles of slavery, and narratives of personal journeys to overcome adversity that are usually projected to reference black experience. Echoing the frustration of many black artists, the poet/playwright Ntozake Shange complains that her work is often given highly approved reviews for reasons inconsistent with her intentions. Similarly, Toni Morrison has noted in an interview (McKay, 151) that:

“I tend not to explain things very much, but I long for the critic who will know what I mean when I say “church” or “community” or when I say “ancestor,” or “chorus.”  Because my books come out of those things and represent how they function in [B]lack cosmology.” 

Part of the problem is the expressive product is held hostage, if not simply accountable, to the limited capacity for establishment critics to codify black experience within the narrow consciousness of popular perception.  Commonly, the gaze of the critical establishment has been focused on color as opposed to practice, ignoring the global commonality of expressive practices among Africans throughout the diaspora, i.e., North and South America, Caribbean, Great Britain, France, The French and Dutch Antilles, East, West and South Africa.  In the absence of a distinctive code, the cultural significance of line, circle, color, rhythm ‘n repetition, call ‘n response, spacial tension and the shape of forms in black expressive production is vulnerable to an interpretation based upon the facile, reductive, sociological datum consigned to the black experience.  Such interpretations would be indifferent to the poet Leopold Senghor’s cognizance of rhythm as “the architecture of being, the inner-dynamic that gives form, the pure expression of life force…In the degree to which rhythm is sensuously embodied, it illuminates the spirit.” 

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Typically, a New York Times critic misinterpreted the Bill T. Jones’ effort to ritualistically employ sacred gestures in his production of Fela to invoke the power of the ancestors to reveal the story. The highly sensualized gestures were simply dismissed as a bewildering “pious haze of hagiography”, an unnecessary homage to saints, as opposed to the ase’ of orishas.  Most of the critics were captivated by the theatrical provocations of the compelling, polymorphic improvisatory ritual mechanism of orchestrated word, dance, and music that galvanized rhythms, choric testifying, and call and response, but they did not have the critical language to talk about the work or enunciate why they found the work so compelling.  Similarly, another New York Times critic was perplexed by Kermit Frazier’s taut absurdist drama, Kernel of Sanity, recently produced by Woodie King at the New Federal Theatre.  Set in the 1970s, an ambitious, young, black actor, Roger, en route to Los Angeles in pursuit of work, makes an unexpected visit to the Mid-western childhood home of an indolent, yet privileged, white actor, Frank, with whom he had once shared a stage.  The critic was confounded by the visit of Roger who speaks of “trying to stretch your skin so tightly over someone else’s image that you feel you just might be able to absorb them.”  As the play meanders mysteriously to a conclusion without stumbling over familiar trappings of black social signifiers, the critic observes that the “tense ambiguity” of the play was “unsatisfying” because the Seventies setting failed “to yield some insights into character or race”, summarily noting that “the biggest payoff seems to be (Roger’s) bell-bottoms”.  It never occurred to the critic, or she refused to accept, that the ambiguity of Rogers’ language and physical gestures reflected the archetypal verbal and physical dexterity of Eshu, a formidable Yoruba trickster deity.  Or that the veiled comportment that allowed him entry into the home of his former scene partner was merely a mask to allow him to ventilate his rage through a ritual re-enactment designated to reclaim a sense of manhood that had been compromised and undermined at an earlier time by Frank’s abuse of white privilege and authority over the black body, much like the slave/master relationship.       

While black is a global signifier, African American merely identifies the location of the experience, as does African Caribbean, Afro-Antillean, or Afro-Pacific.  Despite cultural rupture and dislocation from the African continent, Africans scattered in the New World have been able to retain manifestations of many sacred and secular traditions that shape the quality and purpose of their cultural expressivity.  However transformed by the new cultural and physical landscape, close exploration of sacred and secular practices that influence ritual, ceremony, carnival, masquerade, testimonials, rites of passage, storytelling, song, dance, instrumental improvisation, just groovin’ or jumpin’ Double Dutch, will reveal expressive modes of performance deeply rooted in the ancestral ethos of Africans in the Diaspora, a transformative process designed to reveal spiritual aspects of mundane life.

