Part two of Sanya Osha’s look into slavery’s influence in the modern world
By Sanya Osha
The current thrust for recolonisation is definitely related to the colonisation of memory, which simply amounts to its erasure. The colonial archive and its contemporary variant would rather have us believe that slavery was inevitable; that resistance to it was inconsequential; and that its impact has been more or less salutary. Nothing could be more false. Resistance was always present and whole-hearted in spite of formidable opposition. A well-known instance of resistance is the 1839 Amistad mutiny led by Joseph Cinque who along with fellow slaves demanded to be shipped back to Africa. The ideologies of Pan-Africanism, and various forms of Black consciousness, constituted the intellectual arm of resistance to racial oppression.
The Orisa tradition is one of the most visible aspects of Yorubaism with the Candomble practices in Brazil, made visible by devotees and the activities of Babalorixas and Iyalorixas. In Cuba, the Lucumi (the name for Yoruba) practice Santeria or Regia de Ocha. In Haiti, there is Vodun, and integral part of Nago culture. Egungun and Gelede have spread in Latin America and the Caribbean, even in such places as Trinidad and Tobago. In the United States, many variants of Yoruba religion have survived especially in Louisiana and South Carolina (p. 131). 
These various markers of identity are attestations affirming the strengths, resilience and relevance of Yoruba culture, even in the face of the ceaseless colonisation of historical meta-narratives, as well as actual physical subjugation. Most especially, they are confirmations of unequivocal resistance and the independent articulation of subjectivity. In addition, the overall effect of strengthening and propagating these related cultures and traditions has been to create a global culture with inexhaustible potential for forging new relationships across different regions and continents.
The first major quality of Falola’s work is that it does not portray Africa as a site of unending distress and negativity. The second is to see the Atlantic slave trade in terms of both destruction, and creation and linked to the latter are elements of solidarity, transformation and reinvention. The slaves of the Atlantic corridor were united through the violence and trauma of slavery. The basis of this solidarity had its positive effects in engaging with the crucible of violence, alienation and redemption. In this prolonged engagement with negativity, restorative values were wrought and fostered that became the platform for the construction of a more palatable as well as productive future.
The immediate racist reaction is to view the slave as vacant, anonymous and indistinguishable from one to the next. It is an erroneous, and often tragic, colonial fantasy to perceive Africans as vague and abject creatures plucked from wild, virgin territory for the benefit of culture, civilisation and the formation of identifiable consciousness. Falola exposes the falsity and violence of this powerful, as well as debilitating, fantasy for what it truly is; a seemingly self-perpetuating misrepresentation, a mythological conceit deserving to be dismissed.
It can be quite productive not to view the tragic enslavement of African through a one-sided lens of victimhood but through an entire prism reflecting positive and radiant possibilities for enlargement and transformation. Slavery is utterly and abjectly negative if allowed to occur. It becomes an ordeal to be transcended and loses a degree of its intrinsic violence when we begin to reflect on the modes of healing and reconstruction that its victims devised in order to cope with, and ultimately, overcome it. It becomes the tragedy of the entire human race and not just one particular race, because both victim and victimiser are compelled to endure a persistent sense of loss and diminution, that is, if any universality is to be claimed for any understanding of human values. It becomes an elemental failure lurking at the heart of humankind’s supposed progress; a deeply ingrained opprobrium for which all are compelled to turn away, and from which only the morally and intellectually courageous are able to wrest meaning, understanding and validation.
The experience of slavery is the bitterest ordeal in the living memory of African descendants. The figure of the African slave has been over-dramatised and over-mythologised in history, philosophy and literature. For the most part, the sensationalisation fails to shed adequate light on the actual realities of the slave. The slave was seen as being merely above the level of an object, a subhuman subject, clearly below the Hegelian category of complete self-consciousness, enthralled and enslaved by base animality in which instinct rather than reason dominates; the quasi thing-in-itself and not the being-for-itself, an existentialist dilemma that unsuccessfully seeks a resolution of human dimension and comprehension. In reducing them to an animalistic level, enslavement destroyed a significant part of their cosmology and ways of life, while at the same time profiting from their coerced labour as they were mere beasts of burden and nothing else. This went on for four centuries.
Falola recuperates the Amistad revolt as the ultimate act of resistance to the existential relegation; the reduction of men to beasts; the centuries of humiliation, systematic suppression and epistemic erasure in which the Black subject was condemned to loom in abeyance between the huge opaque hole of slavery and the seemingly irreparable loss of the memory of it. An abomination becomes real and pronounced arrogantly by the oppressor to be the curse and the fate of Black humanity.
But Amistad stands for the rejection of this curse, elemental reduction, and fate where speech and dignity are banished. The reality of Amistad restores them; where legitimate livid anger is proscribed and ignored, Amistad proclaims the injury inflicted through eyes filled with fire; where the oppressor would have preferred to witness the unruly instincts and violence of animals, he is forced to acknowledge instead beings formed by unfaltering dignity and composure.
