Sunday, 3 June 2018

Writers to the rescue in absence of consciousness

 
Guests at the May edition of the Abuja Writer Forum’s Guest Writer Session have advanced that writers the world over have in many instances rescued nations by deploying their art towards evoking thought (consciousness), eliciting responses and protesting bad leadership or governance.

In his presentation, the Spanish Ambassador to Nigeria, Marcelino Cabanas Ansorena, who traced the evolution of literature in Spain as well as its contribution to the social development of the country, noted that writers the world over help motivate social consciousness particularly in certain unfavourable circumstances.

The ambassador, therefore, drew an analogy between the Spanish and the Nigerian literature, saying that the two evoke consciousness towards societal ideals.

“For example, in Spain for instance after Civil War, the writers made the Spanish society conscious of the circumstances in which we were living, especially the misery that we were living and the difference between the well-being of economy of the European countries.

“I think that also Nigerian writers are doing so. They make society conscious of the impact of for instance the situation in the Northeast wreck by the Boko Haram insurgents. I’ve read a lot of books about that and I see that it’s very important,” Mr Ansorena noted.

In her contribution, Habiba Alkali-Nur, the author of ‘The Pantom Army’, told the untold narratives of terror and destruction caused by the insurgency in the North-eastern part of Nigeria.

Mrs Alkali-Nur said she actually started writing as a form of mental therapy to try and get over the fear that was endemic in her and also in the entire atmosphere of the North-eastern part of the country in the early days of the insurgency, 2009.

“It was more like a diary collection at the time so later on it started materialising into a book and so most of the events where written in real time and the events are real life events and everybody who once lived in Maiduguri would attest to that,” she said.

Speaking on why she put her experience into writing, she said: “I needed to capture what happened and freeze it in time. If I now go back and read the book, I myself get surprised at some point because sometimes while some shooting were going on I was on my computer typing. That’s how I wrote the book.

“My sister told me she couldn’t read pass the prologue as soon as she started reading she started crying because she remembered every single thing we went through. I just felt that these stories needed to be told,” she said.

On his part, Foluso Adedoyin Agoi, popularly known as Folu Agoi, who is a creative writer, poet and literary critic, read from his new poetry collection, ‘I Know The Smell of My Lover’s Skin’ in which he romanticised his ideal woman.

Mr Agoi, however, pointed out that he is yet to find such woman with a blemish-less character and immaculate body mass, especially having experienced joys and sadness, conquests and capitulations in the hands of love.

One of his poems read: “I seek a woman
A real woman
Not a walking shadow …
“I seek a woman
A real woman
Not a mere piece of gorgeous flesh …
“I seek a woman
A real woman
Not a pretty bimbo …”

Asked whether he is by nature a romantic human being, Mr Agoi dribbled out of the question, saying that he didn’t like talking about his private life in public. He, however, confessed that his inspiration comes from the environment in which he lives.

Norway to digitise books in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba

Image result for norway

The Norwegian Ambassador to Nigeria, Kjemprud Jens-Petter, said on Wednesday that the National Library of Norway was interested in digitising literature books published in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.

Jens-Petter told the News Agency of Nigeria in Lagos that the agreement to digitise the literature books would be signed between the National Libraries of Norway and Nigeria, this month.

“We hope that this month, an agreement will be signed between Norway and Nigeria to digitise all written materials in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba languages.

“And this will be a monumental development in our two countries’ relations.

SEE ALSO: Malaysia raises money from citizens to pay off $251bn national debt

“We have done this in Norway and wish to share our technology with other countries, including Nigeria,’’ he said.

According to him, the National Library access and use the literature of Norway and it is interested in digitising and making available for public use, books published in foreign languages.

Jens-Petter said the Norwegian National Librarian, who was particularly interested in the preservation of Nigerian literature, now also believes in and recognises the brilliance of Nigerian students.

The Ambassador said that the National Library of Norway had been in communication with the National Library of Nigeria in making the literature digitisation in Nigeria a reality.

“The National Library of Nigeria wishes to make its collection of books available in digital format, for easier and wider access by users.

