The Crisis of African Identity in Conde’s Heremakhonon, Haley’s Roots, and Ellison’s Invisible Man


An early draft of a paper on African heritage and identity in three novels.

A lot of the contemporary black and Caribbean literature being produced have more things in common than one would assume at first glance. Contemporary writers of Caribbean and African-American literature deal, although in different ways and through different perspectives, with issues of identity and Diaspora. Given the common ancestry of African-Americans and people from the Caribbean this does not come as a big surprise. During the triangular trade of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries European nations ravaged the African continent for resources and, specially, forced laborers, or slaves. These slaves, depending on the European nation that had forcibly separated them from their homeland, would end up on plantations in the Caribbean or in North America. There, these slaves were robbed of their self-respect, heritage, and identity by their owners in order to prevent uprisings. However, slave uprisings did happen and eventually slavery was legally abolished. Yet this alone would not create a new class of self-efficient free citizens. Most slaves, knowing nothing but how to be slaves, did not know what to do, and not knowing where they came from added insult to injury. Robbed of their integrity, their labor, and their identity, African-Americans and Caribbean people of African descent were forced to struggle climbing their way through society while wondering about their identity. It is in this lens of lack of identity and historical ambiguity that many Caribbean and African-American writers work on their literature. Many of these contemporary authors, often considered as exemplary writers in the fields of African-American, Caribbean, and Diaspora studies, explore issues of Diaspora and identity through their characters who are, often, based on historical figures or on the self. This essay will look at how three major writers – Maryse Conde, Alex Haley, and Ralph Ellison – deal with the issue of Identity and Diaspora in Heremakhonon, Roots, and Invisible Man respectively.

Maryse Conde’s Heremakhonon is considered by many as one of the main literary texts dealing with Caribbean Diaspora and the Caribbean identity crisis. In Heremakhonon, Victoria is a character, often referred to as autobiographical despite Conde’s denial of the claim, who sets out on a journey to discover the ancestral identity of her roots. It is worth noting that literary critic James Arnold has commented on occasion that even though Maryse Conde has often denied Veronica being autobiographical, she has several things in common with Veronica: “neither could she put down roots in an Africa whose difference was present in every aspect of daily life […] nor could she identify with the black Guadeloupean bourgeoisie into which she was born” (717). Regardless of whether veronica is an autobiographical avatar of Conde’s it is worth keeping in mind that Heremakhonon itself is not an autobiographical work. Literary critic Arlette Smith states that “Veronica’s life seems to conform to a pattern which could be divided in three segments” (4555). These three segments, Smith reminds the reader, are Veronicas childhood and adolescence, which takes place in Guadeloupe, her nine year stay in France, where she completes her studies, and her present trip to Africa. Indeed, these three stages of Veronica’s life represent the threefold nature of Veronica’s identity – her African roots from Africa, her European roots from France, and her current mixed self from the Caribbean. Even though some might argue that this mixed self can be considered as a lack of true heritage, the fact is that her threefold identity gives Veronica a more culturally charged heritage than any mono-cultural individual might have. Indeed, her lack of a single identity empowers her to choose from any to the three identities that make her up, thus creating a new unique identity that has elements of the French and African heritage but is distinct from both of its influences. Indeed, some critics may argue that since Veronica sets of to Africa to discover her heritage of mystical African kings but instead finds a struggling country attempting to define itself in the wake of colonialism she has lost in her search for an identity. However, it can be argued that the modern day Africa trying to define itself in a post-colonial world is not Veronica’s heritage, but that the pre-colonial Africa, then one where Sundjata ruled over the Kingdom of Ancient Mali and the Zulu tribe made heroic stands against colonial invaders, is her actual heritage – one that she shares with the culturally ambiguous post-colonial African nations that also lack a defined identity. It can be argued, then, that the colonial period which brought so much prosperity to the slave-driven economies of the western world all but wiped out the identities of the African descendants, be they in Africa or in the Caribbean. This being the case, it can be argued that Veronica’s failure is not that the culturally ambivalent Africa that she visits holds no heritage for her, but that she failed to realize that her African heritage cannot be found in modern Africa, but in the Africa of centuries past.

