The Griot: The Rhetorical Impetus of African American Fiction
The paper addresses the West African oral concept of griot, as it utilizes nommo, a Bantu term that denotes the magical power of words to cause change, as a critical African American lexical lens. In the broadest definition, a griot is culture in the sense that through the collecting and disseminating of stories, genealogies, histories, songs and rituals, a griot creates a shared community, a shared culture. The written discourse of African American literature and the oral definition of griot have now been placed together on the culture’s fiction. A griot passes on community values and traditions orally in the traditional sense, but now through the written word: the book itself bears the griot tradition because it educates, entertains and performs the ritual of culture creation by engaging the reader in the teller/listener dynamic that fashions unity and harmony from chaos. Essentially, through fictive narratives, African American authors construct social harmony through metaknowledge: they are simultaneously commenting, constructing, creating and criticizing African American discourses from an emphasis of West African philosophical tropes. Culturally literate readers become part of the story’s construction from the culturally contextual clues placed throughout the narrative.
African Americans, as a cultural group, frequently struggle with issues of identity as they attempt self-validation. At its core, the African American cultural group is juxtaposed between the Afrocentric cultural definition and racial stereotyping from the hegemonic majority. The struggle can be characterized as an attempt to rescue “Africa, once lost, [which] has yet to be recovered; whereas America, as an ideal, has yet to be become home” (Gomez 177). Essentially, African American people are attempting to “self-consciously commit […] to that reaffirmation of the status of the African person and African people as bearers of dignity, of their right to a free, full, and meaningful life, and of their right and responsibility to speak their own special cultural truth to the world and make their own unique contribution to the forward flow of human history” (Karenga 6). African Americans struggle to wield the power to define themselves.
In order to wield this power, the critical Post-Enlightenment lens has been replaced by that of the West African griot. Through the utilization of nommo, a Bantu word meaning the power of the word, the griot lens creates and sustains the culture through education, entertainment and tradition by using African and African American tropes. I posit that in the written discourse of African American literature, the definition of the oral, personified, griot has now been placed on the African American culture’s fiction. The central oral idea is still paramount in that the narrative is meant to pass on community values and traditions through memory, and now through the written word. Essentially, the fictive narrative itself bears the tradition of griot because it educates, entertains and performs rituals and traditions of culture. It is through the narrative griot that the African American people are created and sustained because the narrative is engaging the reader in the teller/listener dynamic, which fashions unity and harmony from chaos. It is through the griot lens that African American authors construct social harmony through metaknowledge: by emphasizing West African and African American philosophical tropes, discourses are simultaneously created, commented, criticized. Through this lens the teller/listener dynamic is emphasized, through which the reader becomes more culturally literate and also a part of the story’s construction from the cultural context clues placed throughout the narrative. This essay will discuss the griot critical lens, as it utilizes nommo, as a means to construct an African American community and culture through narrative.
African American self-definition, the shift away from focusing on the derogatory default designation of the hegemonic “white” majority and placing the onus on the African American cultural group, is a contemporary phenomenon. This shift is characterized, through artistic expression such as literature, by an American “sub” culture that struggles to maintain some semblance of the African as well as to come to terms with an American identity. W.E.B Dubois termed this struggle “double consciousness,” in that African Americans have a “sense of always looking at [themselves] through the eyes of others, of measuring [their souls] by the tape of a world that looks in amused contempt and pity” (DuBois 9). The struggle of double consciousness is an attempt to reconcile, an endeavor in ethnological equilibrium, which would yield a true self-consciousness. The concept of griot explored in this essay shows how both sides of double consciousness create balance between the African and the American; creating harmony and unity through artistic expression.