“The high-tech facilities we have in Norway has the capacity to offer such digitisation which will give the Nigerian National Library the opportunity to make its literature easily accessible to the population.

“We can also offer some of the literature to people of Nigerianorigin who have found their way to Norway,’’ he said.

The National Library of Norway was established in 1989. Its principal task is “to preserve the past for the future.’’ The library is located both in Oslo and in Mo i Rana.

The digitisation agreement is the first entered into by two national libraries.

The project is to serve as a model for other countries, and help create a fully-fledged African digital library.

The costs for the project are to be shared; the Nigerian Library of Nigeria is to be responsible for collecting the works, while the National Library of Norway will carry out the digitalisation, with transportation costs to be borne by the Norwegian Embassy in Nigeria.
Norwegian Ambassador to Nigeria, Kjemprud Jens-Petter

The Norwegian Ambassador to Nigeria, Kjemprud Jens-Petter, said on Wednesday that the National Library of Norway was interested in digitising literature books published in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.

Jens-Petter told the News Agency of Nigeria in Lagos that the agreement to digitise the literature books would be signed between the National Libraries of Norway and Nigeria, this month.

“We hope that this month, an agreement will be signed between Norway and Nigeria to digitise all written materials in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba languages.

“And this will be a monumental development in our two countries’ relations.

SEE ALSO: Malaysia raises money from citizens to pay off $251bn national debt

“We have done this in Norway and wish to share our technology with other countries, including Nigeria,’’ he said.

According to him, the National Library access and use the literature of Norway and it is interested in digitising and making available for public use, books published in foreign languages.

Jens-Petter said the Norwegian National Librarian, who was particularly interested in the preservation of Nigerian literature, now also believes in and recognises the brilliance of Nigerian students.

The Ambassador said that the National Library of Norway had been in communication with the National Library of Nigeria in making the literature digitisation in Nigeria a reality.

“The National Library of Nigeria wishes to make its collection of books available in digital format, for easier and wider access by users.

“The high-tech facilities we have in Norway has the capacity to offer such digitisation which will give the Nigerian National Library the opportunity to make its literature easily accessible to the population.

“We can also offer some of the literature to people of Nigerianorigin who have found their way to Norway,’’ he said.

The National Library of Norway was established in 1989. Its principal task is “to preserve the past for the future.’’ The library is located both in Oslo and in Mo i Rana.

The digitisation agreement is the first entered into by two national libraries.

The project is to serve as a model for other countries, and help create a fully-fledged African digital library.

The costs for the project are to be shared; the Nigerian Library of Nigeria is to be responsible for collecting the works, while the National Library of Norway will carry out the digitalisation, with transportation costs to be borne by the Norwegian Embassy in Nigeria.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Nigeria has produced some of the world’s best authors—so why is its reading culture so poor?

A woman buys a book at a book store in Lagos, Nigeria.

Back in February, Nigeria’s Guaranty Trust Bank announced the launch of The Dusty Manuscript, a contest for Nigerian crime and romance fiction writers with finished but unpublished novels.
The top three authors from the contest will get a publishing contract with Kachifo, one of the country’s renowned publishing houses. Kachifo distributes some of the Nigeria’s best known authors, including Chimamanda Adichie, Jowhor Ile, and Eghosa Imasuen.

Over the last decade a number of literary prizes like these have helped support Nigeria’s literary fiction circles. They include the 9Mobile Prize for Literature, backed by the telecommunications company formerly known as Etisalat, the Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by the NLNG gas company, and the Miles Morland grant, which supports authors working on a novel for a year.
While these prizes will help up and coming writers gain exposure as well as the chance to sell their work, it’s important to ask what kind of market their books will be entering.
  
The reality on the ground is that demand for literary fiction in Nigeria is low. Nigeria’s rich literary history includes some of the world’s most respected authors, such as Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, which has been translated to more than 50 languages; Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first’ Nobel laureate for literature, and Florence Nwapa, who is often referred to as the “mother” of modern African literature. In the current era, Nigeria boasts one of the world’s best known authors in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose literary success has been amplified by her commentary on everything from feminism to African politics.

Despite that rich history and the current growth and interest, the reality on the ground is that demand for literary fiction in Nigeria is low.