Some critics have argued that Heremakhonon shares many parallels with Alex Haley’s Roots. Indeed, no critic would disagree that both works share similar themes, such as a longing for Africa, a notion of Africa as the depository of a mythical Black Culture, and a trip to Africa in search of one’s history. However, this is where the similarities end, and these similarities do nothing but make the difference between the two works become more easily identifiable. At a surface level, even the most casual of readers will notice the drastically different literary conventions used to write these narratives: one is an autobiographical and historical narrative where the author succeeds in his journey of self-discovery while the other is a work of fiction where the protagonist is a black woman who embarks on a journey that turns out, as previously stated, a failure. Arnold has even suggested that Heremakhonon can be seen as a direct antithesis to Roots in the sense that Veronica, whom he considers a “negative” version of Alex Haley, finds in Africa a lot of sex, but no roots.

Unlike Conde’s work, which tells the failed quest for roots of a modern day Guadeloupean, in Roots, Alex Haley recreates the story of his family. Instead of setting out on a quest for the past, Haley has already found his past and is telling the story from past to present. As critic Carole Meritt reminds us, Haley knew his ancestors’ African name because Kunta Kinte insisted on keeping it for his daughter Kizzy, who passed it on to her son George, whose son Tom passed it on to his daughter Cynthia, who passed it on to her grandson Alex Haley. This text is considered by many critics as providing a unique record of Afro-American history (Meritt, 221). Its record of the forced placement of Africans into the West is magnificently dramatized by the kidnapping and auction of Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor. Furthermore, the masterful narrative of oppression and survival of four generations of Kintes underscore the slave experience. Indeed, unlike Conde’s single-generation narrative, the power of Roots is its narrative arc, “the accounting generation by generation of an African people’s progression through bondage to African-Americanhood” (Meritt, 221). Some critics have remarked that in capturing the essence of the Oral Tradition and, by extension, the imagination of the readers, Roots may in face be regarded as the first serious challenge to existing popular mythology on the black man’s past that Heremakhonon, on some level, seems to suggest: “that blacks are without a past and without a culture of their own” (Meritt, 221). In presenting this challenge to the notion that Africans have no past and no history, it begins to restructure the popular belief about black experience. Nancy Arnez also agrees that Alex Haley wrote Roots from what she calls the “Black perspective, which is sorely needed to correct the distortions and fill the void left by the omissions of “objective” white historians, the winners in the war of human degradation-slavery” (Arnez, 367). She further argues, quite poetically, that Roots “sutures the wounds that European and American historical scalpers presented to Blacks as the truth about their heritage in an effort to enslave their minds as well as their bodies” (Arnez, 367). Perhaps, had Veronica read Roots, she would not have set out on her failed quest for identity, as she would have seen some of what she needed to feel complete and recognized it as her own.

Thus, it was indeed surprising to see that ABC took a chance on portraying a classic like “Roots” for eight consecutive nights using prime television time. Due to the perception of the producers of the audience’s negative reaction to anything not involving much sex and violence, “Roots” on television became, in a sense, a cops and robber super crime story mixed with the melodrama of a soap opera. There was not one Black writer among the script writers for the show or directing the film. Alex Haley did not even have final say in the matter. The “winners” retained for themselves the power of editing. Nevertheless, the show’s impact on both Blacks and whites, according to polls, newspaper and magazine analyses, was tremendous. (Arnez, 369). Arnez has even commented that Roots “is a gift of grace to the American people. The television version, despite its flaws, is a milestone in race relations” (Arnez, 371). However, this does not mean that Haley’s work is the ultimate solution to the issue of identity that western descendants of Africans have to grapple with every day. Even though Roots does indeed tell the Veronicas of the world where they came from, it does not even begin to describe a more current issue with the identity of the descendants of African slaves, and that is their current identity. This crisis of identity is best described in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Unlike Heremakhonon’s Veronica and the number of Kintes in Haley’s Roots, the protagonist in Invisible Man is suffering an existential crisis not with his history or heritage, but with his present self. Indeed, some critics have mentioned that the protagonist, an unnamed black man who considers himself socially invisible, may have been inspired by Ellison’s own life. The novel addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the early twentieth century, including the relationship between black identity and African Americans and issues of individuality and personal identity.

In the Prologue, Ellison’s narrator tells readers, “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this secret place, the narrator creates surroundings that are symbolically illuminated with 1,369 lights. He says, “My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway.” The protagonist explains that light is an intellectual necessity for him since “the truth is the light and light is the truth.” From this underground perspective, the narrator attempts to make sense out of his life, experiences, and position in American society. This is indeed a stark contrast to Heremakhonon’s Veronica, who is trying to make sense of her roots to figure out her identity and to Roots where Haley is narrating the history of his already set identity.