Since the African creative process points to the significance of spiritual invocation as the procreative mediating force required to transform the corporeal experience, the task of creative expression is, then, to attend the familiar with a rigor which illuminates its spiritual properties.  Even Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun reveals ritual elements that could have liberated its purpose beyond social realism.  Closer inspection of her dramaturgy, intentional or otherwise, reveals a play constructed around the invisible, spiritual force of the father whose appearance in the play, like the shape-shifting Yoruba trickster deity Eschu at the crossroads of experience, is revealed in the form of Money, challenging the family, in response to his physical absence, to choose a path between one that would destroy the family and another that would bond the family around his spiritual essence.  The final action, then, should be critically comprehended as the spiritual bonding of a family on the verge of imploding, rather than simply achieving the material reward of moving to the suburbs.  

In his highly controversial 1996 TCG (Theatre Communications Group) conference speech, “On the Ground I Stand”, August Wilson made an appeal for the resurrection of the “spiritual temperament” of the ancestors whose songs, dances, and art were a manifest act of the “creator from whom life flowed”, thereby placing the craftsman at the “spiritual center of his existence.”  Since spirituality is central to the sacred and secular lives of African peoples worldwide,  creative invention is a response to the collective ethos required to generate spiritual continuity and empowerment, or what Robert Farris Thompson refers to as “the flash of the spirit”, that assuages the experience of oppression with a sense of cleansing, binding, and healing. 

Given the emergence of gifted black artists in the United States, it is time–and most necessary–to claim ownership of black expressive products by looking beyond the limits of the provincial locations of the experience.  Addison Gayle addressed the conventional critical discourse in his book, The Black Aesthetic, noting  that “a unique art derived from unique cultural experiences mandates unique critical tools for evaluation.”  Gayle further observes that if reconstruction of self through transformation of the moral universe is a goal, then a “critical methodology has no relevance to the black community unless it aids men in becoming better than they are….Such an element has been sorely lacking in the critical canons handed down from the academies by the Aristotelian Critics, the Practical Critics, the Formalistic Critics, and the New Critics. Each has this in common (including contemporary Post-Modern discourse): it aims to evaluate the work of art in terms of its beauty and not in terms of the transformation from ugliness to beauty that the work of art demands from its audience.”

In order to shift the gaze, irrespective of regional specificity, and establish a verifiable global legitimacy beyond color (which is often reductively confined to reactions to oppression, burlesques of local color, and worse, inflated portraits of dignity figured in the Nobel Savage) black expressive practices must be understood and critically appraised as being a unique cultural manifestation with its expressive tentacles rooted in Africa, albeit modified by the specific location of social experience, such as in the sacred practices of the Holiness Church in the United States, Pentecostal in Puerto Rico, Shango Baptists in Trinidad, Santeria in Cuba, Condoble’ in Brazil, and “riding the Devil” in the Diablo Tun Tun Congo ritual annually performed during Panama Carnival, all deeply rooted in African cosmology.   

Africans in the diaspora who pursue a process of work that re-visions their imagination through an African lens are often disparaged as atavists, romantics, and worse, essentialists…a contemptuous rebuke of the reclamation of Africa as the source of ethno-centric worldview…as if the Western Canon is a construction based on modernity as opposed to reaching back into its past for significant mythic and philosophical references to conceive notions as Aristotelian Logic, Socratic society, Platonic relationships, Sisyphean effort, the Achilles Heal, and the foundation of its ontological view, Christianity.  

Demonstration of the commonalities of expressive strategies throughout the African Diaspora requires a rigorous identification of the indices that shape forms of expression that can advance the development of a verifiable critical vocabulary to frame the uniqueness of black cultural expression. Thus, in order to make a valid assessment of what constitutes an expressive product  to be black when, in fact, it generally represents a very well-crafted piece of American work, albeit African American—I have pulled together a multi-disciplined working group of experts-in-the-field to meet at Emory University for the next two years to pursue the development of a new critical vocabulary through observing practices throughout the African Diaspora that might become the foundation for constructing an informed approach to critical analysis of black expression. The challenge is to pursue an entirely new scholarship which incorporates Visual and Performing Art, Literature, Linguistics, Music, Anthropology, Religion, and systems of Cosmology, i.e., Dogon, Yoruba, and Akan.  Such a pedagogical exegesis, I anticipate, should launch an inquiry into the significance of African ontology and social practices within the African Diaspora that might lead to the reconstruction and formulation of a critical model erected from the worldview of the “African Continuum.”

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