The Significance of John S. Mbiti's Works in the Study of Pan-African Literature

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Cleveland State University The Journal of Traditions & Beliefs Michael Schwartz Library 2016 The Significance of John S. Mbiti's Works in the Study of Pan-African Literature Babacar
Cleveland State University The Journal of Traditions & Beliefs Michael Schwartz Library 2016 The Significance of John S. Mbiti's Works in the Study of Pan-African Literature Babacar Mbaye Kent State University How does access to this work benefit you? Let us know! Follow this and additional works at: Part of the African American Studies Commons, African Languages and Societies Commons, Christianity Commons, Continental Philosophy Commons, Fine Arts Commons, History of Religion Commons, Literature in English, North America Commons, Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority Commons, Other Languages, Societies, and Cultures Commons, Other Religion Commons, and the Social History Commons Recommended Citation Mbaye, Babacar (2016) The Significance of John S. Mbiti's Works in the Study of Pan-African Literature, The Journal of Traditions & Beliefs: Vol. 2, Article 9. Available at: This Article is brought to you for free and open access by the Michael Schwartz Library at It has been accepted for inclusion in The Journal of Traditions & Beliefs by an authorized administrator of For more information, please contact Mbaye: Mibiti's Works in the Study of Pan-African Literature The critic Rosemary Traoré places John S. Mbiti among those pioneering Black intellectuals such as Cheikh Anta Diop, Abu Abarry, and Kwame Gyekye who have argued for Afrocentricity on the basis of the existence of an African worldview and have helped to delineate the elements of an African worldview. 1 Using selected Black Diasporan literary texts such as Zora Neale Hurston s book of folklore Mules and Men (1935), her novel Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), Elizabeth Hart Thwaites s memoir History of Methodism (1804), Anne Hart Gilbert s memoir History of Methodism (1804), and Mary Prince s narrative The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself (1831), this essay will demonstrate Mbiti s strong influence in the study of the African presence in African American and Caribbean literature. The Africanisms in New World Black writings can easily be identified and interpreted through the use of Mbiti s works, such as African Religions and Philosophy (1970), Concepts of God in Africa (1970), and Introduction to African Religion (1991). As my analysis of these seminal books will suggest, the ethnographic theories that Mbiti develops in his scholarship can be used to demonstrate the connections among continental African cultures and those between such continental African traditions and their equivalents in the New World. Mbiti s theories of Africanisms can also be used as frameworks for developing a methodology of Pan-African literary and cultural studies that stresses the importance of African worldviews in Black Diasporan literature and culture. Redefining Africa and Africanisms in Non-Eurocentric and Pluralistic Terms With a population of 1.2 billion, who speak 2,000 languages not counting dialects, the continent of Africa covers no less than 11,699,000 square miles, and is as big as the combined territory of the United States, Western Europe, India, and China. 2 Africa has a cultural diversity reflected not only in the variety of the ethnic groups that crisscross national boundaries and traditional languages, but also in the multiplicity of its traditional religions that co-habit peacefully with Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and other monotheistic faiths. As Mbiti notes in African Religions and Philosophy, We speak of African traditional religions in the plural because there are about one thousand African peoples, understood here as ethnic groups, and each has its own religious system. 3 This hybridism makes one wonder why the adjective African, which traditionally served to locate a diverse people, came to be used in some diasporic cultural nationalist movements and studies as a generalized structure and model for all Black people in the world. In African, African American, Africana (1998), Lucius Outlaw attempts to find out how Black scholars could help shape the intellectual praxes of Africana studies to serve the interest of African peoples without falling into the tendency of abstract naiveté and romanticism. 4 Outlaw s argument about the danger of using the adjective African as a composite abstraction rather than a discrete term to describe a multiplicity of African values is well-founded. 