Thornton on Okpewho and Davies and Masrui, 'The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities'

Isidore Okpewho, Carole Boyce Davies, Ali A. Masrui, eds.
John K. Thornton

Isidore Okpewho, Carole Boyce Davies, Ali A. Masrui, eds. The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999. xviii + 566 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-21494-2; $59.95 (library), ISBN 978-0-253-33425-1.

Reviewed by John K. Thornton (Department of History, Millersville University) Published on H-Atlantic (August, 2003)

The African Diapora for Everyone

The African Diapora for Everyone

In recent years the African Diaspora has come to mean a wide variety of things. To some it is a historic process, tracing Africans through the slave trade to homes outside of Africa; to others it is a modern identity with relatively little historical content. In some circles it has effectively replaced "Pan-Africanism" as a title for a certain sort of engaged, political discourse on race and politics.

The essays in this collection range through all these definitions and all these concerns. Isidore Okpewho's introduction sets up a distinction between those who see the Diaspora as the root for all cultural expressions of Africa's descendents, and those who argue that the glory of the Diaspora was its New World adaptations and rearrangements. In fact, though, relatively few of the others take up this theme and it would be wrong to see the book as a whole as a statement of any great theme. Moreover, those who do adopt a political tone, such as Keith Warner in his meditation on what Caribbean cinema is and how it contributes to Caribbean identity, or Joseph McLaren in his dissection of the responsibilities of African-American writers like Alice Walker to Africa's cultures, do so in a more localized and particular environment and do not generally seek to make their insights fit a larger paradigm.

The vastly interdisciplinary nature of the project probably does more to account for the diversity of its viewpoints and arguments than any political divergences. Once one abandons one's own disciplinary restrictions and puts aside the desire for an extended argument made by multiple like-minded authors, it is likely to expand one's horizons. The African Diaspora obviously means something quite different in the work of literary scholars such as Pierre-Damien Myuyekure's work on Ishmael Reed's writing, or Adetayo Alabi's investigation of the work of Derek Walcott and Marlene Philip, than it does to a social scientist like Laura Pires-Hunter discerning patterns of Cape Verdean immigration.

Therefore The African Diaspora is probably best seen as a sampler of writing done by those practitioners who study the world of Africa and its descendents. It includes work like that in Jack Blocker's finely nuanced study of wage labor and homeownership in Muncie, Indiana, or Ita Kinkaid Blake's interesting study of the linguistic aspects of learning among African-American youth, which scarcely pays any attention to the larger theoretical issues of the African background, and is relevant only for those who regard any knowledge of the concerns of African Americans as part of the Diaspora.

As if to emphasize its diversity, only J. E. Inikori, in his study of the nature of African slavery in the period from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, makes Africa the central object of his concern and addresses issues that are relevant to the historic nature of the African dispersion in the Atlantic. There are no studies specifically of the slave trade, nor of the slave experience in early American societies. Perhaps the editors felt that such work was already done in so many places that there needed to be a balance against it.

Most of the essays are short; some repackage work done in greater detail elsewhere, while others represent small and sometimes quite elegant studies, like David Evans's study of the way in which African musical sensibilities are reinterpreted in various American musical instruments, or Jean Rahier's explorations of the fine differences between Afro-Ecuadorian use of the traditional Spanish poetic form the Decima and its Spanish model.

Often the brevity of the pieces can be frustrating, as if a bit more detail would help, but the best of them manage to stimulate one to put the book aside and think. I found Nkira Nzegwu's essay on modern African art, and its relationship to traditional art and to African identity, an interesting and inspiring work. The essay critiques the romanticization of African art, including that of artists not working in traditional styles, while laying down lines for a fuller understanding of how modern African artists work in the larger world of art production.

The African Diaspora is a book worth reading for those interested in seeing the many dimensions of the African Diaspora. While occasionally frustrating and lacking a clear theme throughout, it contains enough that is interesting and stimulating that it will repay the time spent navigating it.

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Citation: John K. Thornton. Review of Okpewho, Isidore; Davies, Carole Boyce; Masrui, Ali A., eds., The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. August, 2003. URL:

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