It’s unclear if it’s about people not wanting to read for leisure, or in fact not having access to fiction. Books have become increasingly expensive in the country as bookshops have shuttered, and with an adult literacy rate of 51%, it’s not surprising that some supporters of literature in the country are concerned about how novelists might fare once their books are published.

“Forget the number of books you see being sold in traffic and our global acclaim for excelling—Nigerians read only when they have to.” Wale Adetula, the founder of The Naked Convos, one of Nigeria’s popular youth-oriented blogs, is one of those people. He conducted an online poll surveying over a thousand users of his site on their reading habits, and found that many said they only read one book a year. These results inspired him to launch the TNC Stories app, which carries the disconcerting tagline, “Reading is dead.” This app allows contributors to create and share stories using text video, audio and music—Adetula’s attempt to keep Nigerians reading, albeit in non-conventional forms.

“The reading culture in Nigeria is poor,” Adetula says. “Forget the number of books you see being sold in traffic and our global acclaim for excelling—Nigerians read only when they have to.”

Adetula believes a culture of reading is not being written into Nigeria’s educational system. “Students see it as some sort of necessary evil. And it becomes harder when you have to deal with the many distractions and challenges that come with being an adult and living in a country like Nigeria.”
Indeed, most of the sales for Farafina Books, an imprint of Kachifo, and one of the country’s most popular publishing houses, come from religious or educational texts, not fiction, according to a senior editor there.

Okada Books, one of the sponsors of the Dusty Manuscript contest, also makes much of its money selling educational, self-help, and motivational titles, but is similarly trying to cultivate a love of reading amongst young Nigerians. The free reading app publishes ebooks written by Nigerian authors covering a host of genres, from memoir to comedy to thrillers. Customer support representative Karo Oforofuo says that authors from the diaspora have reached out to discuss potentially distributing their books to an African audience on the app.

Oforofuo believes Nigerian reading culture “is getting better by the day, given the computer age and advent of ebooks.” Nigeria has a limited number of bookshops, and printing books domestically is a difficult and expensive process. Ebooks are easier to distribute, as people only need the app to download as many books as they want, Oforofuo says.

In 2011, academics from Lagos State University released a paper titled “Poor Reading Habits Among Nigerians,” which cited the benefits of reading for self-improvement and mental and emotional health and hypothesized that Nigeria’s reading culture had suffered from widespread poverty, corruption, deprioritization, and a dearth of dedicated quiet reading spaces like libraries. “A reading nation is an informed nation,” the authors write. “Nigeria can not be regarded as a reading nation because the younger generation of Nigerians does not consider reading a leisure activity.”

The Nigerian literary canon will keep expanding and developing, thanks in part to the interest expressed by private institutions. But it won’t get far if it doesn’t spread to the offices of elected representatives, or if people don’t view reading as a enjoyable hobby. If new genres continue to be supported, books redistributed and reoriented as multimedia content, and the government takes an active role in the refurbishment of existing libraries and the redesign of the school curriculum, some things might change. For now, the players in the small, but growing industry keep fighting to keep reading alive.

Can Literary Imports Change Chinese Perceptions of Africa?

The continent’s best-loved texts are increasingly being translated into Chinese, but publishers are skeptical of their wider influence.

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Western media frequently depicts China as a neocolonial power that seeks to import Africa’s natural resources at fire-sale prices, with precious little interest in the continent’s people or culture. At the same time, certain Chinese media outlets have recently come under the spotlight for their representations of Africans, while many black people in China complain that interactions are rife with racist stereotypes.

While economic considerations drive much cross-cultural exchange between China and Africa, the latter’s cultural exports have the potential to profoundly shape the ways Chinese people view the continent. The translation of African literature, for example, may give Chinese readers valuable insights into the sheer diversity of human culture and experience across the region.

Few avid Chinese readers of fiction can name an African author or novel, and those who do often cite “Things Fall Apart,” the highly acclaimed novel by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe that portrays the tragic encounter between the Igbo tribe and British colonialism. It was first published in Chinese in the 1960s and has been reprinted countless times since. While literary circles in Africa no longer worship at Achebe’s altar, China’s literary establishment continues to trumpet him as the reigning “father of African literature,” almost to the exclusion of emerging authors.