In music, theatre and literature, African American artistic expression regularly engages in the Afrocentric aspect of community, which emphasizes a “highly communal rather than individualistic” perspective (White 34). This places the Afrocentric viewpoint at odds with, and secondary to, traditional Western, Post-Enlightenment analytical thought, in which Truth can be derived from dissection. But as Afrocentric philosophy and scholarly efforts accrue validity, they have developed their own rhetoric. The difference between the Eurocentric and Afrocentric models is that Western African knowledge is not objective or central to reasoning; truth cannot be attained by the separation of the subject into discrete elements through analysis. Rather, in the community-based Afrocentric viewpoint the focus is on combining, on the thread of commonality. What this means is that Afrocentricism centers “on the culture’s understanding of the interconnected order of cosmic, divine, natural, and human worlds” (Lipson, Binkley 81). Here the onus is on preservation, balance and unity rather than discovery; there is no separation between the individual parts of the whole concept, which is essential for understanding in Western thought. In Afrocentric philosophy, “force and matter are not being united … on the contrary, they have never been apart” (Jahn 101). Throughout the different African American critical eras, the strength of the Afrocentric viewpoint has thus relied on a storyteller/listener dynamic. This is the griot’s strength.
The contemporary rhetorical movement of African American literature, often termed Post Black Studies, still holds many tenets of previous rhetorical approaches. Strictures such as DuBois’ double consciousness, the social meaning of community creation in the Harlem Renaissance, the nationalist, politically based idealism of the Civil Rights Era, and the revisitation of West African rhetoric and theory, which incorporates hegemonic toppling elements of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and formalism. Throughout the African American diaspora, many African American authors in different ways have sought to reconcile these various threads by utilizing historical, experiential tropes of the culture to construct the community through narrative. I submit that the notion of griot, because it uses the power of the word, nommo, should be more widely used as a literary critical lens because it builds community for all involved by relying on the storyteller/listener dynamic in which the teller does not impart the story as a whole but, rather, reveals clues for the listener to decipher. This means that in order for a correct understanding and interpretation, the listener must be culturally literate, and a cultural context must be established. Therefore, in filling in the blanks, the listener becomes a part of the teller’s story. The problem is that the traditional Enlightenment viewpoint, in which truth and analysis is derived from careful dissection of the text, is still the default position for many critics. Because the Afrocentric viewpoint cannot be “accommodated to European systems of thought, the African way of thinking [is] considered non-logical,” and there is an impasse (Jahn 97). In short, because griot’s meaning does not adhere to customary logic, it is often dismissed.
Griot, as a term, goes far beyond the academic community in the sense that its definition encompasses a wide range of contexts and functions. Traditionally, the griot is the human repository of remembered oral history and traditions regarding West African culture. Griots are meant to serve three broad cultural functions: “to perform rituals, entertain, or educate” – all of which serve to enrich the civilization (Hale, Thomas 35). In accomplishing these expansive responsibilities, griots “fulfill a variety of roles; genealogist, historian, spokesperson, diplomat, musician, teacher, praise singer, master of ceremonies, and advisor,” which leads to an ambiguous meaning in western sociological terms (Rasmussen 361). In the broadest definition, a griot is the culture in the sense that it refers to the collection of stories, genealogies, histories, songs and rituals only to disseminate them throughout the people so that everyone shares the same history. It is through the utilization of nommo, a Bantu term which denotes the magical power of words to cause change, that a griot creates a shared community, a shared culture. But because there is no one-to-one Western equivalent for the word griot, the nuances of the term get cross-culturally mistranslated; a clear Western definition is elusive because of a transfer from dynamic mutability of spoken word to the static rigidity of print and “the need to know the original languages in which the griots express themselves” (Hale, Thomas 114). In fact, Stephen Belcher has gone so far as to posit that many of griots’ aspects “are lost in translation” because they are taken out of their original context (173). In this sense, elements of griot’s orality as applied to the written word; it is important that the reader of the literary griot is the listener of the teller’s story. Readers must know the idioms, language and references of the teller so that elements of the story are not lost. In other words, the listener must know the significance of the words used and the power they wield. This is the very reason why, in the traditional oral culture of West Africa, words are considered sacred and powerful: they are the only means by which the culture is passed on.
