Friday, February 03, 2006

Es'kia Mphahlele's African Literary Journey

Es'kia Mphahlele in 2005 (left) as a dapper journalist in the 1950s. This photo is courtesy of Jurgen Schadeburg, who captured Black South Africa during the Drum era. Check out his web site--it's an amazing visual journey.

Once again, this article is part of my Eye on Africa series. I feel honored that I had the opportunity to meet and interview Ezekiel Mphahlele. He is truly one of the giants of our African cultural leaders, and given his age, this recent visit to the States may be his last--he doesn't travel here very much. Meeting Es'kia reminded me somewhat of a chance encounter I once had with James Baldwin 22 years ago; they both had a powerful presence, a profound wisdom and soft-spoken intellect that is subtle yet overwhelming. I would have loved to have spent more time with Es'kia (or for that matter, James Baldwin), but alas, there never seems to be enough time to spend with these great "
fundis." Their writings live on for future generations, but sadly, their time is limited in this world. In this article I wanted to present Es'kia in the broadest context of his life, and to hint at his ideas of "African humanism" which I believe can form the basis of a viable and creative African educational system.

Es'kia Mphahlele's African Literary Journey

“The minds I would be dealing with were already unchained by their own effort. Give people a poor education and the mind will soon find a way out. Revolt is then inevitable. No, the mind cannot be chained forever.” - Es'kia Mphahlele

Throughout my experiences and travels in Africa, I have followed the shadow of Es’kia Mphahlele--his reflection, traces of his footprints—until one fine, late August day, I met face to face with the world-acclaimed novelist, educator and African philosopher. The 85 year-old former University of Denver professor lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was in Denver on a rare trip (and perhaps his last) to the United States. I had the good fortune of being introduced through a mutual friend and spending an afternoon of evocative conversation in the backyard shade of a quiet Park Hill home. It was an extraordinary encounter.

Ezekiel “Es’kia” Mphahlele is one of Africa’s most revered writers and scholars, known both for his literary works as well as for his activism in arts, cultural and educational matters. He was initially trained as a teacher, but after he spoke out against the inferior standards of “Bantu” education the apartheid government banned him from teaching anywhere in South Africa. Subsequently Mphahlele became a political reporter and fiction editor for Drum, a continent-wide African magazine that printed daring political exposes by brilliant investigative journalists, peppered with colorful features and creative writing styles blending English with African idioms and narratives. Drum mirrored a literary renaissance in the 1950s, an era when South Africa was burgeoning with creative energy in the music and the arts. (Interestingly enough, a recent South African film, Drum, by director Zola Maseko and starring Taye Diggs, tells the story of Henry Nxumalo, one of the most popular Drum journalists who was found murdered in Johannesburg.) Notwithstanding the attention he and others received through Drum, Mphahlele aspired to be a writer, and after he finished his Masters degree at the University of South Africa in 1956 he went into exile with his wife Rebecca and their three children.

Mphahlele began teaching in Nigeria, later saying that “West Africa gave Africa back to me,” awakening him from the alienation and deep-rooted traumas of apartheid. The 1959 publication of his autobiographical novel, Down Second Avenue, drew worldwide interest in Mphahlele as a writer, and focused a powerful spotlight on the internal dynamics of South Africa as it steadily drifted toward greater racial oppression and greater world isolation. Now a classic of African literature, Down Second Avenue had successful printings in English, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Japanese, which reflected the impact and international popularity of the book. Mphahlele’s second novel, The Wanderers, a story chronicling the experience of exiles in Africa, earned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969.

Mphahlele thrived on his teaching activities in Nigeria, but he also found himself drawn into a whirlwind of creativity activity among West African writers and artists such as novelists Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Amos Tutuola, sculptor Ben Ewanwu and painters Demas Nwoko and Uche Okeke. Mphahlele felt he had been plucked from a South African literary renaissance only to be dropped into the heart of a West African cultural renaissance. He was appointed director of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris, for which he traveled and worked extensively in Kenya, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda, in addition to lecturing throughout Europe. At the end of his term with the Congress, while teaching at the University of Nairobi in 1965, Mphahlele was offered a teaching fellowship at the University of Denver and an opportunity to earn his PhD, an offer that he gladly accepted.

By the mid-1970s Mphahlele had built a thriving career in academia and a comfortable life in American suburbia, but the “tyranny of place” dominated his heart and mind. He could feel the land of his forefathers calling him, and he yearned to make his teaching and writing relevant to the actual conditions of life in South Africa. In August, 1977, barely a year after the Soweto riots, and less than a month before the death in detention of Steve Biko, the Mphahleles returned permanently to South Africa, exchanging their British passports for the infamous South African passbook ID, the “badge of oppression.” And this very fact makes Es’kia Mphahlele’s life distinctly different from most South African exiles, who generally left the country in the 50s, 60s and 70s and returned in the early 90s, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Black political parties were unbanned.

The return to South Africa was not without its controversies. Many of Mphahlele’s fellow exiles—prominent political activists, writers, musicians and poets—told him that going back was a mistake. Not only was he possibly endangering himself and his family but, they also argued, that returning at that time would be a propaganda coup for the South African government, which would then appear to be more liberal and open in its policies. Mphahlele dismissed these arguments, but he also paid heavy prices for his return. Within a few months of being back in South Africa, his son Puso began to get his first ugly, bitter tastes of racism apartheid style. He was not conditioned to the survival instincts of living under apartheid, and they feared for his safety. The older Mphahlele children had already become accustomed to individualistic, independent American lifestyles, and so Es’kia and Rebecca sadly gave their son “back to America.” After some discussion, they all agreed that it was best for Puso to live with his sister in Washington, D.C. and finish his high school education in the United States.

Mphahlele had returned ostensibly to assume the chairmanship of the English Department at the historically Black University of the North, and the teaching staff voted unanimously for his appointment. But once again Mphahlele was destined to confront the face of government repression, as the Minister of the Department of Education vetoed his appointment, leaving him jobless. White supremacist politicians could not tolerate the idea of an African being the head of a Department of “English,” leading a White staff that was actually much less qualified. Despite the rebuke (and thinly-veiled retribution) of apartheid officialdom, Mphahlele had the last laugh. He was eventually asked by the vice chancellor of the private University of Witswatersrand—South Africa’s most distinguished university—to become the chairman of their new Department of African Literature.

In the South Africa of 1977—as compared to 1956, the year of his exile—Mphahlele found worsened conditions in the urban townships (Soweto was “monstrously slummier”) and an educational system ravaged by the sub-standard “Bantu” apartheid program. He traveled around the country in various capacities lecturing and teaching new ideas for transforming African education based on “African humanism,” an overarching concept that he felt was valid for the continent as a whole. He often drew large, overflowing crowds of people, young and old, students and non-students, eager to hear from the worldly scholar and Nobel prize nominee who had returned to be with his people and fight the system from within. He was held in high esteem and was a contemporary African prophet and hero to many.

Mphahlele’s African humanism embodied the ideal that Africans should express their own unique approach to education, getting to know themselves and their continent through a study of African history, religion, cosmology, literature and the arts, before moving on to other areas of world knowledge. Although he never drew the apparent parallel, Mphahlele’s African humanism pedagogy presages a comprehensive introspection of African traditional culture, not unlike the Edo period in Japan, where the Japanese barred Europeans from their society and experienced a flowering of their classical culture while simultaneously learning Western technology and economics.

Over many years, I slowly discovered why Es’kia Mphahlele is so revered by South Africans, the world academic community and Africa’s intelligentsia. Sitting in the shade of a friend’s plum tree, I had come full circle, and I could not help but love the small, soft-spoken literary giant. We talked for quite some time about his days with Drum magazine, his years in exile, trends in African art and literature and the future of South Africa and the African continent as a whole. His aged, graying eyes belied the intensity of his intellect moral courage and fierce honesty; his words conveyed the hard-won wisdom of years of travel, copious study and astute human observation.

I asked Es’kia if he felt Africa had a living spirit, and if that spirit touched him or spoke to him in some way. His poignant answer was timeless and inspiring, in light of the overwhelming darkness and strife South Africans, African Americans, and many African people have faced in recent history.

“Yes, Africa speaks to me, because I listen too much to the wild voices of now, of present day politics and ethnic problems and conflicts. (But) I (also) listen to the subterranean voices, the voices coming from the past, from my forefathers and our ancestors. That’s how Africa speaks to me. Never mind the political noises that one hears, this way or that way. I’m talking about something much more solid, as well as spiritual. And there are ugly things happening in African countries. The poverty of Africa touches me deeply, especially because our leaders seem to be so impotent in dealing with it. There’s a good deal of corruption among some African leaders who simply want to have power and wealth. They don’t care two hoots about what happens to the people, and that is the sad part of it. But if you stop and listen to the voices of ancient wisdom—and you hear the voice in the metaphors of our languages and in the mannerisms in which we as Africans approach each other... If we listen to the voices of those forces, you get somewhere. You realize that you have some protection from other kinds of foes and forces that work on you.”

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Kyle Baker's Contempary Vision of Nat Turner

It's been years since I picked up a comic book, but reading this and interviewing Kyle Baker was a fanatastic experience.

Kyle Baker’s Contemporary Vision of Nat Turner

Kyle Baker is at it again.

As if his renown as an animator, cartoonist, illustrator and one the comic industries finest artists weren’t enough, the multi-talented writer is turning his prodigious creative energies to writing a graphic novel about the infamous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

But perhaps this is expected of someone who helped pioneer the graphic novel art form itself with such treasured gems as the hilarious hip hop critique “Birth of a Nation,” sophisticated social satires like “Why I Hate Saturn” and “The Cowboy Wally Show” and a comic book version of the Bible’s King David. It seems that Baker ‘s consistency lies in his penchant for taking his readers and fans beyond the expected boundaries of his previous works.

For people who haven’t touched a comic book since fourth grade and believe that comics can’t take on serious subjects, think again. Ever since Art Spiegelman broke new literary ground with “Maus”—a graphic novel about his father’s harrowing experience surviving the Nazi Holocaust—graphic novels have set the publishing world on its head. Taking his inspiration from Spiegelman, Baker was one of the first to experiment with the graphic novel format in the mid-80s with “The Cowboy Wally Show,” which one reader called “the single funniest graphic novel ever written.”

But Baker’s “Nat Turner” series is anything but funny. Nat Turner, of course, has a curious and enigmatic place in our nation’s history. Like John Brown, Denmark Vesey and other slave rebellion leaders, Turner was caught up in the injustices and emotional upheavals that would eventually spark the Civil War. William Styron fired up the American imagination with his Pulitzer Prize winning “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” in which he, a white southerner, took artistic liberties to write from the psyche of a 19th century slave,

Baker’s “Nat Turner” is quite the opposite of Styron’s. Between beautifully vivid, explicit artistic images there is no dialogue, save the actual writings from Nat Turner himself, as told to Thomas R. Gray, the sympathetic attorney who recorded Turner’s last words and confessions in his jail cell as he awaited execution. The result is an extraordinary historical journey that goes back in time to the capture of Nat Turner’s mother in Africa and her horrid slave ship journey through the “Middle Passage,” and on to the story of Nat Turner’s childhood, youth and eventual rebellion.

Baker sought to avoid some of the controversies that followed Styron’s book by adhering to original sources for his story.

“Everything in the stories is actually true—they happened to somebody. A lot of the experiences aren’t particularly well-documented just because they were slaves,” Baker says, with an earnestness that belies his lighthearted sense of humor and irony. “I have a lot of books, and during the Depression there were a bunch interviews done with slaves through the WPA, and they were an excellent source. I’m trying to stick with primary sources because it is such a controversial subject and there’s also been a lot of misinformation written about Nat Turner too, just over the years.

“You can’t argue with actual quotes. You might argue with whether what that guy said was accurate, but you can’t argue that Nat said it, at least.”

“Nat Turner” stirs turbulent emotions as it carries the reader through the trials and tribulations of slavery. The drawings are black and white—revealing Baker’s amazing power of illustration—and vibrantly dramatic, yet starkly visceral and haunting. I found myself returning to the images again and again, reliving events, absorbing the story and developing an unusual affinity for the characters. It’s been many years since I flipped through a comic book, and “Nat Turner” was a pleasurable return to a fascinating—if under appreciated—media.

Baker finds the ambiguity of Nat Turner as a historical figure is perplexing. African Americans and white Americans often have very different views of Turner, and that confuses and fascinates him.

“One thing that I had encountered before I started the book was that every time I told a black person I was writing a book on Nat Turner, they’d get very excited and say, ‘That’s a terrific idea, I can’t wait to see it,’ “ Baker explains. “And whenever I’d tell a white person I was doing a book on Nat Turner they had no idea who Nat Turner was.

“I thought it was very interesting that there’s a guy like that—you ask almost any black person who he is, and he’s a hero. And one of the things that really fascinates me about the guy is that he is controversial and I honestly don’t know why.”

Baker uses his artistry to paint a broader canvass of slavery itself, and while he is known for his deft linguistics and wry sense of humor, “Nat Turner” is more of a sparse, Zen-like journey through historical records and collective images of the “peculiar institution.” He considered including more dialogue, but since he decided to confine his work to historical sources, he felt some of the dialogue could actually diminish the impact of the story.

Baker also pointed out that he had to put more into the art to convey what a character is thinking and saying to compensate for the lack of dialogue.