Since the founding of the modern Chinese state in 1949, there have been three waves of African literary imports. The first, which emerged in the 1980s, was ideologically driven. Empowered by Beijing’s policy of promoting solidarity with the Third World and newly independent nations, state-run imprints like the Foreign Literature Publishing House translated and published a substantial number of African works such as those by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Senegalese poet (and former president) Léopold Sédar Senghor, and the Algerian writer Mouloud Mammeri. Anthologies of translated African folktales for children even appeared.

During the ’90s and 2000s, imported African literature was top-heavy with winners of globally recognized awards such as the Nobel Prize in Literature. Imports slowed and tended to focus less on the works of socialist-inspired thinkers in favor of high-profile Nobel laureates such as J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, both with South African roots, and Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz.
 
Sellers of African literature say that Chinese publishers have expressed interest in a number of other fictional works, but are quick to mention that perplexing attitudes by Chinese publishers hamper understanding.

Today, the popularity of a generation of young African writers is changing that picture again, although barriers to import remain. In particular, a Chinese translation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” launched early this year, the fifth of her books to appear in Mandarin including last year’s “Purple Hibiscus” and the controversial “We Should All Be Feminists.” According to the online bilingual database African Writing in Chinese Translation, only two other black African writers have five or more of their works available in Chinese: the abovementioned Soyinka and Achebe.

Arguably, 2017 saw a sizable batch of translations launched in China — the database records eight new titles, four from the prestigious People’s Literature Publishing House. Prominent among them is “Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty,” a novel by renowned Francophone Congolese author Alain Mabanckou, who is now based in the U.S. and thus a so-called African diaspora writer. Two others are translations from Algerian writers who also write in French: Boualem Sansal’s dystopian novel “2084: The End of the World” and Kamel Daoud’s retelling of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” which is titled “The Meursault Investigation” and for which Daoud received death threats in the form of a fatwa.

Sellers of African literature say that Chinese publishers have expressed interest in a number of other fictional works, but are quick to mention that certain rather perplexing attitudes and practices by Chinese publishers hamper understanding and impact sales to the “China black box.”

“There seem to be far more hurdles in accessing the Chinese market than the already immense difficulties of an African publisher accessing the European, North American, and Arab markets,” says Richard Ali, chief operating officer of the Lagos-based publishing house Parrésia. He points out that currently, there are almost no platforms where African and Chinese publishing professionals can easily interact. Take the industry’s largest global event, for instance. “At the Frankfurt Book Fair, I didn’t encounter a single Chinese publisher, literary agent, or translation agent. So, how does the conversation start?”

Meanwhile, China-based publishers often seem to be on a single-minded quest for a blockbuster.
Says Pierre Astier, founder of the Paris-based literary agency Astier-Pécher whose stable includes several African Francophone authors: “I’ve been to China three times in four years to understand the market and meet people. We haven’t done much business with China up to now, though it is constantly developing. But I have not yet perceived a serious interest in African literature, except for very big names and best-sellers.”

This preference is affirmed by the Nanjing-based publisher Yilin Press, which has built its reputation on translated literature. Between 2011 and 2013, Yilin published three novels by Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, but has not ventured further into the market for African fiction. “We will continue to keep our eye on African authors,” says Danielle Yang of Yilin’s international cooperation department, “and if there are any winners of major awards, books that possess best-seller potential, we will consider buying the rights.”

Among African publishers, Black Tower Publishers is perhaps the most proactive in marketing its writers internationally. It opened a subsidiary in London in 2016 and, according to founder Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, is represented by the Intercontinental Literary Agency (ILA) in China. “ILA attended the Beijing Book Fair in August [2017] and had meetings with over 40 publishers,” Bakare-Yusuf notes, adding that Cassava Republic also met with Chinese publishers at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE in 2015 and 2016.

“We do believe there is a market for our authors in China,” Bakare-Yusuf concludes. “We know that there are growing business links between China and the African continent, and we are keen to make works by African authors available in Chinese. We hope that when the Chinese audience is able to read and see the diverse representation of African humanity, it might allow them to recognize its complexity.”