In a culture where words are given so much emphasis, people with the “kind of verbal power that links them inextricably to those who hold other forms of power in society” would have ambiguous social standing because, while simultaneously giving counsel to those in power, griots collect the stories and genealogy from all levels of society (Hale, Thomas 317). Griots do this because they are the wielders of nommo, “the life force, which produces all life, which influences ‘things’ in the shape of the word” (Jahn 124). Nommo is an “African concept [in which] the word is a life force; the word is creator rather than created” even after it has been spoken or written (Ervin 92). Geneva Smitherman’s premise is that “to use words to give shape and coherence to human existence is a universal human thing” in which “language is a tool for ordering the chaos of human experience” (77). So in this oral culture, the griot tells “stories [to] help give order to the human experience and encourage others around [them] to establish means of common living” (Hale, Thomas 35). Griots use their knowledge of community, history, genealogy and tradition to maintain society as a means to create harmony and unity. Shauntae Brown White echoes this idea, stating that griots “preserve the social customs and values of the culture and […] contribute to social stability” (32). In other words, griots use “[r]hetoric, in the Afrofocentric sense, [as] the productive thrust of language into the unknown in an attempt to create harmony and balance in the midst of disharmony” (Asante 35). In this sense, the griot model is less of a “thing” and more of a concept meaning. Fluidity in function is what characterizes it, not the rigidity of the word’s definition.
Further, in the Western sense, there are different kinds of griot. This is not to be mistaken for genre or style where there are certain content elements to which a story must adhere in order to be placed in a specified category, e.g. dystopic fiction or naturalistic fiction. Remember, at its core the griot is meant to bring cohesion, harmony, so they do not divide or sub-categorize the narrative in the search for truth. In taking a page from Post Black Studies, the phrase “different griots” does not mean contrary or diametrically opposed means of telling, but simply the way in which each story teller chooses to relay the story: By approaching storytelling from different emphases, there are different avenues taken toward harmonizing the community.
But I must address what it means to be a griot in the Post-Enlightenment sense. The lexical griot, based upon the actual wording on the page, focuses on what is happening from a performative standpoint. Narrative griot centers on the entire story through its elements of theme, character, and tone. In essence, the lexical griot spotlights on the words the story uses while the narrative griot is directed toward the story told. It is important to note that the difference between the lexical and narrative griot exists only in the Western post-Enlightenment model of analytical dissection. Differentiating between the two is not necessary since both are meant to promote harmony and unity within the culture; and, because both griots operate from the West African rhetorical model, emphasizing how they are different does not lead to Truth, but rather breaks understanding.
African American literature is griot in the sense that, through its discourse, the narrative is meant to pass on community values and traditions. The central idea of harmonizing and unifying community is still paramount; through the written word, embodying the griot’s functions, synchronicity is created from disarray. Through the written narrative that utilizes nommo for the sake of educating, entertaining and performing ritual for culture creation. The novel itself engages the reader in the teller/listener dynamic that fashions unity and harmony from chaos and creates balance. In the African American culture, the harmony the griot creates allows African Americans to come to terms with the troubled, violent past. The idea is that by utilizing the societal, historical and philosophical tones of consonance, the griot creates an accord by employing stories that “are animated by the desire to preserve pasts too often trivialized, built over, or erased, and to pass them on” as a means to simultaneously preserve the culture and keep traditions alive in narrative form (Foreman 369). It is through the listener/teller dynamic, through the narrative, that the oral definition of griot now encompasses the text-based medium. It is through the griot model that “the individual character remains socially and politically responsible to the community, but seeks also to understand the self’” (Ervin 93). African American narratives can be defined as griot because they do facilitate “the process of cultural recovery” by enabling Toni Morrison’s concept of rememory or rapprochement through cognizant utilization of culture creation tools that invoke congruity by engaging in teller/listener dynamics (Dixon 18-19). Through the griot model, culture is created, which constructs identity, individually and culturally.
When harmonizing occurs, individual and cultural identity is then constructed. Because the griot emphasizes the teller/listener dynamic and the reader–as-witness, culturally literate readers become part of the story’s construction from the cultural context, responding to clues placed throughout the narrative. As James Paul Gee postulates, identity is constructed through “[d]iscourse [that] transfer[s] into, interfere[s] with, and otherwise influence[s] each other to form the linguistic texture of whole societies and to interrelate various groups in society” (14). I assert that through the griot model, African American authors are further creating a sense of community by combining the aspects of West African culture with elements of the American cultural ideal. This is the combination of which the reader must be aware. The assertion is that through nommo, African American authors are using the novel form as griot in a “concerted effort to reclaim … cultural heritage through the reinscription of the cultural in literary production and thus to restabilize the cultural imbalance of power” (Mehta 234).
African American literary critics, in an attempt to construct an identity for their own people, are really attempting to create a useful base of power for African Americans. When I use the word power it is not meant in the classic Western sense of “right or authority,” ability or competence, capacity, control, dominance or force, but more in the ambiguous notion of potential cause and effect (Concise OED 1125). Power is meant as a general term: an antonym of impotence in which the power stems from an identifying action which quells the discursive dominative identifying markers of the hegemony. At its essence, power is not meant as the difference between passivity and activity or subjective and objective, but in how the use of the power “points out the irreducibility of temporalizing” the lack of power with having power (Derrida 126). In griot sense, since power comes from the word, it is a performative utterance in which the language is used not just for description, but in constituting or making power, because the word was spoken. Therefore when the griot tells the tale and the listener hears it, as a demonstration of nommo is action, a culture is valued and validated, through and for itself. It is precisely because of the power of language, through nommo, that the culture has named itself.
As it is known, names have power because they define, within and without a culture, an identity. For example, the ancient Africans who lived in the Nile valley, built megalithic stone structures and mummified the dead are known to the modern world as “Egyptians”. These people left extensive writings, and are possibly the most studied and written about of all ancient cultures. Egypt influenced many societies that followed, from the Greeks to the Romans, and arguably still permeates cultures today. But despite our reverence for these historically significant people, a fundamental naming problem remains: they referred to their country as Kemet, not Egypt. This mis-naming precludes deeper understanding of these people: if the foundation of a house is skewed, then so too is the house. From a West African standpoint, as well as from the African American, mis-naming is not simply slander or libel; because of nommo, the name “Egyptian” sets a foundation upon which further misinterpretation can occur and be accepted. Through the power of wielding nommo, the griot can speak the correct name so that rightful understanding can begin. It is in this way that harmony can be attained.
Power plays an important role in African American culture. Therefore, at the rudimentary level of naming, the power of nommo does have a point: the discourse of the “African American” does not describe the “African American,” because “African American” was there before the discourse signified it as such. What this means is that the culture and people that make up the “African American” precedes the hegemonic definition. Therefore the culture cannot be signified as such because there is no correlation with the reported signified. Instead, breaking from the hegemonic definition, nommo produces the “African American” it purports to sign. This is a discursive, reductive, semic train of thought linked to the semiotic1 which, without proper naming, leads to discursive, subaltern, enthymemic, dismissive reasoning. The authority of the hegemonic definition only allows the properly defined African Americans to mimic themselves through absence, thereby creating a pantomime, a caricature, for the sake of a “proper” relation as signified with the sign. Therefore, the power wielded by nommo dispels, as Homi Bhabha states, “traditions of trompe l’oeil, irony, mimicry and repetition” (126). The African American culture has been, and is, both subject and object of power.
This enthymemic lack of power is Foucault’s Panopticon in action: the hegemony is socially placed in the center, and every group that falls under its view is subject to its rules—not because the guard enforces the rules, but because the prisoners internalize the system and police themselves. For the Panopticon to work, “one needs to know the nature of the guilty person, his obduracy, the degree of his evilness, what his interests and leanings are” (Foucault 188). In essence, the guilty must internalize the rules, thereby defining themselves by the hegemonic characterization. To combat this in a social and cultural sense, the griot critical lens employs a converse memory or revisionist process, which utilizes the power of nommo as a means “to engage the polemics of competing discourses that have the ability to counter oppressive, imperial Americanism” (Steward-Shaheed 235). This combat allows the griot to be both signifier and signified in that, through the performative aspect of telling the narrative, griot simultaneously reconstructs and recreates because griot is both object and subject of the culture and the language. Throughout the literary history of African American authors, from Phillis Wheatley on forward, narratives have collectively addressed topics of racism, slavery and equality as the cultural group has struggled with power and double consciousness, struggled to wield nommo for the sake of dispelling the panoptic and highlighting the body of the people; through and for itself.