Slavery perhaps yielded one possible good; acting as an enduring link between continental Africans and peoples of African descent in the diaspora, in this case, African-Americans, Afro-Brazilians and Afro-Cubans. Whilst in the New World, Africans retained part of their collective memory and cultural traits but were also invariably compelled to forge new identities in relation to their new environments, and develop linguistic idioms that were foreign, dense and established new webs of relationships with an immediate past and present filled with shame and violence. As noted Afrocentric scholar Molefi Kete Asante argues, in his ‘The Afrocentric Idea’ , the search transcendence above the injury to collective memory accomplished transformational results in a wide range of cultural forms of expression that wrest pathos, melancholy and elation in a mix that became both reconstructive and curative. I mean this both in a literal and metaphorical sense, as many rediscovered the power of healing, herbal medicine and sustenance, incantations and divinatory practices retained in the collective memory while simultaneously overriding the mental shackles placed by the violence of the slave-makers. It also generated inventiveness, resilience and restoration of a race that had been reduced to slaves. Slavery and its enforcers did not count upon this inexplicable transformation, nay, redemption of its victims in the New World; that horror and terror, which could be so devastating, could become the ingredients that their victims would discover held founts of creativity that would serve as an inspiration to the world. Instead, the obverse of horror and abjection was not definitive annihilation but adaptation, and hence a victory that was doubly cherished because it was so unexpected and perhaps also, indescribable.
As noted, there were a number of healing and reconstructive strategies the slave was able to develop; the conscious retention of African cultural practices and systems of knowledge not only ensured the survival of the slave and their creativity, but also served as an antidote to the protracted violence of the conqueror and oppressor. This was rooted deeply enough that it even fostered an early sense of nationalism, while demonstrating the tenacity of the enslaved people. Not only were decisive strands of pre-slavery memory preserved, nurtured and concealed when necessary, the act of concealment served as the seeds of resistance and resurgence giving the lie of the image of the slave as mute, inarticulate and lacking in substantive agency, consciousness, imagination and humanity. Where the ultimate fate of the slave ought to have been unending marginality, silence and banishment, they found a way to celebrate and reinvent their culture in the most unanticipated regions of the world. This is something hegemonic power, even in its most depressed state, could never have foreseen.
Within Eurocentric reckoning, the average slave was an undifferentiated creature, one undistinguishable from the other, an age-long fallacy that informed the whole colonial enterprise in its often unreflective triumphalism. This perception pervades the literature of colonialism in its bureaucratic and imaginative categories. However, progressive Africanist scholarship has revealed deep levels of character and differentiation and distinction within the notion of the slave as evidenced in the retention of African ethnicities (particularly in Cuba, Brazil and other parts of the New World) and the vehemence of the revolts and resistance within the histories of slavery.
As we know, slavery and colonisation were not simply about the mastery of the subject’s body, but also the domination and reconfiguration of consciousness and subjectivity. They were an intrusion into the private and hidden aspects of the self, even though it was a publicly negated selfhood. I would argue from this that they created the artificial division between the subject and its subjectivity and then failed to even recognise it. Where schizophrenia did not exist, it had to be manufactured and amplified to satisfy the whim of power, probably in order to deny the lurking possibility of it acknowledging its own guilt and error to itself in its silent, spent, or reflective moments. According to power, schizophrenia can only be the affliction of the Other, causing its ravages outside the circumference of power, away from the stark intentionality of power, forever consigned to cause irreparable devastation to the victim because it is the poor, unhappy fate the latter has to bear in the endlessly repeated sequence of non-life.
Falola’s persistent celebration of Yoruba culture and history raises a serious issue: how is such a celebration reined in order to retain its conceptual potency and potential? In many instances, Falola does not confront this conundrum and instead allows it to linger as he veers into activist writing and advocacy within the same book. These twin activities stand as formidable pillars in what some might regard as a celebratory flood, a deluge that amid oblivious complacency, can act as an enfeeblement of, or even disregard for, the power of memory. There is indeed much to commend in Yoruba culture; the point is to succinctly highlight what is worthy in the culture and nothing else.
Falola’s project is quite clear in its elaboration as well as its teleological and ideological intent; where history denies the presence of an African past, it boldly announces it, where Eurocentric culture and civilisation repress the significance of an African identity, it promptly describes its numerous accomplishments, gradations and possibilities. In methodological terms, where discourse would rather elaborate itself in relation to the African subject as an embodiment of a lack and a negation, it becomes a source of plenitude and nourishment. So, the African presence does not emerge as an unredeemable mutilation, embarrassment or aberration, but one that is marked by intricate evolution, transformation, wisdom and potential. Falola’s invocation of the figure of the transatlantic slave is certainly the most powerful aspect of a book that also attempts to deal with contemporary globalisation, and the place of the continental African in it.
Sanya Osha is a philosopher, novelist and poet living in Pretoria, South Africa. His most recent publications include, the novel, On a Sad Weather-Beaten Couch (2015), a volume of poetry, A Troubadour’s Thread (2013), and a work of scholarship, African Postcolonial Modernity: Informal Subjectivities and the Democratic Consensus (2014). He works at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria.
 Falola, Toyin, ‘The African Diaspora: Slavery, Modernity, and Globalization’. New York: University of Rochester Press, 2013.
 Molefi, Kete, ‘The Afrocentric Idea’. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Diouf, A. Sylviane, ‘A Fighting the Atlantic Slave Trade: West African Strategies’. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.
Wonders of the African World. Dir. Henry Louis Gates. TV Mini-Series distributed by PBS Home Video, 1999.