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

This Is Why You Should Get The Mosquito Colony by Uduak Nkang




Out of the books we have come across this year, The Mosquito Colony by Uduak Nkang happens to stand out. First it has the best message about malaria, and how it’s crippling our continent, Africa. The author did amazing job by portraying different types of mosquitoes, their effect on human, and their cure, in a way that’s very entertaining and will definitely keep the reader glued to this book.
Below is what the book is really about.

The Mosquito Colony is a blend of fantasy and facts. It blasts into the inner circle of governance and let bear it intrigues, glamour and challenges. It pursues fundamentally the ideology that government is the father of a nation, and must lead in a nation’s quest for greatness. It also x-ray factors militating against the advancement of contemporary African society, from Cairo to Cape Town, from Dakar to Darfur; the soaring scourge of malaria, the glaring realities of imperialism, the weakness of the citizenry and the gains that lies beyond of gate mediocrity, nepotism and greed. This book is intended to spur  all Africans, particularly the young generation towards self-mastery. In a rather subtle but profound manner, The Mosquito Colony pushes for a more united nations of Africa. It is a compendium literary expressions, and perhaps, the first African prose of its kind.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: 'Resistance is the best way of keeping alive'

‘If you really think you’re right, you stick to your beliefs, and they help you to survive’ ... Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
The Kenyan author was jailed without trial for a year in 1978 and as his prison memoir is reissued, he discusses the need to resist injustice

