Analysis of “Africa” by David Diop

Africa

Africa my Africa

Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs
Africa of whom my grandmother sings
On the banks of the distant river
I have never known you
But your blood flows in my veins
Your beautiful black blood that irrigates the fields
The blood of your sweat
The sweat of your work
The work of your slavery
Africa, tell me Africa
Is this your back that is unbent
This back that never breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying no to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.

David Diop, a Senegalese poet, uses his poem entitled “Africa”, to lament the state of the African continent and also valorize it despite its long-suffering experiences with colonialism and neo-colonialism. Following in the footsteps of the well-known African writer and former president of Senegal in his first twenty years (Léopold Sédar Senghor), Diop utilizes the trope of Africa as woman. This poetic male tradition is upheld through allegorical means where Africa is conceptualized as a mother to the Black populace born from her landscaped body. Although the Mother Africa trope has its shortcomings, David Diop’s poetic vision comes through: He is able to communicate the plight of the colonized/postcolonial continent through the skillful use of language and structure. His metaphorical body of work offers a depth of meaning and concludes with a message of hope, reminding Africans that they can rise above the colonial system.

Within “Africa”, the poet addresses the land as if it is a real person, and this denotes the use of apostrophe. Apostrophe allows for an interesting dramatization which holds the readers’ attention and allows them to identify with Mother Africa’s human experiences. It almost gives us the sense that the earth itself is not a lifeless thing but is somehow alive. The representation of Africa as an animate female is a long standing colonial tradition; however, the damaging image is subverted (to some extent) in the poem. Africa is epitomized as a strong and beautiful nurturer who endures and reproves her ‘impetuous’ children with warm proverbial advice. The poem begins with the poet’s possession of Africa through the designatory diction of ‘my’. The placing of the word ‘Africa’ at the beginning and end of the phrase ‘Africa my Africa’ is also repeated in lines 12 and 21, creating the poem’s refrain which not only emphasizes the persona’s supposed ownership[1] and control of Africa [2] but balances the rhythm of the piece. This choral effect is also typical of apostrophic poetry which is usually a kind of invocation.  The musical quality of the poem is additionally increased through assonance which is essential in a free verse poem. Within this loose form, similar to “And If You Should Leave Me” by Ben Okri, an external pattern is imposed and this allows the poets to appeal to the “human instinct for design [and] our love of the shapely” (Perrine, 771). For Diop, the repetition of vowel sounds enable him to make the beginning lines sound hoisted and spiritual. It is in tune with Africa who has reared ‘proud warriors’ that are a testament to her pre-colonial glory in the time of ‘ancestral savannahs’ (2). It is an Africa with a tradition of orality where the praise-singing grandmother tells the tale of the land’s greatness to her grandson, supposedly the poet. These lines refute the “assumption underlying the French policy of ‘assimilation’ that Africa was a deprived land possessing neither culture nor history” (Britannica.com). Perhaps the distant river bank the grandmother sings on suggests the far-removed location of the African generation from its hallowed cultural source where it can never go back to. Or the poet could simply be remembering his dead grandmother who he believes extols Africa from the distant, mystical land of the ancestors, only linked to the real world through a river journey. One might even draw another conclusion by examining the poet’s background: Diop, has ‘never known [Africa]’ and her struggles firsthand in the way that his predecessors did since he was born in France and lived there for most of his life. Nonetheless, his father and mother were Africans, their ‘blood flows in [his] veins’ which is why he spent significant time living and teaching in Africa. The blood is not only representative of his familial ties to Africa but the cause of the people which pulses within him.  He then goes on to line 7 which utilizes alliteration to add forcefulness to his conviction that Mother Africa’s ‘beautiful Black blood…irrigates the fields’. It is through the struggle and hard work of black people that the encountering nations like France were able to reap the harvest (financial, infrastructural profits) and build domains.  Thus, Mother Africa is represented as a slave that was physically abused and exploited economically. Her oppression is continuous and exemplified through parallelism with the run-on lines from 8-11 which keeps the reader anticipating what comes next:

…The blood of your sweat

The sweat of your work

The work of your slavery

The slavery of your children…

The lines become memorable and emphatic as they give off a sonic effect and signify the buildup of colonialism in African history. Even the organization of speech sounds reinforce meaning as the lines move from monosyllables (sweat, work) to trisyllables (slavery) and disyllables (children). The tempo of the lines eventually become slower as articulation becomes as leaden as the colonial transition of the African people.

The poem shifts from a praise and observation of Africa’s situation to a questioning of her decision to yield to colonialism. The speaker demands that Africa tell him if this is her, ‘…this back that is bent/ This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation…(13,14). These lines utilize alliteration which conveys the enquirer’s forceful presumptuousness. This interrogation is additionally buttressed by the insistent repetition of ‘this back’ and the internal rhyming of ‘break’ and ‘weight’ which calls our attention to Africa’s subjugation. Here, Diop’s anthropomorphic inclination is greatly expressed when Mother Africa’s back is ‘trembling with red scars [as she says] yes to the whip under the midday sun’ (15, 16).  The personal suffering of the mother is symbolic of the trepidation of the African continent, traumatized by colonial experiences. The lines could even foretell the disastrous and exploitative consequences which arose from the 1958 Referendum when Senegal became a neo-colonial territory, that is, maintained cultural and economic ties with France, under the leadership of the nation’s first president, Léopold Senghor. Some may argue that the persona addressing Mother Africa is displeased with her character which was once proud and resistant to western culture. Many feminists might argue that through his male gaze, she embodies the speaker’s “honour and glory or his degradation as a citizen” (Stratton, 51). Even more unfortunate is that women’s persecution becomes a metaphorical medium through which poets cast their vision. This adversely gives license to the stereotype of women as compliant towards domination. However, in a similar reading, I could add that Diop does not romanticize Mother Africa which would contradict the actual struggling, marginalized position of women in Africa. Also, Africa’s true condition may not have been distorted as she corrects the male’s assumptions about her experience. She replies in a ‘grave voice’ which could be the feminized conscience of the poet himself. Regardless, the speaker is labeled as ‘impetuous’, he makes rash assumptions without thought or care.  She additionally alters the way he envisions her, she assigns the image of redemption to a pomological entity where Africans are symbolic fruits that develop, adapt, diversify and evolve even while faced with threats to their ecosystem:

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The lines may indicate that the poet does not truly perceive what Africa is; the constant use of demonstratives tells the reader that Africa (Tree of Life) is far removed from the female speaker. The answering female suggests that Mother Africa is not a burdened or super woman but a flourishing being, or rather, an ever-growing metaphysical tree which slowly renews itself, with the aid of a resourceful generation, after being hacked by colonial forces. The parasitic flowering plant of white domination will see its end and the continent of Africa will rise, unwavering, to bursting greatness.

The poem ends with interlaced rhymes and a rising cadence which gives a pleasing effect, indicating that the poem has finally arrived at a thoughtful and substantial conclusion. The ending lines are paradoxical as you would not associate liberty with bitterness, yet, a deeper truth is implied through the contrast: Independence is often a goal achieved through sacrifice, coups, chaos and hard work. Nonetheless, the poem ultimately communicates that the fight is worth it; the African mind must exercise both continental and state optimism and turn away from colonial resignation in the walk towards socio-cultural and economic freedom.

[1] That is Africa, your Africa

[2] Africa tell me Africa

 

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Works Cited

“David Diop the Senegalese Author.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 4 April 2015.

<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/164338/David-Diop&gt;

“Glossary of Poetic Terms” Poetry Foundation. Web. 4 April 2015.

<www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-term>

Stratton, Florence. “The Mother Africa Trope.” Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Perrine, Laurence. Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense. Second Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1994.

 

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2 thoughts on “Analysis of “Africa” by David Diop

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