5 Africa is not a monolith of cultures and human experiences, and neither is the rest of the world. However, Outlaw must recognize that unique historical experiences such as slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonialism that have caused forceful migrations of Black people from Africa to America, the Caribbean, Europe, and other parts of the world justify the existence of communalistic perspectives among Black cultural nationalists who view European attitudes toward Blacks as a continuum of 1 Rosemary Traoré, Implementing Afrocentricity: Connecting Students of African Descent to Their Cultural Heritage, The Journal of Pan African Studies 1, no. 10 (2007), Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Africa in Fact, in National Geographic, ed. Editor (City, State: Publisher, 2005). John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent (New York: Vintage, 1997), 2-6. John Gunther, Inside Africa (New York: Harper, 1955). 3John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Garden City: Anchor, 1970), 1. 4 Lucius Outlaw, African, African American, Africana, in African Philosophy: An Anthology, ed. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), Ibid. Published by The Journal of Traditions & Beliefs, Vol. 2 [2016], Art. 9 racial and/or socioeconomic and political exploitation. The subjectivities that Blacks develop from such traumatic experiences should not be labeled as abstract naiveté and romanticism, because any critical way of understanding the cultures of the Black diaspora should begin with an examination of the historical contexts, feelings, and ideologies that motivate African-centered scholars such as Mbiti, Lawrence Levine, or Sterling Stuckey to use terms such as Africanism, Africanness, and Africanity in their studies of Pan-African literature and culture. The concept of Africanism is part of a long cultural and intellectual debate in which many intellectuals (Black and White) have attempted to demonstrate or disprove the existence of African cultural survivals in the New World. According to Basil Davidson, the word Africanism is old, and over a prolonged period has possessed different but more or less consecutive meanings. 6 The earliest use of the term is recorded in 1641, when the English referred to the Africanisms of the early Church fathers, giving it a meaning which had to do with scriptural exegesis. 7 In 1882, a dictionary of Christian biography was found explaining that the principles sustained by Origen Alexandria correct the Africanism which, since the time of Augustine, has dominated Western theology. 8 By 1641, the word Africanism was used by European travelers to label African cultural features taken to be exotic; and this meaning acquired a brief currency in North America when describing the linguistic Africanisms of black slaves. 9 Two centuries later, in 1862 to be exact, a long and heated debate upon matters of the structure and origin of slave religious music began to produce a vast literature in North America, spearheaded by early White folklorists such as Lucy McKim and William Frances Allen. 10 According to Levine, after a brief visit to the Gullah Sea Islands in the Southern United States in 1862, Lucy McKim sounded a note which generations of folklorists were to echo when she despaired of being able to express the entire character of these Negro ballads by mere musical notes and signs McKim described what she thought was the odd distinctiveness of African American music and noted the odd turns made in the throat; and that curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals... [that] seem [to her] almost as impossible to place on score, as the singing of birds, or the tones of an Aeolian Harp. 12 Although it was a primitivistic, alienating, and ethnocentric in its assumption that the orchestral and vocal form of slave songs cannot be written, McKim s statement suggests a distant, possibly African, origin of African American musical aesthetics. By 1920, the debate over Africanism in North America changed as a new group of scholars, including the African Americans James Weldon Johnson and Alain LeRoy Locke, and later, the Jewish Americans Melville J. and Frances Herskovits, challenged the racist and ethnocentric assumptions of their predecessors on the nature of African American folklore. A major contribution in this scholarship was Lorenzo D. Turner s validation of African remnants in Black Diasporan culture. In his infamous essay, African Survivals in the New World with Special Emphasis on the Arts, later published in Africa Seen by American Negroes (1958), Turner, an African American linguist, states, A study of the influence of African culture upon the Western Hemisphere reveals that the slaves on reaching the New World did not wholly abandon their native 6 Basil Davidson, The Search for Africa (New York: Times Books, 1994), Ibid. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid. 10 Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: African-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), Ibid. 12 Ibid., Mbaye: Mibiti's Works in the Study of Pan-African Literature culture, but retained much of it with surprisingly little change. Much of it also has been considerably modified by contact with Western civilization, and a good deal of it, as would be expected, has been lost entirely. Those aspects of African culture which have been tenacious throughout the New World are survivals in languages, folk literature, religion, art, the dance, and music; but some survivals from the economic and social life of the Africans can also be found in the New World. 