In 1908, Liberian intellectual Edward Wilmot Blyden published African Life and Customs, a collection of articles that had first appeared in the Sierra Leone Weekly News. It was issued, “with the desire, if possible, of unfolding the African, who has received unmixed European culture, to himself, through a study of the customs of his fathers, and also of assisting the European political overlord, ruling in Africa, to arrive at a proper appreciation of conditions.” African Life and Customs attempted to counter the deracinating effects of modernity by providing Afro-diasporic populations, those who had “received unmixed European culture,” with a manual of how to be African. In its simplest form, African Life and Customs belongs to the body of anti-racist discourse produced by diasporic blacks through the latter part of the nineteenth-century and the early part of the twentieth. It shares similar aims as Frederick Douglass’s multiple narratives, Frances Harper’s novels, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, and Casely Hayford’s Ethiopia Unbound. Disparate though these works might be, they all attempt to prove the black’s humanity and capacity for civilization. In autobiographies, sermons, manifestoes, polemics, essays, and novels, Afro-diasporic activists in the nineteenth century contested racist depictions of blacks as primitive, uncivilized, and hypersexual. These discourses of resistance take on new life in the twentieth century, when they forge bonds among African and Afro-diasporic populations. Their focus ceases to be primarily inter-racial and becomes intra-racial and international, in a word, diasporic. I examine African Life and Customs as a foundational work that weds the genealogical imperative to what I will describe as the ethnographic imagination, a wedding that animates black diasporic cultural and scholarly production throughout the twentieth century.
Blyden was, arguably, the pre-eminent black diaspora scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was born in 1832, in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, then part of the Danish West Indies. Denied admission to colleges in the U.S. to study theology because of his race, he immigrated to Liberia, where he completed high school and was later ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1858. An autodidact, he learned to read and write Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, and a few African indigenous languages. He first rose to international prominence in the 1860s, when he traveled in the U.S. to recruit immigrants to Liberia, a process that he continued for the following thirty years. Over the course of a lengthy career, he served as a Professor of Classics at Liberia College (1862-71), Secretary of State (1864-66), Liberia’s first ambassador to Britain (1877-78), President of Liberia College (1880-1884), and ran for president of Liberia in 1885. In addition to numerous articles published in venues such as Methodist Quarterly Review, Fraser’s Magazine, The American Missionary, and Sierra Leone Times, Blyden’s major works include Liberia’s Offering (1862), From West Africa to Palestine (1873), and Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (1887). He died in Liberia in 1912.
I begin with Blyden because I read African Life and Customs as a methodological forerunner to Afro-diasporic cultural and intellectual production over the twentieth century. He provides a method for Afro-diasporic populations to re-connect with their past: they can “study” the “customs” of their “fathers.” Blyden’s emphasis on “study” and “customs” embeds him, broadly, within ethnographic practices, and, more specifically, within an ethnographic imagination that will be taken up by writers across the black diaspora including Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Leopold Sédar Sénghor, Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The phrase ethnographic imagination is capacious, and I use it to denote the array of fantasies, desires, and imaginations that subtend ethnographic projects in their various instantiations as armchair anthropology, field-work based research, and literary and cultural production; the desire to record fading modes of living (Toomer and Hurston), to imagine past histories of living (Senghor and Nwapa), to describe emergent modes of living (McKay, Hughes); and the impulse to locate collectivity forming and collectivity fracturing within the register of the intimate (the home, the family, the community, the village). Indeed, a guiding premise for this project is that the ethnographic imagination subtends black diaspora cultural production and political imagination throughout the twentieth century.
African Life and Customs consists of 15 short chapters that can be divided, broadly, into meditations on social, economic, and political organization. Following a short introductory chapter that surveys the existing scholarship on Africa, Blyden devotes the following 4 chapters (2-5) to the African family; the next 5 (6-10) to what he terms “industrialism,” or more broadly economic structures; the next 2 (11-12) to political organization, or the treatment of “criminals”; and the final 3 (13-15) to religion. By presenting a picture of what anthropologists will later theorize as a functional society, Blyden attempts to rehabilitate the negative image of Africa in colonial and racist discourse. Simultaneously, in the same spirit as Crummell’s statement that race is “like a family,” Blyden imagines that the functional society he describes should provide a paradigm for global black collectivity.
For Blyden, this rehabilitation takes place, most urgently, on the level of the intimate. He describes “the family” as the foundation of African society:
The facts in this African life which we shall endeavour to point out are the following:–
1st. The Family, which in Africa, as everywhere else, is the basic unit of society. Every male and female marries at the proper age. Every woman is required and expects to perform her part of the function of motherhood—to do her share in continuing the human race. (10)
He amplifies on this point:
The foundation of the African Family is plural marriage and, contrary to the general opinion, this marriage rests upon the will of the woman and this will operates to protect from abuse the functional work of the sex, and to provide that all women shall share normally in this work with a view to healthy posterity and an unfailing supply of population.