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o believes in the imagination. Perhaps that seems obvious for the decorated Kenyan novelist, scholar and playwright, who’s been publishing for over 50 years. But imagination, and all art, for him, is not just a form of creativity; it’s a form of resistance. In his case, once imprisoned for his political beliefs, it was his most important possession in a brutal environment meant to break him.
His memoir, Wrestling with the Devil looks back at his year-long imprisonment in 1978, when, after being arrested in the middle of the night, he was held without trial, in a maximum-security prison. The memoir is a trimmer version of the original work, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, published in 1982. Asked why he chose to publish this updated version now, he replied, “The theme of resistance, and writing in prison, is eternal.” 
  Despite decades of exile, I still feel the pull of my homeland
He committed many acts of resistance while he was jailed, but the memoir deals with the most significant one: the writing of his novel Devil on the Cross on thick, scratchy, prison-issued toilet paper. The legend of the book has become as much a part of its story as the plot itself, about a young woman dealing with racial and gender oppression in neocolonial Kenya.
Because Ngũgĩ was never charged, tried or sentenced, he had no way of knowing how long he would be held. The novel was “a form of spiritual survival”, he says.
“It’s hard to say how I would have reacted after 10 years. But I was scheming as to how I’d survive. I was thinking I’d write the novel in Gikuyu. I didn’t know how long that would take. If it took a year, I thought I’d take another year translating it into Kiswahili or English. I was planning ahead, even then.”
The state’s goal in jailing him, he surmises, was to make an example of an outspoken intellectual. He was arrested for his role in the writing and staging of a play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (“I Will Marry When I Want”), produced by and starring local peasants, who had no previous theatre experience, and limited economic means. For Ngũgĩ, who was openly opposed to the government, it was clear what his jailing meant. In the memoir, he writes, “If the state can break such progressive nationalists, if they can make them come out of prison crying, ‘I am sorry for all my sins,’ such an unprincipled about-face would confirm the wisdom of the ruling clique in its division of the populace into the passive innocent millions and the disgruntled subversive few.”
“They would come and ask me why I was detained. It was very annoying,” he says with a laugh. “They were seeking some kind of confession. They wanted me to confess my sins, and I had no sins to confess, in a political sense.”
He was advised early on in his stay by another prisoner, “Don’t let them break you.” Understanding how dire the situation was – he and others weren’t allowed books, radios, pen, paper; food was often bug-infested; they were kept in their cells 23 hours a day – it’s clear the particular importance for him of maintaining his psychic integrity and beliefs.
For him, those beliefs were rooted in Kenyan independence from the British, the right of the people to live on their own terms, instead of what had come to pass in the late 19th century: British settlers taking over the land and resources, hauling native Kenyans into detention camps, forcing Kenyans to give up their culture and replace it with theirs.
Over time, Ngũgĩ worked to decolonize his own mind – renouncing his baptismal James, and Christianity; ceasing to write in English. It’s that last decision that many people still question.
“If I meet an English person, and he says, ‘I write in English,’ I don’t ask him ‘Why are you writing in English?’ If I meet a French writer, I don’t ask him, ‘Why don’t you write in Vietnamese?’ But I am asked over and over again, ‘Why do you write in Gikuyu?’ For Africans, the view is there is something wrong about writing in an African language.”
For years, he’s advocated for African writers to write in their mother tongues, including in his seminal work Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, because he understands how integral language is to culture and identity.
“Remember that the first thing that happened to African people [in the Americas] was forced loss of language and names,” he says, speaking of the transatlantic slave trade. He says he’s gained great inspiration over the years from African Americans, in culture and politics. “The resistance of African American people is one of the greatest stories of resistance in history. Because against all those arduous conditions they were able to create … a new linguistic system out of which emerges spirituals, jazz, hip-hop, and many other things.”
It’s hard to hear the word “resistance” and not think of the current US presidential administration, the straining away from it that so many feel. But for Ngũgĩ, though he notes the “rightwing wind blowing over the world”, it goes beyond a single country or a single moment in time. Returning to language, he notes how ideas of Africa, “the so-called developing world” are shaped by western thought.
“Ninety percent of Africa’s resources are consumed in the west. But somehow the vocabulary has turned it the other way around – it’s the west that ‘helps’ Africa. A few things are returned and they call it ‘aid’,” he says. “Africa has been the eternal donor to the west.” He calls it “the way the world normalizes abnormality”.
In Wrestling with the Devil, he laments the Kenyans who sold out their own people to join the ranks of golfing, hunting, country-clubbing British settlers (he literally calls them “Draculan”), who came to Kenya to take over, and give back a pittance to the indigenous peoples. For some, that new, shiny pittance felt like a fortune.
“If you can control the psyche of a people, then in a sense, you don’t even have to have a police force,” he says.
It goes back to speaking one’s own language, practicing one’s own culture, investing in what is inherently yours, not what has been falsely given back to you. Or, what oppressed peoples around the world have learned: that colonial forces want what you produce, not who you are.
This investment in one’s own culture and resources is what he calls “securing the base” (He published a book titled Securing the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe in 2016). He makes it clear that he still believes in cultural exchange, including literature in translation, but that you have to ensure a stable foundation in your own culture first.
“We should be able to connect to our base … and then connect to the world from our base. Our own bodies, our own languages, our own hair. When you want to launch a rocket into outer space, you make sure the base is very strong and solid. As African people, we [must] make sure our languages, our resources – the totality of our being is the base from which we launch ourselves into the world.”
Wrestling with the Devil shows, in part, Ngũgĩ’s further awakening to this essential need for African peoples. He offers his literal imprisonment as a metaphor for the confining of the human spirit; art and imagination, he says, are a means of breaking free.
Though his imprisonment was one of his most challenging experiences, he shares some of the good he takes from it – that it’s the reason he committed to writing in Gikuyu; that the novel he produced, Devil on the Cross, was the first to be written in his language. Pressure makes diamonds, so goes the saying; and resisting tyranny creates something else: if you’re lucky, as Ngũgĩ describes himself, a chance at liberation.
“Resistance is the best way of keeping alive. It can take even the smallest form of saying no to injustice. If you really think you’re right, you stick to your beliefs, and they help you to survive.”
  • Wrestling with the Devil is out now in the US and on 5 April in the UK

Course examines African American literature and U.S. pop culture

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Valerie Babb, who joined the Emory faculty in January as Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities, has spent a career deciphering the outsize role that culture plays in racial identity and interactions.

