Jeanne Koré Salvato

o and behold, we recently celebrated Africa Day on 25 May.  An Irish friend reacted to my surprise that there was an Africa Day in Dublin.  She was surprised I was surprised and sent me this lovely map. So, I decided to hunt around and find celebrations of Africa in the States, where it actually does take place in some cities, such as Houston and NYC.

Line drawing of George Floyd

It turns out that the anniversary of George Floyd’s death is the same day as Africa Day, the 25th of May.  A policemen had a knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, resulting in his death. For me that’s the association with Africa, not only Floyd’s death and others, but the slave trade, the deprived homeland of so many millions, followed by their enslavement.  In honor of the former slave interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston, named Cudjo Lewis, I have used his term, Afficky, for Africa.  I have talked about Hurston’s book Barracoon elsewhere, but it is impossible to celebrate Africa Day without including Hurston’s perspective: “The African slave trade is the most dramatic chapter in the story of human existence,” she writes.

But while that is very real, too real, in fact, the joy of Africa day is also part of the heritage of Africa. 

Let’s come back in a minute to the issue of slavery.  Now, I’d like to introduce a woman who has created a business called Africa on Your Back.  She uses beautiful African patterned material, gives scholarships, and focuses on inspiring boys to succeed, since she has two sons.  Joy!

And I’d like to introduce another woman, Jessica B. Harris, affectionately known as Dr. J, who has written a book called, High on the Hog:  A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.  And it is being made into a four-part series of the same name on Netflix.  Apparently the first episode takes place in Benin (West Africa).  It’s been said she wanted to ground the diaspora in a culinary story.

And finally, I’d like to present the trickster, Anansi, the spider, also from West Africa, who loves to trouble the waters where there is any smooth sailing.  Famously, he is able to outwit more powerful creatures, expressing the qualities of the cunning, creative rebel.  The stories of Anansi originated in West Africa and were then transported via the slave trade, first to the Caribbean, and then more widely.  I have taught these Anansi stories to students who take great pleasure in cutting out his many spider legs and giving him some trouble to cause and more powerful figures to outsmart. Here’s a book called Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott.

Here’s a story about a melon.

Slavery and the Aftermath. 

Another series on Netflix is The Underground Railroad, featuring stories of slaves running to freedom and the cruelty they face before they even leave home, not to mention on their journey.  The series is beautifully acted, but not for the faint of heart.

Forced sterilization is also an aspect of Toni Morrison’s novel, Home, in which Frank Money, a black man, comes home from the Korean War with post-traumatic stress disorder from his participation in the horrors of the war. Remember that the troops were de-segregated, but the country where he returned was not. He gets word that his sister Cee is in trouble.  He escapes from the psychiatric hospital to rescue her in Atlanta from the clutches of a doctor who experiments on her, rendering her infertile.  The novel ends with an emotional healing for the pair, but without erasing the ordeals of the past.  

A particularly creative adaptation that the slaves used to engineer their escape from slavery included singing.

READER: This is no time to joke.
ME:  Wait till you see.

One famous escape song is called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”  Did you know that the drinking gourd is another name for the constellation the Little Dipper?  And that the north star is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper?  It never occurred to the slave holders that the songs the slaves were always singing could be communicating how to go north, and when. 

Here’s our friend Eric Bibb

VERSE 1Taken together, this verse suggests escaping in the spring and heading North to freedom.
When the sun comes back,Refers to the winter or spring. The days are getting longer, and the angle of the sun is higher each day at noon.
and the first quail calls,Refers to the breeding season. Quail in Alabama start calling to each other in early to mid-April.
Follow the drinking gourdThe “drinking gourd” alludes to the hollowed-out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. Used in this context it is a code name pointing to Polaris, the Pole Star, and North.
The ole man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom“Ole man” is nautical slang for “Captain” (or “Commanding Officer”). According to Parks, the Underground Railroad operative Peg Leg Joe was formerly a sailor. Per one of Park’s informants, the runaways would be met on the banks of the Ohio by the old sailor. Of course, the chances that Peg Leg Joe himself would be there to meet every escapee (as depicted literally in the children’s books) are quite small.

And I’d like to call your attention to John Coltrane’s song called “The Underground Railroad,” which, if you listen closely, you can hear this is a rendition of “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

Speaking of slavery, Beckett seems to give us the scope to include both the suffering and joy of our human stay on this planet; in fact, introducing the slave, Lucky, with a rope around his neck. 

Well …. Critics say he is lucky in the sense that being a slave is a better condition than the others were in, who are in worse shape: equally enslaved by their concepts and attachments, such as waiting for Godot.  And at least Lucky can see the rope around his neck.  Actually, I think it’s pretty unlucky to be a slave.  Lucky often says, “for reasons unknown,” a phrase which punctuates his monologue and helps us take in what he is saying.  For reasons unknown he is going on like he is.  That phrase, “for reasons unknown,” is like a refrain touching on the inexplicable aspects of human existence, namely the cruelty, the sadism in the master / slave relationship. 

Pozzo, the so-called master, maintains that there are circumstances in which the roles would be reversed.  He would be the slave, and Lucky the master.  The one thing that his attitude saves Pozzo from is that most indefensible view that somehow, he, Pozzo, was destined to be, and rightfully is, the master, the lord of the manor, and the savior of the inferior being.   While Pozzo does condescend to the tramps and Lucky, he is nonetheless forced into reasonable interaction at least with Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) because he is desirous of human companionship.  Some argue that Pozzo and Lucky represent the society from which Didi and Gogo are ostracized. Or that their relationship is similar to the relationship between labor and capital.  (I love it! The gazillionaires of our time with a whip in hand.  Does that mean that we have a rope around our necks?)

READER:  Seriously, a play is making me feel bad about myself?  I am a capitalist slave?  No thank you!
ME:  No, it is making your eyes cross when you think about who you are, so you can claim more freedom for yourself when the play is over.
READER: Could you go back to Lucky?
ME: Sure.  

Lucky is the enigma of the play.  Is he the masochistic slave?  Is he a Christ figure?  And therefore, the real Godot of the play?  Is Pozzo really his master, a heartless Old Testament figure who is an anti-Godot? 

Here’s is Lucky’s strange and wonderful monologue.   

Thanks for joining me for these reflections of Africa.

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