It is less a matter of sentiment, of feeling, of emotion, than of duty, of patriotism. Compulsory spinsterhood is unknown under the African system. That is a creation of the West. Its existence here is abnormal, anticlimatic, and considered a monstrosity . . . and is destined, wherever it seems to exist in practice, to disappear as an unscientific interference of good meaning foreign philanthropists with the natural conditions of the country. (11, emphasis in text)
Blyden’s discussion is predicated on an implicit contrast between Africa and the West, one marked by the two italicized terms: “normally” and “That.” African women participate “normally” in the functional work of the sex. Through this “normally” Blyden critiques racist and colonial discourses that described African women as lascivious and perverse, enamored of non-functional types of sex. As a native of the West Indies and a devoted anglophile, Blyden would, no doubt, have been aware of Edward Long’s claim that African women were so lustful and uninhibited they mated with orangutans. In response, he emphasizes that African women privilege “function,” reproduction, above all else, thus tying gendered and racial normativity to hetero-reproduction. Blyden’s emphasis on women also recognizes that African women had borne a disproportionate share of racist representation as visible embodiments of, contradictorily, lack and excess, hyper- and hypotrophied bodies. As with other black diasporic writers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Blyden acknowledges the need to normalize black women, to offer alternative frames through which to consider their bodies, feelings, and practices.
More than simply a defense of African life, African Life and Customs critiques European modernity for its failures, which are most manifest at the level of intimate life. Echoing the alarmist rhetoric that erupted because of white women’s emergence into and full participation in urban modernity—as single, unmarried, engaged in sex work—Blyden excoriates the West’s failures, while arguing, “Under the African marriage system . . . [t]here are no ‘women of the under world,’ no ‘slaves of the abyss.’ Every woman is above ground protected and sheltered” (24). “African marriage system” describes an ahistorical ideal by this point. By 1908, urbanized women in Africa engaged in trade and sex work, redefining their social, cultural, and economic landscapes. Blyden’s implicit contrast, then, is not only between a decadent West and an innocent Africa, but, rather, between a pre-urban and an urbanizing Africa. He rails against the deracinating effects of urban modernity that threatened an African-ness he defined as stable (and stabilizing) gender normative heterosexuality.
In Blyden’s estimation, Christian-advocated monogamy was a failed system; African polygamy solved real problems. He writes, “we are told by English periodicals that there are a little over five millions of unmarried women in Great Britain and the number is increasing. It is stated also that in the City of London alone there are 80,000 professional outcasts” (24-25). A slippery logic of innuendo coats these statements: unmarried women have limited options; urban spaces present themselves as places with many options; unmarried women choose to go to urban spaces to pursue options; on arriving there, they change from being “unmarried women” to “professional outcasts.” Urbanization creates professional outcasts. “Professional outcasts” elides sex workers and career women, marking both as intimate failures. Indeed, they are professional less for any skills they possess or services they may provide and more because they are unmarried. In contrast, Blyden claims that Africa has no such problems: “We are quite sure that there are not so many unmarried women in the whole of Africa between the Atlantic and the Red Sea and from the Cape to the Mediterranean” (25). These expansive geographies suture Africa as a space held together by virtue of its shared intimate practices.
Yet, African intimate practices are not simply natural; they are actively cultivated. Blyden argues they arise from centuries of experimentation. Africa “solved the marriage question for herself thousands of years ago. It has needed no revision and no amendment, because founded upon the law of Nature and not upon the dictum of any ecclesiastical hierarchy” (21). While the “law of Nature” provides a foundation, it must also be complemented by a pedagogy of intimacy: “[T]here is among Africans a regular process of education for male and female, for a period of at least three years, to prepare them for the [intimate] life they are to follow, and the [marriage] system under which they are to live” (13; emphasis in original). If Afro-diasporic populations fail at intimacy, as so many Euro-American observers suggested from at least the eighteenth-century, then that failure results from the deracination of diaspora, and indicates nothing inherent about African nature. In fact, complaints about black hypersexuality and lasciviousness in the archives of colonial modernity register European, not African, failing. Blyden’s claim about intimate pedagogy also rebukes the civilizing mission’s pretension to instruct Africans in domestic and intimate matters. Such education, he insists, leads to African degeneration. At each point, Blyden emphasizes that Africans train themselves to be appropriately gendered and socialized; that their lives are structured by adhering to prolonged periods of training; that this training is learned from nature and the natural world, and is not a foreign imposition; and that if any observers want to know anything about Africans, then they should observe intimate life and intimate practices above all else.
African intimate life provides the key to all African systems. As Blyden writes, “from the [patriarchal] Family Organization and the property laws which naturally follow, the whole social System is regularly developed” (41). Although the claim that political systems arise from familial structures has a long political history, Blyden’s claim that African families, and particularly black, sub-Saharan families share the same principles ruptures one of the boasts of Christian modernity: that the monogamous, Christian family or, in classical times, the monogamous family, could be a metonym for the state. It’s worth recalling here that even Leo Africanus, one of the earliest African writers in the sixteenth century, heralded as the leading Africanist scholar well into the eighteenth century, scolded sub-Saharan Africans for practicing rowdy group marriage, and derided them as not having any recognizable social organization. Blyden advances a radical position in citing African intimate life as the key to African social organization.
Blyden’s claim about the centrality of heteronormative and hetero-gendering practices to African and Afro-diasporic identity-formation provides insight into a structuring ambivalence of this entire project: arguments for African and Afro-diasporic political, social, and cultural innovation are made at the expense of gendered and intimate diversity. Blyden is an especially knotty figure, because he anticipates what have been innovative approaches in the fields of gender and sexuality. Avoiding the essentialist/constructionist binary, Blyden argues that African women do not marry “out of sentiment, of feeling, of emotion.” Rather, they marry because “of duty, of patriotism” (11). Within popular and academic discourses, debates have continued to rage over whether non-heterosexual desire is natural. Simultaneously, the “naturalness” of desire and the respectability of “love” have been used to advance political claims for queer social and civil rights. In Blyden’s estimation, personal feeling, personal inclination, personal desire, is, ultimately, irrelevant. Thus, Sharon Holland’s recent claim, “Having a right to our queer desires is a fundamental tenet of queer theorizing,” which, in a more quotidian register is framed by queer activists as the right to love, finds no traction within Blyden’s thought. One can desire as one wants; one can even love as one wants; but that is subsumed by one’s hetero-reproductive duty. For Blyden, sexuality does not exist within a psychoanalytic register of desire. How one is “born” and how one “feels” must always take a backseat to “duty,” to “patriotism.” Pedagogies of intimacy are designed to cultivate proper intimate attachments that nurture “duty” and “patriotism.” In fact, Blyden banishes individual, idiosyncratic desire from diasporic intimacy. Simultaneously, diasporic cultural production and dissemination should be in the service of maintaining appropriately gendered and sexualized black communities.
For Blyden, one cannot claim an authentic African or Afro-diasporic identity without practicing appropriate heterosexual intimacies. Indeed, one cannot be recognized as legibly African or Afro-diasporic without embedding oneself within a heterosexual matrix. He subordinates individual desire to collective need: “We, and not I, is the law of African life” (30). Blyden’s emphasis on “duty” over passion and desire may seem quaint, but it has had a vibrant life across multiple geo-histories and continues to exert intense pressure on black diasporic intimate life. Indeed, the idea that the legible black body must be heterosexual has been so powerful that, as Dwight McBride argues, even figures known to be openly queer have assumed a position within heterosexuality when speaking for a black collective. McBride explains, for example, during an interview with Dick Cavett, James Baldwin attempted to position himself as a speaker “for the race” by “masking his specificity, his sexuality, his difference.” Baldwin claimed to be defending his “wife,” his “woman,” and his “children” positioning himself as a black heterosexual patriarch so that he could speak as what Hazel Carby describes as a race man.
While Baldwin performatively inhabited black heterosexual masculinity to speak as a race man, Kenyan-born ethnophilosopher, John Mbiti, would codify the relationship between the genealogical imperative and social legibility in Introduction to African Religion, which was first published in 1975. “Marriage,” Mbiti argues, “fulfills the obligation, the duty and the custom that every normal person should get married and bear children. . . . Failure to get married is like committing a crime against traditional beliefs and practices.” Marriage, adds Mbiti, provides “completeness”: “Marriage is the one experience without which a person is not considered to be complete, ‘perfect’, and truly a man or a woman. It makes a person really ‘somebody’. It is part of the definition of who a person is according to African views about man. Without marriage, a person is only a human being minus.” Marriage confers proper gender, and proper gender confers full humanity. As Mbiti’s argument proceeds, he raises the stakes: not only does (heterosexual) marriage satisfy “duty” and “custom” and “tradition,” in which case those who claim to be modern can safely disavow marriage; it certifies one as “truly a man or a woman,” as a “human.” Mbiti’s argument welds the genealogical imperative to gendered and human legibility, the grounds from which one can be recognized as human. His claims for African identity, or, rather, African legibility, resonate across Africa and Afro-diaspora, enabling interactions across differently located individuals and communities with diverse interests and politics. From Blyden through Mbiti, African and Afro-diasporic scholars have wedded a genealogical imperative to an ethnographic imagination, producing black legibility through this wedding.