13 The above discussion attests to the pervasive influence of African traditions in New World Black cultures. Although they are visible in the language, naming, rituals, and other aspects of these cultures, the Africanisms are also apparent in New World Black literature. The retention of the African background in New World Black literature is apparent in the ways in which Hurston s Mules and Men represents the influence of voodoo in the folklore of New Orleans Blacks during the first part of the twentieth century. Voodoo is a traditional African religion that exists in the United States, the Caribbean, and in other parts of the Black Diaspora. Alma Jean Billingslea-Brown defines voodoo as a belief in supernatural phenomena manifested in the acts of healing, divination, incantation, and in the use of curative herbs, amulets, and fetishes. 14 According to Billingslea-Brown, voodoo is called hoodoo in the U.S., vodun in Haiti, shango in Trinidad, camdomble and macumba in Brazil, santeria in Cuba, and cumina or obeah in Jamaica. 15 Voodoo evolved out of Africa since, as Robert Farris Thompson argues in Flash of the Spirit (1984), it is a traditional religion that is based on spiritual traditions from Dahomey, Yoruba land, Kongo, and Roman Catholicism. 16 Voodoo is also an African American spiritual tradition, since Hurston represents it in the second part of Mules and Men as the focus of initiation ceremonies in which she participated in New Orleans in First, Hurston describes the importance of initiation in voodooism. In order to participate in a voodoo ritual, a student must be trained by a person who is called a doctor, a priest (or priestess), or, in the case of females, a queen. Hurston tells the story of Marie Laveau, a nineteenth-century Black woman in New Orleans who was called the voodoo queen. Marie Laveau s fame came from the respect held by many New Orleans African Americans for African culture during the early twentieth century. In the introduction to her fieldwork on voodoo, in Mules and Men, Hurston says, New Orleans is now and has ever been the hoodoo capital of America. Great names in rites that vie with those of Hayti in deeds that keep alive the powers of Africa. 17 Laveau might have been one of these great names. Yet, even a great voodoo queen such as Laveau had to be initiated to voodooism before she could have the prominent status that Hurston gives her. As Hurston suggests in Mules and Men, Laveau was selected to become a voodoo priestess by Alexander, the man who was known as the two-headed doctor who felt the power in her and told her that she must come to study with him. 18 When Alexander made the offer to her, Laveau was reluctant to accept it because she did not want to stop going to balls and falling in love. Yet when a rattlesnake came into her bedroom and spoke to her, Laveau changed her mind and went to study voodooism from 13 Lorenzo D. Turner, African Survivals in the New World with Special Emphasis on the Arts, Africa Seen By American Negroes: Africa from the Point of View of American Negro Scholars (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1958), Alma Jean Billingslea-Brown, Crossing Borders Through Folklore: African American Women s Fiction and Art (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), Ibid. 16 Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (New York: Harper, 1990), Ibid., 192. Published by The Journal of Traditions & Beliefs, Vol. 2 [2016], Art. 9 Alexander. 19 The snake fulfills the role of carrier of a divine message, which is traceable to the African belief that animals are mediators between spirits and people. In African Religions and Philosophy, Mbiti argues that the Igbira of Central Nigeria believe that animal spirits such as those of snakes and hyenas are intermediaries between gods and society. 20 Mbiti s rationale is important for the study of African American literature and culture because it helps us provide a scholarly evidence of the possible relationships between the snake worships in Africa and in the Black Diaspora. In African worldviews, humans cannot survive without a co-existence with animal species such as snakes and alligators that serve as totems linking the visible and invisible worlds. This sacred bond that exists between the totem and Africans is reflected in the close relationship that Laveau had with her snake. As Hurston suggests, when Laveau becomes old, the rattlesnake that had come to her a little one when she was young came to see her again. 21 When she hears the snake sing, she [Laveau] went to her Great Altar and made [a] great ceremony. The snake finished his song and seemed to sleep. 22 These passages show the familial bond that exists between Laveau and her snake totem. This unity between Laveau and her totem is visible in the snake s disappearance when Laveau dies. Hurston writes, It is said that the snake went off to the woods alone after the death of Marie Laveau. 