I had just taught a class (at Smith College) on Afrika Solo, a play by Caribbean-Canadian playwright Djanet Sears. The play is a performance piece based on the author’s journey across Africa in search of home. Invariably some of my (mostly women) students worry that they just won’t be able to relate to Djanet and her journey.
Most students know diddly squat about Africa, its many cultures and peoples, its histories, geography, economy, or relevance to their lives. The Dark Continent is a black hole in their minds—the event horizon is crisis or thuggery—starving babies squatting in a wasteland or warped dictators/gangsters preying on hapless victims. Nothing much else gets through.
Some students fear that the gulf of race or ethnicity between Djanet and them will be too wide; they won’t be able to find pleasure, meaning, or insight in her story. Some students steel themselves for attack; guilt gripping them at the title—maybe they’ll be identified with the “bad guys” in Afrika Solo.
If given a choice, my students might not read or see a production of Afrika Solo. However, since the play is required reading, they bravely press on! Despite these initial misgivings, most survive. Indeed, it seems Djanet didn’t know much about Africa either, until she walked across its deserts, rain forests, and grasslands; until she haunted its cities and ancient universities; until she spoke with people, ate food and sang into the night with them. When the goggles (fashioned from TV, Film, and other Media foolishness about Africa) come off, Djanet is finally able to experience Tunisia, Benin, and the Ituri Rain Forest as something other than an episode of Tarzan.
A few students always express astonishment that the play is so accessible! They immediately connect to Djanet’s character and her struggle to fashion and perform an identity for herself in this complex world we inhabit. She’s a geek who loves SF & F—and they feel at home with that whatever else might be “different” about Djanet. They are very excited that she finds and enjoys a prince, but doesn’t marry him to live happily ever after. At the end of the play, Djanet continues her journey of discovery—which is what my students hope to do.
These same students don’t express trepidation about being able to relate to white male heroes and any journey they might undertake. They don’t (seem) to worry about finding pleasure, meaning, or insight in “his” story—even if they later critique such stories as ludicrously racist or insidiously sexist.
I have been teaching this play for almost twenty years with similar results.
I didn’t quite know how to conclude my thoughts, but this morning I read the Hey Clare-What Gives? thread.
Rebecca Ore in a comment wrote:
I have a gut hostile reaction to people who try to judge art by morals and values that aren't esthetic. Art is joy, not pedagogy. No pleasure, no value, and some pleasures are dark or complex.
Unfortunately I believe that some of the dark, complex pleasures have been to make colonialism a thrilling adventure and Africa and its multitude of peoples, cultures, histories a black hole in our imagination. European male culture is the enjoyable, universal center. That’s the entertaining pedagogy still running through District 9 and Avatar.
Art is complex. It is joy and pedagogy. It's morals, values, and aesthetics. Craft depends on insight. Repetition is meaning. What we hear endlessly, goes without saying--is learned. Artists sometimes delight us with what we think we know that is not so. Afrika Solo is that sort of journey.