Memory and Reclamation

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Africanisms and re-interpretation of African cultural norms are an integral part of African American culture, but because it is American, African American culture is therefore by default Western culture. If Maurice de Vlaminck, Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Amedeo Modigliani, to name just four European artists, reacted to African sculpture pieces brought to Europe during the colonial era and used them stylistically in their works, Edna Patterson-Petty grew up in Western culture, deals with it and reacts to it daily and has her feet planted firmly in Africana culture. Patterson-Petty, like other artists in the African Diaspora, adapts and adopts some aspects of Western culture, similar to what Africans on the continent do as a result of colonial contact and impositions of the West, without giving up any bit of her identity. An identity that is not based on an identity/alterity dichotomy pointing to “what others are lacking,” thus, negating their culture and humanity (Voerstermans 1991, 233). It is not based on what Paul Arnett sees as:

. . . the desire to establish sharply differentiated characteristics between a (powerful) speaker-subject’s self and observe qualities projected on the (powerless) object such as another race, gender, social class, religious group, nationality, sexual orientation, or mixtures of these” (Arnett, 2000).

It is an identity woven with yarns of Africana ethos bathed in virtues of African and African American ethics. These are teleological, in that they are determined by the ultimate goal of all African peoples, which is preservation and promotion of community (Paris 1995, 134).

Identity is important to Africans, African Americans, and others in the African Diaspora because their identity, Africana identity, has often been questioned and attempts have been made for centuries to impose on them several designations and putative but misconstrued notions of identities not of their own creation nor of their choosing. Langston Hughes’ poem, “Negro,” and another dedicated to the Pan-Africanist W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” underscore the identity and memory of Black people in Africa and America (Hughes, 1926). Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage” in On These I Stand (1927) also affirms that identity and memory. An excerpt of “Heritage” reads:

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree
What is Africa to me? (24)

Memory for Africana is trans-generational because it passed on in traditions and the arts, in the Dogon concept, variation of which could be found in other African ethnic groups, nommo, the word, dance, music, the performance, among the Ga and other ethnic groups of Ghana, in the performance of libation, mpai yeli or shitwaa and among the Ewe, tsiƒoƒoɖi. The performance among the Senufo involves sculptural ancestral figures and, like all other ethnic groups in Africa, also involves human voice and playing music instruments. The Yoruba, Fon, and Ewe people and other ethnic groups in West Africa use sculptural pieces in such performances, a cultural practice found among a multitude of ethnic groups in Central, Eastern, and Southern African subregions. The word, the spoken word, music, dance, ancestral figures and/or masks are not separate but one entity, the performance, the living memory that affirms identity of individuals and community. The Petty’s and all who are conscious Africana find validation of identity not only in performance and the objects, or what the Igbo term nka, but also in the ethos they bear, a living dynamic memory of Africana people. Dynamic memory and life-force that generate the will to make things happen are ultimately expressed by the Yoruba concept and inner spirit of àṣẹ or ashe: The will to make things happen and effect change or alaase.