23 Later in Mules and Men, Laveau s altar is betrothed to Luke Turner, who is now the keeper of his mother s temple. Turner s role in voodoo is to communicate with his deceased mother and instruct the students who visit the voodoo temple. Turner s close relationship with his mother is noticeable when he spends a few hours praying to the spirit of Laveau, who taught him how to conjure or charm a person. 24 According to Hurston, the spirit tells Turner that dust of Goofer can be used to bring damnation and trouble on someone else. 25 This communication between Turner and his departed mother is traceable to the African belief that the spirits of ancestors are connected with those of their living relatives. 26 For example, as Noel Q. King suggests, the Akan, among other African ethnic groups such as the Yoruba and the Wolof, believe that the spirit of an ancestor revisits his/her living relatives. 27 In his study of the traditional religions of the Akan, Suniti Kumar Chatterji found a hierarchy of divinities such as Onyankopon (the Great Supreme Being who is Unique and without a second), the Obossoms (the lesser divinities who are but forms of Onyankopon), and next to these two gods, the ancestors whom the individual worships in shrines in order to receive personal and social welfare. 28 In a similar vein, King argues that the Akan believe that the spirits of the ancestors reincarnate themselves in the names, spirits, and personalities of the children who bear their names and in nature. 29 Another African element in Mules and Men is apparent in the way in which Turner performs the ritual of being in oneness with his mother s spirit. This practice is both secular and religious, since it is designed to strengthen the individual who seeks knowledge and maturity. Commonly 19 Ibid. 20 Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, Hurston, Mules and Men, Ibid. 23 Ibid., Ibid., Ibid. 26 Noel Q. King, African Cosmos: An Introduction to Religion in Africa (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1986), King, African Cosmos, Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Africanism: The African Personality (Bankim Chatterji Street, Calcutta: Bengal Publishing, 1960), King, African Cosmos, Mbaye: Mibiti's Works in the Study of Pan-African Literature known as retreat or initiation, this moment of isolation and rebirth is a rite of passage that most Africans go through before and/or after pivotal experiences such as circumcision, marriage, education, and exile. In Introduction to African Religion, Mbiti lists eight functions of initiation in African society: (1) a bond is made by the shedding of blood; (2) a youngster becomes an adult; (3) he/she is allowed to get married; (4) a bridge between youth and adulthood is created; (5) a mark of unity with the people is celebrated; (6) the individual is educated in tribal matters; (7) he/she returns home with a new identity; and (8) the initiation brings the people together. 30 One element that Mbiti does not mention is spiritual retreat, which is a custom in which the individual lives alone in an isolated place under deprivation for a short period in order to acquire power and knowledge. In West Africa, where Islam has been present since the seventh century, spiritual retreat is known as khalwa which, as Constant Armés suggests is a Sufi and Islamic ritual in which a person withdraws himself or herself into loneliness in an attempt to seek knowledge from a higher power. 31 Khalwa (the Arabic word for retreat) is one of the principles of Sufi philosophy developed by the Arab scholar Muhyiddin Ibn-`Arabi ( A.D.) under the categories of al uzla (loneliness) as a pathway to spiritual self-discovery. The initiate of khawla is expected to retreat alone for forty days in a meditation room with only a mat. `Arabi explains, The one who undertakes khalwa, like a dead man, surrenders all worldly and exterior religious affairs, as the first step to surrendering his own existence. In complete seclusion he continuously repeats the name of God. 32 Contrary to Donald B. Cruise O Brien s claim that Africans did not conceive of God in mystical terms as did the Sufis, there is evidence showing that Africans were practicing khalwa at least during the Atlantic slave trade. 33 Knut S. Vikor corroborates this possibility when he points out that Khalwatiya, the movement which derived its name from the importance it lays on the brethren going into seclusion, also had local beginnings in Africa from the Niger Sahara to West Africa during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 34 The millions of Africans who had been enslaved into the Americas during this trade probably included practitioners of khalwa since this term, as G. Michel La Rue argues, also describes Koranic schools where African students had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. 35 The practice of khalwa was retained in African American culture where it signifies spiritual retreat. One example of spiritual retreat in Afric
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