Ethiopian playwright and novelist Abé Gubegna served as a prominent voice against human injustice throughout the 1960s and 70s. To date, he still stands as one of the country’s most outspoken freedom fighters to denounce the pillaging, torturing, and killing of Ethiopian people. Abé’s most renowned piece of work remains the 1962 classic “Aliwalidim”, an introspective satire from the perspective of a baby who refuses to emerge from his mother’s womb. At the time, it was considered so notorious that the Ethiopian government banned it, making it illegal to read. Aliwalidim presents a contemplative internal monologue that stems from confronting the many atrocities committed against humanity. The title of this text translates to “I will not be born” in Amharic.
Aliwalidim emerged as a response to Ethiopia’s then-contemporary political climate. The regime of Haile Selassie was slowly winding down, as indicated by the 1960 coup attempt. Meanwhile, the division of wealth inequality was growing at an alarming pace. Considering the fact that 75 percent of Ethiopia’s economy was agriculture based–this presented a major issue. During such a time, labor unions and student groups were heavily organizing to address this wealth gap that harmed the nation’s tillers. All of this served as a precursor to the 1974 Revolution when the Derg assumed power through a bloody military dictatorship (it’s no surprise that Abé vehemently condemned them as well). His observations lead him to declare the following statement which predicates his writing of this text, “What a pity! Man hurts his fellow human beings for such a short period stay in life? Had it not been better if man had never been created at all.” Aliwalidim is one of Abé’s many works that was banned during its initial printing. His truth-telling continually landed him under the scrutiny of high officials, and he received several death threats. This eventually resulting in Abé’s three-year sentencing to forced confinement of basically “neighborhood arrest”.
Themes of questioning life, pain, and purpose can be found uniting writers throughout the African diaspora. Such queries have many unique meanings that surpass mere explanations. This being said, African writers are deliberate in their confrontation of mortality. They utilize this as a tool for awakening consciousness that ultimately serves as a call to action in ‘the struggle’.
African American poet, writer, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde worked to radicalize mainstream feminism throughout the 1960s-80s . Lorde worked to address the lack of representation Black women face in movements surrounding both race and gender. The Civil Rights Movement presented a male face (despite the fact that most of the organizers were Black women). Meanwhile, the feminist movement was white and middle class
. People like her and Alice Walker created a space for African women in America to express the issues that emerged from being many different oppressed minorities. Lorde’s writing is nuanced and very analytical, investigating the many layers that compose one’s identity and the experiences that follow. Most notably Sister Outsider, a collection of Lorde’s essays, goes in depth on this intersectional approach. Her work also focused on “the other”–someone who is is circumstantial, yet always present. Lorde’s early poetry was published in Langston Hughes’ Black literary magazine New Negro Poets in 1962 (the same year Aliwalidim was written).
“In becoming aware of my mortality, and of what I wished for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light and what I most regretted were my silences…we are all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end…I was going to die, if not sooner then later whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me…”
The above quote is taken from Lorde’s 1977 essay “The Transformation of Silence to Language and Action”. She discusses the importance of breaking silence for the sake of freedom, as silence does not take away fear and ultimately serves no purpose. The realization of death as inevitable urges Lorde to this declaration of action. Similarly, Abé recognizes the use of speaking truth to power in the face of oppression, “Would there be any sort of injustice that hadn’t been committed? Being cognizant of this, I tried to express my feelings whenever I got the chance.” Both authors write of moving from a place of fear and silence into active speech. This comes from a sense of urgency that makes the fear somewhat irrelevant or rather less important. This defies the typical narrative of so-called “great-man history” that waters down revolutionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. and turns him into a monument of unattainable stature. Such a narrative is dangerous as it suggests people are either born with “it” or without “it” (whatever “it” is). The writings of Abé and Lorde do not flaunt this romantic sense of courage or fearlessness. They feel it is important to write the truth and fight the power as an honest response to circumstance.
Anti-lynching crusader and journalist Ida B. Wells was a mighty advocate for self-preservation. Born into slavery in Mississippi, she went on to become one of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founders. After the Civil War, Wells turned to journalism and produced the iconic 1893 article “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases”. This pamphlet was the first documented account of lynchings that took place throughout the South. White media outlets claimed lynching to be the criminal punishment for raping white women. Things didn’t add up for Wells. She meticulously investigated numerous lynchings and traced their commonalities as rooted in Black economic prosperity. Wells deconstructed myths of the “negro beast” (a black man who can’t help but rape white women) and exposed the truth of lynching as nothing but a white tool of political terror used against Southern Blacks. She even added that white men fabricated this caricature as a way to prove their manhood under the guise of protecting their women. Shortly thereafter, a white mob destroyed offices containing the pamphlets. Due to the many death threats she received, Wells relocated to Chicago where she continued doing anti-lynching work. The passage below is an excerpt from “Southern Horrors”.
“The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched…One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
Self-defense is an act of love that is as mandatory as drinking water when a people are faced with ongoing genocide. Abé does not shy away from this in Aliwalidim. He urges the following, “It is against our country’s enemy that we should wage war.” Country can be re-defined as the diaspora. Wells, a Southern Black woman made the above declaration is 1893. Talk about going against the grain. Again, we find this explicit encountering of mortality being used to question the purpose of submission in the now. This is the revolutionary spirit that only comes from facing death in an upfront and direct manner. On different continents, in different centuries–both Wells and Abé faced death threats for their acts of truth-telling. Their responses remained the same: to continue speaking truth to power.
The Martinique-born Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist and writer, Frantz Fanon has had perhaps the largest influence on post-colonial studies and Black psychology since W.E.B. Du Bois. Fanon’s revolutionary texts Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth (to name a few classics) examine the psychology of racism on the Black psyche through a series of social experiments. Through psychoanalysis, Fanon explains the root causes of inferiority complex as deriving from the dependency created by Africans existing in a white world. In The Wretched of the Earth, he incorporates racial analysis with Marxist theory. Fanon urges revolutionaries to band with the lumpenproletariat, as they have substantial intellectual independence from the colonizer’s dominant ideology–creating a force to be reckoned with. This text also contains his well-known philosophy on contemplating the liberatory use of violence. Fanon understood that violence was an imperative of colonization, that the two are essentially synonymous. If violence is a tool of social control, then it is possible for it to also be a tool of opposition against that control. Fanon argues that given where we are now (at the time it was 1960), violence has become inevitable. In fact, it is more violent to respond to colonialism with passivity. Below is a passage from The Wretched of the Earth.
“Colonialism hardly ever exploits the whole of a country. It contents itself with bringing to light the natural resources, which it extracts, and exports to meet the needs of the mother country’s industries, thereby allowing certain sectors of the colony to become relatively rich. But the rest of the colony follows its path of under-development and poverty, or at all events sinks into it more deeply.”
Fanon is descriptive of the methods used by colonizers as subtle yet malicious in the draining of African wealth. He exposes the ways in which outside intervention is always something to be weary of. Abé also warns his readership of this in Aliwalidim, “We should not only disregard the attempts of Western and Eastern Superpowers approaching us with superficial friendship in order to make us be obedient to their own desires so as to take away stealing our nation’s natural resources together with the cheap labor; as human beings we must unite to help each other out and wage war.” History teaches us this. Every time an outside superpower approaches Africa it is always with a hidden agenda and for the means of theft–whether it be resources, culture or even our people. It remains crucial for African writers to highlight the exploitation of our resources in order for the consciousness of preservation to grow amongst Africans worldwide.
Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.
Contributed by Eden Zekarias