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Author: Ann E. Willey
Title: Theories of Africans
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Theories of Africans
Ann E. Willey

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 3, pp. 15, 1992
Author Biography: Anne E. Willey is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern.

Theories of Africans


Christopher L. Miller, Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, 328pp.

In his new book, Christopher Miller projects a strategy for Western readers to approach African literature via anthropology. He claims that only knowledge of the African context will permit a responsible reading of African literature, knowledge that too often Westerners lack. He is aware of the dangers of this approach, but claims that nonetheless " ... without a surrender to that paradox, without some reliance on anthropological texts, Westerners will not be able to read African literatures in an adequate way." (21) This surrender to paradox is reflected in the title of the book itself. Is Miller describing theories coming from Africans or theories about Africans? He suggests that we must find the medium between these two possible readings by having recourse to anthropology while maintaining a healthy skepticism of its self-proclaimed authority. His title is a direct reference to the possibility of Western theory appropriating African discourse; he links it to a quote from Yambo Ouologuem's novel, Le Devoir de violence:

Une caravane traverse l'etendue infinie et morne de ces plaines, caravane de négriers, le plus souvent poussant devant eux de lamentables théories d'hommes, de femmes, d'enfants couverts d'ulcères, étranglés par le carcan, mains ensanglantées par les liens. [1]

Miller sees the risk of anthropology becoming the slavetrader that organizes the African into "theories" through a violence to the African's humanity. How is Miller going to avoid this possible result of his reliance on anthropology?

Miller answers this paradox in the first three chapters where he outlines both the necessity for this kind of reading and the conditions of its possibility. The first chapter gives a cogent history of the often infelicitous relations between Western theories—including those of anthropology—and African discourses. In the second chapter he justifies his reliance on anthropological theory, carefully working out what he sees as the essential link between ethnicity and ethics. "There is," he says, "no real ethics without ethnicity." Through an exploration of Marxist approaches to African literature he shows how totalizing theories, theories of the universal rather than the local and particular "ethnic," lead to unethical readings, citing as his primary examples Gugelberger's collection, Marxism and African Literature, and Sékou Touré's misreading of Fanon.

Chapter three is one of the most informative in the book: Miller sets the structure for the readings that follow through a discussion of Mande attitudes towards artistic creation, especially oral texts. His discussion about the meaning of nyamakala art (including, and especially, orature) sheds new light on the role of words and their producers in Mande society. He shows the mistrust of words and the ambiguous position of the griot among the Mande, implying that the position of the writer is thus doubly ambiguous with the second translation: from silence to word, from words to print. Both transitions carry with them a betrayal of silence and therefore of truth.

Miller uses anthropology to achieve a more honest reading of the other's text. He reads Camara's L'Enfant noir, Kourouma's Les Soleils des indépendances, and Mariama Bâ's Une si longue lettre. His discussion of Camara's novel is the most intriguing and the most disturbing. His placing of Camara's role as similar to that of the nyamakala artist goes a long way towards uncovering the ambiguous role of the African author and the tensions inherent in adopting a Western tradition—the novel—for the expression of an African self. The "untidy presence of the other" that he shows us in Camara's novel continues a recent trend of re-reading Camara not as an apolitical, nostalgic author, but as a writer firmly rooted in a traditional world (the Mande), one who recognizes the dangers of the dialogue he faces in the palimpsestic form of expression he chooses. What is disturbing is Miller's use of Freud's theory of totem and taboo to explore the significance of the narrator's metaphors for separation from his culture. Miller points out the importance of the early sentence, "I left my father's house too soon." The ensuing discussion—about the anthropological definitions of totem and the relation of these definitions to Camara's use of the word—comes dangerously close, however, to Miller's very concerns about forcing African writers to toe the line of Western theories. He does an admirable job of pulling from the novel itself a theory of totem. Why, then, compare Camara's understanding of the term with Freud's, if the purpose is to reveal the significance of the Mande understanding of totem within the novel? Where Miller's discussion of traditional attitudes towards production of oral texts widens our understanding of this novel, his emphasis on anthropological theories of totem serve only to force Camara's text into a less dialogic perspective.

Chapter five presents a reading of Amadou Kourouma's Les Soleils de indépendances, placing it firmly in the midst of the debate surrounding francophonie. Miller shows how Kourouma achieves a very real dialogue (in the Bakhtinian sense) between the French and Mande traditions. He calls the celebration of Kourouma's "marriage against nature" (an African identity and the French language) an initially confusing phenomenon, but suggests the possibilities opened up in it by his quote from Tchicaya U Tam'si: "if the French language colonizes me, I'll colonize it right back." (188) Kourouma, he claims, has found a way to express the Mande self in French language and forms, thereby simultaneously rejecting and expanding francophonie.

Miller next deals with a subject that has been neglected in African literary studies: female authors. Though the chapter centers on Mariama Bâ's Une si longue lettre, he explores the reasons for the delayed entry of francophone African women into writing. In an observation as startlingly new and perspicacious as his observations about nyamakala art, Miller suggests a reading of the silence of women as a form of resistance based on relations among men, women, and language in the Mande cultural sphere. He suggests that Bâ's nontraditional use (the slight deviations from epistolary novels) of a nontraditional genre (at least within Africa) is an effort to carve out a space for the African female author that is neither dominated by the expectations of the French nor her male African counterparts.

Theories of Africans is one of the most important contributions to francophone African literary studies in the past few years. Miller addresses in a coherent and thoughtful way the problems faced by the Westerner who seeks to study African literature without colonizing that discourse. His research is thorough and the bibliography alone makes this book a valuable contribution. Miller manages to take a problematic set of cultural theorizing and show how it can be used to reap results when applied carefully and conscientiously to the study of African literature. If his use of anthropology makes the reader wary, Miller would likely applaud that reaction. The value of this critical effort, however, is undeniable.

1. Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1968.

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