Part of what gives African American writers power is the notion that not only are their narratives written for African Americans as a group or community, but that said narratives are also imbued with the Post Black Studies idea that there are multiple–that of the individual and a group–African American identities. This new way of looking at African American identity highlights multiple facets that are fluid and layered in understanding race and identity. This fresh lens does not claim an absolute nationalistic allegiance definition, e.g. the Civil Rights era; rather the idea is to engage in what K. Anthony Appiah termed “identity play,” which deals with meanings and symbols from within and throughout the culture. What African American authors are doing is creating a “contingency and fluidity of black identity, [that has] to wrestle with the question of how to orient one’s self to the various options for black self-consciousness, and to do all of this while relating one’s self to the similarly fluid meanings and practices of the wider society” (Taylor 627). African American authors are expressing both a self reflection and an expression of the larger, wider culture as they attempt to dialogue with the broader identity of African American. The narratives question identity while presenting an aspect of an identity with which the reader is to engage.
An example of this can be seen in the auspices of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred. While attending Pasadena City College, Butler “heard some remarks from a young [African American] man” about the shame and disgust he felt for the slave generation’s acceptance of the behavior of their owners. Butler recalls that “[h]e felt so strongly ashamed of what the older generation had to do, without really putting it into the [proper] context,” that he would have “lik[ed] to kill all these old people who have been holding us back for so long” (Rowell 51). This gap between generational perspectives was the germ that spawned Kindred. Butler “wanted to take a character… back in time to some of the things that our ancestors had to go through, and see if that character survived so very well with the knowledge of the present in her head” (Rowell 51). The idea was to bridge that generational gap with a character that physically linked the past to the present. By showing the character the actual past, the character, and by extension the reader, would close the gap and place history in its proper context.
This critical lens of griot, which considers identity in a multifaceted way, has not always been an African American critical aesthetic. One of the challenges African American Literature faces is how it must constantly refer back to and is validated by the “rhetorical teaching in the western world [which] has canonized Artistotelian/Platonic rhetoric as Rhetoric” (Lipson, Binkley 1). At the beginning of the twentieth century, as the shape of what would become contemporary African American literature was forming, African Americans “were in the predicament of learning about himself and herself, about her native potential, her intelligence, her beauty, her historical contributions, her social standing and value to society, and her future prospects through the prism of American racism” (Gomez 179-180). It was a time in which African Americans were able to learn about themselves, inductively through the culture, and not through the deductive hegemonic. It was a time where conflicting philosophies, Booker T. Washington’s accommodation rhetoric and W.E.B. DuBois’ political action and social agenda, competed as the best means to uplift and create a cultural identity for African American people. The difference between the two is that Washington’s notion requires African Americans to leave what little cultural elements remain of Africa and fully internalize “America,” while DuBois’ approach requires the group to define itself, for itself. The two camps still debate today as the landscape for the aesthetic has expanded and embodies an “odyssey to realize the full potential of one’s complex bicultural identity… In short, [it is the] quest … for freedom, literacy and wholeness… [that is] grounded in social reality,” not just in philosophical constructs with no real social and political power backing it (Bell 142-143). Historically, this quest for a reshaping and reinterpretation of the African American image has been a way to re-present “Black America” in new, progressive, humane terms: it is meant to show, to echo Booker T. Washington, how the Negro should and could be valued because there was something worthwhile within the culture to contribute; not as former Africans now Americans, but as people. African American artistic expression from the beginning of the twentieth century is best characterized as a double-aimed struggle in which “the black artisan… [needed] to escape white contempt” (Dubois 9). The problem is that this mode of thinking stems not from self-validation or self-understanding, but from an attempt to be socially accepted and validated by the hegemonic white majority; it was a way to alleviate one oppression while advocating another subtler version. It meant, in the end, to be colonized again through education and social conformity, and to become as Americanized as possible by removing social, cultural and artistic traces of Africa. This was the era in which the griot concept was conspicuously absent, as African American philosophy was not about creating community or culture for the African Americans through nommo, but was more about dispelling hegemonic myths and losing the subaltern stigma. This was the era in which the traditions and the education of African culture were undermined for the sake of broader cultural acceptance.
