African Literature: History & Characteristics

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  • 0:03 Introduction to…
  • 1:06 History
  • 3:01 Characteristics
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor
Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

African literature may have gained much of its popularity in the 1950s, but its history goes back thousands of years. Open this lesson to explore the rich history of African literature and some of its characteristics.

Introduction to African Literature

What does it mean to be human? What are the common experiences of all people? These may be large questions, so let's be more specific: what does it mean to be European? Any answer to this question would have to ignore specifics for each country. A similar problem arises when trying to define African literature.

There are 54 nations which make up Africa. Each of these separate countries have their own history, culture, tribes, and traditions. That being said, there are some commonalities shared by literature which comes from the continent as a whole.

Defining African literature can be complicated. There are some authors who believe African literature can only be composed in African languages. Others believe African literature can be composed in any language so long as it is composed by authors from Africa.

In this lesson, we'll narrow our focus to the broader history and characteristics of African literature in general.

History

African literature has origins dating back thousands of years to Ancient Egypt and hieroglyphs, or writing which uses pictures to represent words. These Ancient Egyptian beginnings led to Arabic poetry, which spread during the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century C.E. and through Western Africa in the ninth century C.E. These African and Arabic cultures continued to blend with the European culture and literature to form a unique literary form.

Africa experienced several hardships in its long history which left an impact on the themes of its literature. One hardship which led to many others is that of colonization. Colonization is when people leave their country and settle in another land, often one which is already inhabited. The problem with colonization is when the incoming people exploit the indigenous people and the resources of the inhabited land.

Colonization led to slavery. Millions of African people were enslaved and brought to Western countries around the world from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. This spreading of African people, largely against their will, is called the African Diaspora.

Sub-Saharan Africa developed a written literature during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This development came as a result of missionaries coming to the area. The missionaries came to Africa to build churches and language schools in order to translate religious texts. This led to Africans writing in both European and indigenous languages.

Though African literature's history is as long as it is rich, most of the popular works have come out since 1950, especially the noteworthy Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Looking beyond the most recent works is necessary to understand the complete development of this collection of literature.

Now let's take a look at some characteristics of African literature.

Characteristics

Literature from Africa has many characteristics. We will highlight some of the most prevalent characteristics here.

To begin, let's look at African literature's broad scope of production. This literature has been composed in English for Western and African audiences. It is also composed in African languages for African readers. This literature comes from all parts of Africa: both Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan.

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Additional Activities

African Literature: Further Exploration

This lesson gave you an overview of the history of African literature that is useful in and of itself and as a teaching guide. Use the following activities to expand your understanding and explore this topic further.

Teaching African Literature

Imagine you are going to teach a work of African literature to your students. Look at the authors listed here and consider which work you would choose to teach. Examples of other major writers to explore include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Meja Mwangi, Buchi Emecheta, and Dambudzo Marechera. Write a lesson plan for your first class teaching a book by an African writer. How will you introduce the topic? What kinds of historical context will you give? Consider your own background and think about how to accurately and sensitively convey information about the book that you are planning to teach.

African Literature: The Canon

Consider how African literature has evolved over time, from oral stories and Egyptian hieroglyphs to the novels, poems, and plays of today. Obviously, creating a canon will inevitably leave out many important writers. However, it can be a useful exercise for getting a grasp on the literary traditions of a region. Create your own loose canon of works that are important to African literature. Go chronologically and try to choose works with a variety of themes and by authors from different countries, ethnic groups, genders, and life experiences. How does your canon compare to others that people have created online? How does it compare to the western literary canon?

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