“If I had added dialogue, it would have had to been in a slave dialect, which is very hard to understand anyway, so I couldn’t see how it would help the story. When I read some of those old things written in dialect, it’s like they almost didn’t speak English,” Baker explains, adding that it’s harder to make the characters sympathetic if the reader can’t understand the narrative. “Slaves were uneducated. They talked like you see in those Mark Twain books. I just felt it real distracting—it’s another problem for the reader to deal with.”

While Baker is held in high esteem in the comics world (he received the Harvey Award and the Eisner Award, considered the two top honors of the industry), he still faces certain editorial battles when he ventures into new experimental territory. He decided to circumvent potential conflicts by self-publishing “Nat Turner” through his own company.

“When you’re signing the contract (with a publisher) you’re taking a guess, because you haven’t written the book. I often get into trouble because as it gets nearer the deadline I realize, “Oh God, this is lot more work than I thought,” Baker pointed out, with his regular chuckle. “In the case of Nat Turner, that’s exactly what happened. The comic books were originally supposed to be 32 pages, but as I was doing them, I felt it really didn’t work at that length, and they needed to be 48 pages. And even that would’ve gotten me fired.

“And then bringing it in late (would be a problem). When I’m working on something like Batman, I can’t get away with that.”

Beyond extending the length of the book and the time he spent working on it, Baker is also choosing to break the format mold with “Nat Turner.” He says an average Superman comic book has six to nine drawings per page, while “Nat Turner” has far more variation, and corporate publishers might have a hard time accepting the project.

“I think if you go into a publisher that traditionally is used to seeing 5 or 6 drawings per page and you bring in one drawing on a page, with no color and no dialogue, it looks you’re trying to pull one over on them,” Baker said, bursting with laughter. “It looks like I’m trying to work less, which isn’t at all the case. The reason I’m doing less drawing per page, is because I want to spend more time per drawing.”

Apparently, the formula is working and the response has been positive. Baker has published the first two comic books in what will eventually be a series of four, and the first one sold out, while the second is also selling out fast. After the final two are printed, the entire series will be published as a graphic novel. Baker will not reprint the comic books, and hence they are becoming collector’s items. He expects to complete “Nat Turner” within two months, although the book is already available in pre-orders on the Barnes & Nobles web site. He started “Nat Turner” around June, 2005, although he conceived the project a couple of years before that.

Baker believes his innovative marketing strategy is helping popularize the graphic novel version, although he feels “Nat Turner” can reach a far wider audience than the young males who typically frequent comic book stores. People who buy and trade comic books aren’t necessarily representative of the kinds of readers who will likely find a Nat Turner graphic novel appealing.

“The thing about the kind of stuff that I tend to do for comics is I’m trying to push the envelope. But the problem is regular readers don’t want the envelope pushed. The people who read Spider Man every week aren’t saying, ‘Boy, I really wish I could have a Nat Turner comic book,’ “ Baker says, with his trademark chuckle. “The reason its being done this way now is because I’ve been in this business for 20 years. I happen to know the distributors and retailers, and now I’m trying to get more into schools and bigger book stores where I think the audience is going to be.”

Depending on the success of Nat Turner, Baker is considering writing other historical graphic novels that might be suitable for teachers and schools. The 40 year-old lifelong resident of New York City has plenty of options in comics, cartoons, film and animation. He recently worked on Shrek II, providing character development for the Eddie Murphey’s donkey. Baker also worked on “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” with Brendan Fraser, Bugs Bunny and other Warner Brother’s cartoons, where “they spent millions of dollars on it and had tons and tons of meetings and they were wrong.” His experience with the Bugs Bunny movie reinforced his concept of not being afraid to test his own ideas independently in the marketplace.

Baker’s old friend, film director Reginald Hudlin—who worked with Baker and Aaron MacGruder of the Boondocks cartoon series to create “Birth of Nation”—recently became the head of entertainment at BET, and Baker says they are planning a television animation project. But he’s a little concerned about the uncertainty of the budget, which he believes will have a big impact on the quality of the final product.

“I think with TV and video the more you spend, the better it looks. The people he’s hiring are all very good, so it should be okay,” Baker opines, pauses for a moment and laughs. “If the budget’s not that good, I just won’t be that excited about it, but I’ll still do it.”

“The Bakers,” a comic book and graphic novel series about his wife and three children is another one of his self-published projects that is close to his heart. His wife Liz says, with a slightly strained ambivalence, “He gets paid to make fun of me. Very few people can get away with that.”