The Harlem Renaissance saw the beginnings of a paradigm shift2 for African American identity. Authors such as Jean Tomer, Zora Neal Hurston, George S. Schuyler, Jean Fauset and Langston Hughes not only wrote fiction for, by and about the African American experience–narratives “that addressed issues of ideal literary themes, cultural identity, and psychological reconstruction,” as the previous generation did–but also wrote essays that defined the cultural identity3 as a means to teach the community about intellectual responsibility and character (Napier 2). This is the era in which the African American culture began using nommo and gaining power. The literature and literary criticism were about building a truthful, accurate social identity from within the community. African American authors began to write about their community, their society, even their authorship; not strictly as a means for outside validation, not merely as a reconciliation of the double consciousness, not simply as a way of self-reflection, but also in order to ask readers what it meant to be African American. Can the double consciousness gap be bridged? How do we get back the Africa that was lost? It is no accident that an era that birthed such thoughtful questions would later be named by scholars and academic critics the catalyst of the modern African American literary canon. This is the age in which the griot notion began to take shape as authors and critics began examining community itself through the language of the people, utilizing nommo. Here was the origin of the education, entertainment and ritual establishment that later cultural movements would look back on.
However, not until the Civil Rights Era, with the Black Arts Movement, did self-defining African American Literature take on full prominence. This was the “Black is beautiful,” “Say it loud!” era in which the benefits of the Harlem Renaissance were reaped. This was the beginning of placing African aspects over the American; a time of placing DuBois’ philosophical self-referential notions over Washington’s accommodating view. This was the era in which the Afrocentric took a center stage that highlighted the use of nommo and griot. It was a time, through artistic expression, that African American authors and critics attempted to “show that their brothers in the audience [would] be able to understand that they are the brothers of victims, and that they themselves are blood brothers,” as they had shown previously but were now able to show through nommo, griot, signifyin’ and rememory; not speech, tradition, signifiers or repartee and rapprochement (Neal 1965). Authors such as Amiri Baraka, Genva Smitherman, Larry Neal, Jaheinz Jahn, Houston Baker, James Baldwin, Carolyn F. Gerald and Ralph Ellison, to name a few, took the African American aesthetic to a new level. Through an artistic vein rather than a politically charged ideology, these authors championed African American nationalist ideals and spoke of displacing traditional European aesthetic values that have negative connotations for the African American community. An active questioning of how African Americans should view history and their role within it began to emerge.
But problems began to rise as the movement turned away from the artistic aesthetic, becoming preoccupied with establishing political agendas and dictating an ideological absolutism platform4. Here the aspect of power, authority or control took precedent over artistic expression, which meant that the communal and harmonizing aspect of griot was lost. The movement began to move away from the cultural expression reformation, toward the politically-based form of reformation; it was a step away from the culture itself. The Black Arts Movement, Houston Baker argued, was a platform that lacked the necessary rigor to seriously analyze African American culture.
To get back to the African American artistic aesthetic, many critics, e.g. Larry Neal, Stephen Henderson, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker, began incorporating elements of literary theory into said aesthetic. Elements of the works of Foucault, Lévi-Strauss and Barthes were used to show, through literary theory, how hegemonic relational aspects specific to African American culture could be toppled by its own rhetoric. This represented another paradigmatic shift, as this era was defined by the tools of art, theory and criticism being used to define the art. This was the age in which the griot notion came into prominence: where the tropes of African American culture were used as a critical lens to discuss the culture and recover cultural memory; in other words, to discover self-identity. It was an era in which aspects of nommo, power, force and agency were not wielded separately but existed in a more West African sense of “never [having] been apart” (Jahn 101). As in previous eras, questions here were asked to ascertain what it meant to be African American, what the role was of the African American in history, and what the answer could be to the ever-elusive double consciousness conundrum.
