Nadia Nurhussein’s 2019 book, Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America, analyzes the literature and texts being produced in response to broader Western interest in Ethiopia and its leadership during an 80-year stretch of Black history from the 1860s to the 1940s. Drawing on a wide range of materials such as poetry, novels, newspaper articles, and theatrical or cinematic performances, Nurhussein demonstrates not only how entrenched these conversations were in African Americans’ lives but also the ways that this interest created a paradox: How does one advocate for Black freedom when the focal point of the Ethiopians’ fight is a monarchy that is bent on expanding its territory, little different from the Europeans that threaten it?
1959: The Atlantic magazine devotes its April issue to “Africa South of the Sahara.” Articles on the politics of decolonization frame a large number of contributions on art and culture. A short story by Chinua Achebe appears alongside the work of Nadine Gordimer, Tom Mboya, Léon Damas, Léopold Sédar-Senghor, Amos Tutuola, and David Diop. “The Sacrificial Egg” is Achebe’s first story published in the United States, and its timing supports the US release of his novel Things Fall Apart. Unlike that classic novel, the story begins in a recognizably modern Nigeria, with a young clerk named Julius Obi sitting alone in a colonial shipping office, gazing at his typewriter.
On June 1, 1963, J. P. Clark’s poem “Agbor Dancer” was recorded for the London-based Transcription Centre’s program Africa Abroad, an English-language radio magazine program distributed for broadcast on multiple African stations. Africa Abroad producer Lewis Nkosi praised the poem and recorded it in its entirety in his review of the anthology Poems from Black Africa, edited by Langston Hughes. In “Agbor Dancer,” the speaker watches a woman dance to drums and juxtaposes the dancer’s connection to “communal” identity through music and dance with the isolating effects of language and print. The poem, first published in print and then broadcast, describes West African aural and kinetic traditions while also using and referencing European literary traditions. What does it mean to take this poem, often read as a reflection on the alienating effects of print culture, and record it for radio broadcast instead of distributing it through print?
Those of us who work in traditions considered “global” within US and, to varying degrees, European academies are often pulled in two professional directions. On the one hand, many of us feel rightly accountable to a kind of work most welcome in area studies: granular, situated, concerned with historical depth over what can feel like untenable generalization. On the other, we feel the sting of exclusion from the field’s “big” conversations, and seek broad conceptual discussion of “the literary,” as such. Both impulses—as an Africanist, I think here of toggling between the African Studies Association and the MLA—have value. In the effort to entrench a globally conscientious modernism, though, I find their differences hard to split. Terms like “global modernity” often feel removed from the lives and locales that anchor aesthetic practices beyond a few transnational publishing houses. Neither an historically intertwined (whether network-based or world-systematic) nor a discrete, comparative approach to global modernist method feels quite right, and yet the challenge to find something that does (to modernists, at least) is perennially cast as urgent. Job and book titles aside, I have grown to see Global Northern takes on the “global” even within the “global Anglophone” field as an over-beat drum, stemming as they often do from a form of what Modernism/modernity readers might recognize as “weak theory.” As David Ayers has written in his reponse to the Modernism/modernity special issue on weak theory, there is only so much one can do to inclusivize an exclusive position, which, like a maximally expansive modernism, “simultaneously claims and renounces its universality.
In many ways, the concept of translation has been at the heart of the global modernist project.
On Friday, 11th May 1923, the New York Evening Post ran an article entitled “Conrad and Casement Hut Mates in Africa.” In it, the journalist John Powell detailed his encounter with Joseph Conrad and Conrad’s thoughts on his one-time friend, the former darling of the British Empire turned Irish nationalist rebel, Roger Casement. Conrad told Powell of “[h]is first impression of Casement”; a tale told “so vividly that it stands out with the clearness and blackness of a silhouette caught unexpectedly in a lonely place, casting a hint of ill omen.” Despite the earlier friendship that had existed between Casement and Conrad, in the profile of Casement drawn from Conrad’s words, Casement is an unknowable, malevolent figure: