Pan-African identity: A standpoint of Memory Studies – Dr. Divya Sharma


Essentially, there are three approaches to Africana history – the griotic methodology, liberation historiography, and Afrocentricity. All these have been to the end of free Africans empowering their identity politics. The griotic methodology of African historiography or the griotic framework particularly conjures up a dialogue between the present and the past as it involves helping turn oral to written. It has been used particularly by the free African Americans of the antebellum North to chart the oral/performance basis of history ascending into the textual production of history. As a distinct approach of history production, the griotic methodology started taking hold from the late 1700s through the 1830s. It was meant to counter the Eurocentric American discourses. The intelligentsia sought to liberate themselves through re-interpreting the connotational meanings/implications of “Africa,” which was viewed as a metaphorical source and destiny of the black race. While this holds true for the African-Americans, African historiography displays a similar pedestal for oral history (orature) which it sees deeply tied to identity politics. Pan-African Cultural Nationalism in African literature, therefore, intersects with the griotic engagement of African historiography and identity politics. The proposed research paper endeavours to look at this historiographical engagement in identity politics from the standpoint of memory studies. 

Keywords: Historiography, African Literature, Memory Studies, Griotic Methodology, Pan-African Cultural Nationalism 

Interestingly, oral historians have categorically chosen not to engage extensively with the public dimension of memory or how it is constituted. Emily Keightley and Michael Pickering have explained their failure to engage with oral history to: 

…a leading preoccupation in memory studies with collective trauma, national history and heritage, grand-scale ritualistic social practices and macro-cultural memory, rather than with individual and small group micro-processes of remembering. (Research Methods for Memory Studies, 2013, p. 4)

In the light of such an understanding, attempting to evaluate the oral history that preceded the now-written accounts of African experiences may seem problematic but the griotic framework of historical penning down makes it apt to be looked into from the perspective of memory studies. 

The memory studies’ critics undertake “discourse analysis which has been used in processes of remembering, showing how people co-construct the past in their joint production of the social worlds they inhabit through speech and language” (Keightley and Pickering, p. 6). This seems a rather logic-driven derivation of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs’ (inspired by Emile Durkheim) understanding that memories are social and are passed from generation to generation (Social Frameworks of Memory, 1925). However, a key method employed in memory studies is,

the creation of ‘cultural memoryscapes’ and multi-sited research (…) . The ‘cultural memoryscapes’ may be understood as comprising multiple sites of memory connected by a particular associational logic  (…) . Memoryscapes include a plurality of different forms of mnemonic phenomenon, ranging from individual acts of remembrance to transnational contexts. (Keightley and Pickering, p. 130)

In other words, researching painful pasts would require eliciting memory through vehicles such as photographs etc. for the remembering process. And such narratives will always be more than mere chronological descriptions that will help facilitate an interpretative framework and evaluate better for memory is constructed socially in everyday storytelling. And such storytelling is shaped by cultural narrative frames. The cultural memoryscapes then encompass ‘multiple sites of memory’ that are fastened by associational logic of common ethnicity, religion, national identity, common village, and so on and so forth. Writers such as Maurice Halbwachs, Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger, Henri Bergson, Paul Ricœur, Pierre Nora, and Jacques Le Goff agree that memory destabilises grand narratives of history and power. In the words of Garde-Hansen, “memory, remembering and recording are the very key to existence, becoming and belonging” (Garde-Hansen, 2011, p. 18). The relational character of memory has also been recognised by Halbwachs (1992) who argued that memory is not an individual phenomenon but is “relational in terms of family and friends, and also societal and collective in terms of the social and collective in terms of the social frameworks of social groups” (Media and Memory, p. 19).

Most cases of mediated memory depend on elite news media coverage of events. The implicit relationship between memory and holocaust studies cannot, therefore, be missed. Since the major share of influence, whether it is popular culture or superstructure within a society is that of the ruling elites it may be problematic to look at the postmodern production of events through the screens. But having stated that, collective memory could be seen as a defence mechanism and a way of conjuring a “third space” of sorts to be using H. Bhabha’s terminology. This may be taken to be particularly true in the case of African natives as well as the African diaspora. What Jan Assmann describes as “Pan-African Cultural Nationalism” may be understood in this light. In a world that is premised on the imbrication of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ selfhood is often determined through dialectical and contradictory determinations, and “memories of the past provide a crucial discursive terrain for reconsolidating selfhood and identity” (Keya, p. 23) 

Collective memory and cultural identity implicitly become important ingredients. In the essay “What is a Nation?” that appears in Modern Political Doctrines (1939) Ernest Renan goes on to state that the secret of nation building is to get one’s history wrong. What Renan seems to imply by this statement is that since positive preservation of memory can become a form of nostalgia, and negative selection by memory can lead to elimination and amnesia, both nostalgia and amnesia can be forms of getting one’s history wrong in order to get one’s national identity right. To put it in other words, since collective memory or social memory processes involve, (1) preservation, (2) selection, (3) elimination, and (4) invention, Pan-African identity may also be interpreted as a concoction, an “inventing” of a cultural identity that may or may not have truly existed before or has been handed down through griots and emerges from orature. While we may not be in place for taking on the job of the archaeologists, to determine this, there have certainly been people who have questioned the authenticity of such a narrative in history. 