In Invisible Man one of the main identity issues is that of individuality versus the stereotype. This is evident when at the beginning of the narrative the protagonist has aspirations to become a like his school director, Beldose, a “successful black” stereotype.However, he realizes that Beldose has portrayed himself as a black stereotype in order to succeed in the white-dominated society. This is the theme that lasts throughouth the majority of the novel. Does the protagonist conform to the stereotype of black man working in a paint factory, black man who incites riots and gives communist speeches, or black man who riots? Either way, the protagonist knows that he is not being truly individual, that in whatever stereotype he chooses to conform to he will be puppet to a white man. Instead, he decides to live underground, invisible. Literary critic Forrest has argued that “no novel has so brilliantly captured or imaginatively projected the black American’s ambiguous status in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” (280).

As Pryse so eloquently comments in his essay, one must remember that for the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century Negro in the South, individuality was a death-warrant. He states that “the man who rebelled against the acceptance of stigma, who refused to accept the subordination of his identity into the shadow of blackness, could hope only to go North”. He further reminds his readers that “Invisible Man does not lose his stigma in the move North but undergoes a transformation from discredit to discreditability- from a position of social certainty to one of insecurity. Unlike the escaping slave, Invisible Man does not see his move North as an escape-because he doesn’t choose to act” (Pryse, 9).

Indeed, this crisis of personality can be seen early on in the narrative, as the protagonist during his school years wants recognition – to distinguish himself his schoolmates. This recognition, however, is what gets him expelled from school. Both Prsye and Norton agree that “the punishment results not from his action, but from the visibility he acquires in performing”. Still, his desire to be someone, to belong in a society as more than a cliché stereotype, is nonetheless not quenched, as he “continues to associate the pursuit of identity with membership in an organization-Men’s House, the union meeting at Liberty Paints, finally the Brotherhood” (Pryse, 10). Indeed, one must wonder if belonging is worth the cost of individuality or not. The answer, Ellison leaves to the reader.

In the end, in these three novels one can see clearly the three different types of identity crises that the descendants of African slaves have had to suffer. In Heremakhonon one sees the clash of various identities trying to form a new, individual identity. In Roots one is treated to the struggle to retain an identity in a world that refuses to acknowledge it, while in Invisible Man one can see the struggle of becoming an identity-less stereotype e versus the possibility possessing an individual identity at the cost of not fitting in. Regardless, it is clear in all three novels that this identity crisis stems from the Diaspora resulting from the forceful abduction of Africans and their insertion into western culture, and this is the first fact that anyone who is seeking to find their lost African identity must come to terms with.

REFERENCES

Arnez, Nancy. “From His Story to Our Story”. The Journal of Negro Education. 46.3 (1977): 367-372. Print.

Arnold, James. “The Novelist as a Critic”. World Literature Today. 67.4 (1993): 716 – 722. Print.

Bruner, Charlotte and David Bruner. “Contemporary Writing from Africa and the Caribbean”. World Literature Today. 59.1 (1985): 913 – 924. Print.

Forrest, Leon. “Ralph Ellison Remembered”. Callaloo. 18.2 (1995): 280-282. Print.

Hijya, James. “Family and Ethnicity in the 1970s”. American Quarterly. 30.4 (1978): 548-556. Print.

Jua, Roselyne. “Ralph Ellison and the Paradox of “Juneteenth”. Journal of Black Studies. 35.3 (2005): 310-326. Print.

Meritt, Carole. “Looking at Afro-American Roots”. Phylon. 38.2 (1977): 211-212. Print.

Pryse, Marjorie. “Ralph Ellison’s Heroic Fugitive”. American Literature. 46.1 (1974): 1-15. Print.

Smith, Arlette. “Maryse Conde’s Heremakhonon: A Triangular Structure of Alienation”. CLA Journal. 32.1 (1988): 4554 – 4557. Print.

Stern, Richard. “Ralph Ellison”. Callaloo. 18.2 (1995): 283-287. Print.

Styles, Margaret. “Roots: A Southern Symposium”. Callaloo.  2 (1978): 124-126. Print.

Wilkinson, Doris. “The Black Family: Past and Present”. Journal of Marriage and Family. 40.4 (1978): 829- 835. Print.

Winther, Per. “Imagery of Imprisonment in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man”. Black American Literature Forum. (1983): 17.3: 115-119. Print.

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About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on November 16, 2010, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. very informative stuff I have gained a lot.

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