As a scholar, Valerie Babb’s research has focused on African American literature and culture, the mapping of communities and the constructions of race.
In “African American Literature and Pop Culture,” Babb weaves those topics together for two dozen Emory College undergraduates enrolled in her first course as Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities.
“I’m trying to get students to understand the impact pop culture has on shaping ideas of blackness,” says Babb, who holds joint appointments in African American studies and English. “At the heart of it is the question, how do we know what we think we know?”
The course name had some students expecting an academic critique of current books and perhaps some touchstones in music and film, such as “Black Panther.”
Instead, the course builds on the literary history of novels from the mid-1700s through today, examining everything from dialects to author perspective, to show how texts influence and draw from the broader culture.
As for movies, in one class session focusing on early black authors who used their writings to change racial notions, Babb showed segments from “The Birth of a Nation.” The overtly racist, if cinematically groundbreaking, silent film challenges the idea of equal rights and portrays members of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.
“It was terrifying to me but also fascinating to see this idea — that black men in power would mean no whites had power — play out on the screen,” says Jard Lerebours, a junior in the course who is double majoring in creative writing and film studies.
“It hurt to see a talented guy using art for such evil purposes, but I realize there is a history of that happening in art and culture in the United States,” Lerebours adds. “You still see those images now, with the same message.”

A career examining race through an interdisciplinary lens

Babb, who joined the Emory faculty in January, has spent a career deciphering the outsize role that culture plays in racial identity and interactions.
That research has taken her to different places. She has been a professor and administrator at the University of Georgia and Georgetown University and taught in the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.
She has also brought history, art and law to bear on the study of African American literature in her book “A History of the African American Novel,” published in 2017, and on the creation and contemplation of white racial identity in “Whiteness Visible,” published in 1998.
“Not thinking narrowly allows you to be more aware of the world and of the subtleties of how we perceive the world,” Babb says.
White authors tended to be the first to tell African American stories, with the literature both shaping and not necessarily undercutting popular culture.
When black creators intervened in the 19th century, the voices and perspectives changed. But, Babb says, culture did not change as quickly.
“It’s not just about how the story was told,” she says. “It’s also about how it has been retold.”

Questioning the “facts” from pop culture

Students tackled that idea one recent morning, with a discussion of simultaneous readings of short stories by Joel Chandler Harris and Charles W. Chesnutt.
Harris, a white Georgian, told the “Uncle Remus” stories in the dialect he heard from slaves in his childhood. Chesnutt, a black northerner, used a similar dialect in his first book, “The Conjure Woman.”
But the stories had vastly different aims. Harris wrote for a white audience, using a black character’s words to portray the idea that African Americans were happiest during “de fahmin days,” his euphemism for slavery.
Writing two decades later for the same audience, Chesnutt is more subtle. He reserves the dialect for a former slave who, instead of celebrating history, reveals the brutal history of plantation life in folksy, sometimes mystical tales.
Maya Foster, a junior with a double major in philosophy and African American studies, spoke up about the differences, noting that Harris’ stories “promote Remus as the ‘good model,’ who can say that blacks don’t respect power and their freedom is going to their heads.”
Foster is well aware that such a conclusion is seen by some as a politically correct reading of “Br’er Rabbit” and what have become bedtime stories. She sees the benefit, though, in revisiting her earlier conclusions from it and other books she read — and the “facts” those works revealed — before she could analyze literary devices in the context of time and place.
Such analysis changed her understanding of the name of the lead character in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” for instance. Frequently “Uncle Tom” remains a slur for an excessively subservient black man, especially toward whites. But Foster now sees Uncle Tom as a complex character, just trying to survive in the stark reality of slavery.
And the conventional wisdom that lighter-skinned slaves were better treated by working in owners’ homes? Such ideas betray the reality that those slaves, usually women, had countless household duties and were also subject to rape and abuse by their owners.
“I’ve thought about this very heavily, and I can see how these false ideas and ideologies get passed down,” Foster says. “I have to slow down and think. I’m slowly unpacking the ways I think or know about what society thinks.”
The course boils down to understanding how meaning is made. Babb is not surprised that students quickly grasp the concepts and are able to read critically by examining rhetorical devices, images used and other author decisions that shape the work.
Interrogating what they may not have questioned before enables students to examine and query what they read, or see, next.
“Pop culture educates us more thoroughly and widely than formal education, but we rarely question it,” Babb says, “even as it shapes the process of creating and defining our identity.”