When Jan Assmann uses the term Pan-African Cultural Nationalism, he implies two things, “romantic primitivism” which means a celebration of the simple African life, and “romantic gloriana” that Assmann describes as a celebration of:

Africa’s more complex achievements. It salutes the pyramids of Egypt, the towering structures of Aksum, the sunken churches of Lalibela, the brooding majesty of Great Zimbabwe, the castles of Gonder, Timbuktu as a global centre of knowledge production and learning transatlantic voyages at least a century before  Columbus. Romantic gloriana is a tribute to Africa’s empires and kingdoms,  Africa’s inventors and discoverers, and great Shaka Zulu rather than the unknown peasant. (Mazrui, 2013, p. 18)

Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism, or Pan-African Cultural Nationalism, can then be perceived as a response to the cultural arrogance embodied in European imperialism. It is interesting to note Ali M. Mazrui’s argument in the essay “Cultural Amnesia, Cultural Nostalgia, and False Memory: Africa’s Identity Crisis Revisited” who establishes a metaphor of child or parental abuse and imperialism stating: “At the level of individual psychology, false memory in recent times has often been steeped in visions of child abuse…at collective level Western imperialism in Africa was a form of child abuse….At its most humane, imperialism was a form of collective paternalism—presuming to accept responsibility for people who were deemed to be “less mature” (p. 14-15). Eurocentric discourse has long established Africans as simple, capable of inventing nothing, and therefore uncivilised. 

If this is judged from the prism of romantic primitivism, Europe’s “alleged fact” of Africans being “simple” and “inventing nothing” may appear to be agreed upon but the value judgment that Africans are uncivilised holds no value. Simplicity can be interpreted as a form of civilisation. To put it in the poet Aime Cesaire’s words: “Hooray for those who never invented anything/Who never discovered anything…” (Return to My Native Land, 1969). Romantic gloriana outright rejects Europe’s concocted discourse and its alleged facts on Africa for it sees Africa as neither simple nor incapable of “inventing.” One finds Pan-African nationalists, who are driven by romantic primitivism as well as romantic gloriana. 

It is evident that romantic primitivism is intrinsically associated with the idea of negritude or even tigritude. One of the major proponents belonging to the negritude school is the former president of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor, with his almost infamous statement that “Emotion is black…Reason is Greek,” for it implied a negation of the historical fact held dearly by other Africans, the fact being that of Africans’ contribution to Greek civilisation. On the other side of the spectrum is the gloriana school. Cheikh Anta Diop (Senegal’s Renaissance Man), who studied the human race’s origins and pre-colonial African culture and was the founder of the Afrocentrist movement, while demonstrating Africa’s contributions to the global civilisation most emphatically claimed that “pharaonic Egypt was a black civilisation” (Diop 1991, 1987). His claims therefore in the grand Pan-African tradition of romantic gloriana, and profound influence through his seminal works, The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality (1974), Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in African Culture and Development, 1946-1960 (1978), and The Cultural Unity of Black Africa (1978). 

Negritude may be seen as a defence of humanity of those who were prejudiced against on the basis of race. That it was unquestionably necessary cannot be denied but often it meant an idealisation of a precolonial past and the affirmation of an African-racial-essence. The traits that exemplified the “naturally” African identity were love of nature, rhythm, and spirituality. And these for long had been valued negatively but the racial or Pan-African representation of African identity and nationhood redeemed them and they began to be seen as having positive value. However, such representations of African identity remained a ground for attacks of African intellectuals such as Wole Soyinka, Marcien Towa, and Stanislas Adotevi, in Myth, Literature and the African World (1976), Leopold Sedar Senghor: Negritude or Servitude? (1971) and Negritude et Negrologues (1972), respectively. 

It is interesting to note that most of the texts that questioned the “pureness” of the precolonial African identity created by the propagators of negritude were that by women. Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence, Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, Flora Nwapa’s Efuru, Atna Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here, Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather, and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions to name a few. These women argue against the discourse of nationalism and independence created by the male writers who offer an affirmation of an African or racial essence in the idealised precolonial past. They question the “pureness” of the African past in the face of the widely prevalent patriarchal values. And from their standpoint, women were not to be the beneficiaries of independence and its implicit privileges in the future. Syed Hajira Begum argues, 

Glorification of Africa and the African woman has been an important mission of the African writer in colonial and post-colonial eras. The African woman in the pre-colonial and traditional society, was stereotyped in her restricted role when she was denied her place outside her home. (Begum, 2006, p. 103)

The first-generation male writers formulated a utopian vision of an independent world devoid racism and oppression inhabited by women who could either be categorised as goddesses (muses, idealised mothers) or mere helpmates. Andrea Benton Rushing’s observation in “Images of Black Women in Modern African Poetry: An Overview” from Sturdy Black Bridges (1979), that unlike European or American culture African cultures assign distinct and varied roles to women including those related to motherhood, further corroborates. 

To consider a specific instance, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, which procures its title from Flora Nwapa’s Efuru (1966), wherein a remark is made about the childless river goddess Uhamiri, that she had never experienced the joy of motherhood but was still worshipped by women, offers a case study on the undue veneration of these joys. Women are made to carry the cultural burdens in every society. Both Nwapa and Emecheta seem to be suggesting that motherhood needs to be glanced at as an ideology. The African culture’s doubts surrounding a childless woman form an undercurrent to these texts, then whether it is Efuru Ogene whose industriousness and economic independence otherwise is celebrated or whether it is Nnu Ego who attempts suicide because her child is dead. Her statement from the section titled “A Failed Woman” is extremely significant: “‘But I am not a woman anymore, I am not a mother anymore…’” The crowd sympathises. “‘She is not mad after all…she has only just lost the child that told the world that she is not barren’” (The Joys of Motherhood, p. 62). However, she eventually realises that motherhood does not bring joys alone but also pains and women have the right to embrace or reject childbearing. Both texts subvert the androcentric worldview that the African male writers offer. She also comes to realise that one is enough in oneself—an idea that resonates profoundly with the concept of Ubuntu, which in turn is associated with negritude and therefore carried the elements of its redemption within. 

Postcolonial African women’s writing exposes the ideological implications that these doubly colonised sexually objectified women have to pull through. The colonial structure reduced them to exotic objects who were valuable “commodities” given the relative scarcity of women during the period. This combined with the objective of economic exploitation of both men and women instituted compliance, deteriorated personal relationships, and disproportionate attention to the personal (sexual) aspect of their lives. Sadly, the subjugation of women continued through the independent African nations. Despite all this, African women have through the Anzanwan Freedom Movement, the Mau Mau revolt, the Biafra war, the Namibian Liberation Movement, and the anti-apartheid demonstrations in South Africa have continued to nurture an altruistic spirit stressing the importance of “lift as you climb” which is reflective of community solidarity. This analysis reinstates the understanding that Birago Diop’s following statement offers: “Truth depends not only on who listens but on who speaks.” And this understanding calls for a deeper probing of the Pan-African identity in the context of the other marginal groups of African society. 


Begum, S. H. (2006). Against all odds: African womanhood in postcolonial African women writing. Marang, 16, 18.

Cesaire, A. (1979). Return to my native land, trans. J. Berger and A. Bostock. Penguin.

Emecheta, Buchi. (1979).  The joys of motherhood. George Braziller. 

Ganguli, Keya. (1992). “Migrant identities: Personal memory and the construction of  selfhood.” Cultural Studies, 6, 25-50. https:/

Garde-Hansen, J. (2011). Media and memory. Edinburgh University Press.

Keightley, E., & Pickering, M. (Eds.). (2013). Research methods for memory studies. Edinburgh University Press.

Mazrui, A. A. (2013). Cultural amnesia, cultural nostalgia and false memory: Africa’s identity crisis revisited. African and Asian Studies, 12(1–2), 13–29.

Renan, Ernest. (1939).  “What is a Nation?.” Modern Political Doctrines. Trans. and ed. by Alfred Zimmern. OUP. 

Dr. Divya Sharma is a lecturer in the Department of English, University of Jammu. Her PhD thesis was on the topic “The Prism of Ecofeminism: An Odyssey of African American Women in Music Lyrics.” Earlier for her MPhil degree, she worked on the novels of Zora Neale Hurston and the title of her dissertation was “An Ecofeminist Visitation into Some Selected Works of the ‘Genius of the South’: A Multi-Cultural Imperative.” Her areas of interest are African American Literature, Trauma Studies, Memory Studies, Gender Studies, African American Music, Literary Theory, and American Literature among others.