After the Civil Rights Era, African American rhetoricians began using rhetoric to answer some of those questions with abstract answers. Instead of asking what, when and where, questions of discovery were posed—the why’s and how’s of African American aesthetics—which through deconstruction and post-structuralism place an emphasis on the culture through its own literary expression. African American rhetoricians began finding voice and validation through and of themselves. African American scholars began utilizing Derrida’s notion of “presence,” Foucault’s notion of the “Panopticon,” to show how the epistemologically dualistic sign/signifier was not wholly valid, as it was meant to justify the Truth and to further validate the Western Enlightened viewpoint. These critics used the tropes within the Western literary critical system to topple it: that the traditional Western view is not naturally appropriate, and the connection between ideas (ideals) and things is arbitrary and therefore subjective. Through the tools of the already established tradition, African American theorists and critics quickly capitalized on dethroning and producing foundational works that were non-Enlightenment based, which gave “more attention to the ‘lexical and conceptual fields’ that permeate African American literary texts, or at least [paid] attention to the ‘semantic levels of black culture’” (Ervin 140). Here, the griot did educate, entertain and uphold rituals for the sake for the community.
In the late 1970s, through the contemporary discourse, African American critics and theorists stepped away from literary theory and began constructing–for, by and about African American literature–theory and criticism that did not stem from the traditional European or Classical viewpoint. Nommo explained Africanisms in Western terms, which helped broaden the notion of griot. Karenga, Asante, Gates Jr., Morrison and West wrote on the subject of African American literature from the artistic viewpoint. Essays and academic articles abound that highlight how the rhetoric of Egyptian (Kemet) is older than and is the basis for Greek philosophy5; how the genre of magic realism “reveals itself as a ruse to invade and take over dominant discourse(s)” (D’haen 195); how Bakhtin can be found throughout African American Literary theory because, through language and literature, individuals can attain meaning and identity as they are “both ‘voiced’ and able to ‘voice’” (Hale, Dorothy 447). In the late 1970s the African American language community took its own center stage, in which the academic writing centered on the African American aesthetic. African American rhetoricians had established a traditional scholarly community, and during this time rhetoricians were the “ones in power in the traditional academic community [to] create discourses that embod[ied] a typical worldview” (Bizzell 2). The discourse did educate, entertain and establish rituals.
What comes next for the griot in African American discourse is now for African Americans to decide. But what I can say is that it is through the power of nommo that the discourse will speak griot into existence and thereby create a stronger, more dynamic culture by making that culture self-referential. Essentially, whatever is created with this discourse, the former voicelessness of the culture no longer defines the culture. The critical emergence of the griot interpretive lens will not only fill the generational and cultural gaps, but will also give purpose to African American literature, since using a griot allows African Americans to move from “acting out” to “working through” in that it “enables the patient to move toward healing” (Madsen 62). It is a viewpoint that validates African American rhetoric by stamping and authenticating it not through the post-enlightenment model, but through and for the culture it comes from. Through the griot model, each author’s approach is distinctive in the creation of community through nommo, in that the stories these writers choose to tell and how they choose to tell them builds different aspects of community by focusing on something different.
But further, the griot lens generates more than just the Enlightenment’s hermeneutic circles of criticism born of criticism, which begets a criticism of the criticism. Effectively, the griot model is an answer to the Enlightenment’s epistemological scientific categorization and compartmentalization that does not benefit anyone, lead anywhere or do anything but generate more criticism. Edward Schiappa defined this definitional schism as “fact of essence” (what x word is) and “fact of usage” (how x word is used) in that “only through revising certain beliefs can the difference be resolved” (90). What this means is that since, in rhetoric, the definitional essence of a word is unproductive, the group should focus on issues of usage as a way to dispel institutional norms. Although griot is not the African American rhetorical panacea, through its utilization of nommo, it makes an able foundation for the culture’s journey toward defining and defining itself.
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1: See Julie Kristeva’s La Révolution du language poétique (1974).
2: Magazines such as Colored American Magazine and Crisis, plus books like Pauline Hopkins’ Contending Forces, preceded this and were the kernel for the Harlem Renaissance.
3: See Richard Wright’s Blueprint for Negro Writing; Zora Neal Hurston’s Characteristics of Negro Expression; Alain Locke’s Self-Criticism: The Third Dimension in Culture.
4: See African American Literary Theory: A Reader. NY: NYU P, 2000. Print.
5: See James, G.M. Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy. Africa World Press, 1993. Print.; Lipson, Carol S. and Roberta Binkley ed. Rhetoric: Before and Beyond the Greeks. NY: State University of NY P, 2004. Print.