Sentinel Literary Quarterly
Vol. 1 No. 1, September 2007. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online). www.sentinelquarterly.com
Quiet Days and Loving Nights
by Wandia Njoya
My favorite scene in Mbongeni Ngema’s 1992 film Sarafina! is the one in which Sarafina, the character played by Leleti Khumalo, visits the home of Mary Masembuko, her history teacher played by Whoopi Goldberg. Sarafina wants to know what she can do in the fight for justice in apartheid South Africa. Mary Masembuko explains that the answer to that question lies in Sarafina determining what she wants. Having no formulated response, Sarafina puts the question back to her teacher and asks: “What do you want, mistress?” Masembuko replies: “Me? I want many things. I want the war to be over. I want the hate to be over. I want my Joe back in my arms. I want quiet days and loving nights. I want babies. I want to come home to kindness.”
Masembuko’s words are etched on my mind because they reflect a simplicity that often eludes scholars interested in issues related to African women. Academicians have come up with a sophisticated hit-list that includes Black Nationalism and Negritude, and that is based on a formula that roughly goes like this: Black women’s oppression = race x gender discrimination. In literary criticism, each study that announces an interest in Black women drudges through the same ritual. A ceremonial scream at the white male, lambasting of white feminists who does not understand their racial privilege, a scolding the African brother who places African women on a pedestal of exotic nationalism, and an invitation to all these groups that have been vilified to change their perception of African women.
My problem is not so much with the camaraderie that we scholars interested in gender issues in Africa seem to be seeking from our African brothers, white feminists and well…the white male whose identity is rarely revealed. We are entitled to push our agenda by any means necessary, even pricking the conscience of our detractors if we have to. But I take greater issue with the fact that this methodology clearly demonstrates what the perception of African women should not be, it rarely clearly states what the perception should be. That is the precision of Masembuko’s statement is striking.
I have faced the same dilemma in my reading of criticism of Negritude and particularly of Léopold Senghor’s poem “Femme noire” (“Black Woman”). During the last few years as a doctoral student, I have listened studies that proffer Senghor’s poem as proof that Negritude objectifies African women. I have tended to agree with these criticisms, but this has not stopped my fascination with the poem. I suspect that I am not alone, given the fact that “Femme noire” is about the best-known or most anthologized of Senghor’s poems. What explains the appeal of “Femme noire”? Is it because it is a convenient item for academic target practice? Or is it that the poem is compelling as a work of art? I think that both factors are equally important, but I will do the graceful thing and begin with a discussion of what I like about the poem.
“Femme noire” promises what feminism has never delivered, at least not for me: quiet days and loving nights. No amount of discourses on the objectification of women, whose ubiquity I am not about to deny, can dampen the magic of intimate moments I enjoy with a man who loves me. The male gaze, and similar concepts whose pertinence to my situation I frankly do not understand, offer no alternatives to the norms of beauty set by the Western world like Senghor’s poem does.
My fascination with “Femme noire” does not deny that Senghor’s superficial vision of Africa was divorced from historical reality, particularly of colonialism. But believe me, if you received comments from African men that imply that you are too black or not white enough, you would understand why I am going to temporarily brush Senghor’s politics aside and read “Femme noire” for what it basically is – a poem by an African man about an African woman. The comments I am talking about come in the form of compliments about the glow of your skin that are made in the middle of winter but rarely during the peak of summer. They are the pointers on sensuality from a brother who unabashedly reminisces the bedroom acrobatics performed by his former white girlfriend, and that sound like a page from the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. They are the comments that your hair is too kinky, and the suggestion that you should consider making a trip to the hair salon for a more beautiful hairstyle, one that almost inevitably comes with chemical burns on your scalp that remain invisible to the casual observer. After listening comments like those over the years, you may crave as I do, for a man who says as Senghor’s poem does: “Nude woman, black woman/Clothed in your color which is life, in your form which is beauty!” And says it like he actually means it.
“Femme noire,” as other poems I will discuss further ahead, should serve as an instrument to exorcise ourselves of the demons of beauty that rear their ugly head particularly in Black heterosexual relationships. This process is essential, because there are few elements in a relationship, besides physical violence, that are as debilitating as when a man you love compares you to the woman you can never be. It does not matter how innocent or well-intentioned those comparisons may be. I, for example, do not empathize with Ramatoulaye, Mariama Bâ’s character in So Long a Letter, who describes the letters from Modou, then her fiancé studying in France. As if addressing herself directly to Modou, Ramatoulaye remembers:
The milky complexion of the women had no hold on you. Again, quoting from your letters: “On the strictly physical plane, the white woman’s advantage over the black woman lies in the variety of her colour, the abundance length and softness of her hair. There are also the eyes which can be blue, green, and often the colour of new honey.” (14)
Modou offers Ramatoulaye little in contrast to his detailed description of white women, except the title “black angel,” the black seeming to indicate that “angel” on its own could not represent an African woman. Modou definitely had issues with his self-esteem that resurface twenty-five years into the marriage. At this point, he stoops so low as to secretly court his daughter’s best friend, and then attempts to hide pot belly that screams his age. Once married, he takes his second wife to the discotheque where he subjects himself to the ridicule of his daughter’s age mates because he can hardly keep up with the tempo of the music. Maybe if Modou had taken time to sort out his own alienation, he would have been able to offer better words to Ramatoulaye during courtship and later on avoid the debacle of his second marriage.
I could spend more time speculating on this issue, but I must revert to my theme of quiet days and loving nights. This time, I will zero in on the word “quiet,” because one of the topics of criticism is the silencing of women’s voices. There are indeed many cases in which the Black woman’s voice is not heard even when she is invited to speak, but if my experience is anything to go by, there are also days when a Black woman does not want to speak. Sometimes I do not want to speak because I have nothing to say, other times it is because life’s challenges sap away the physical or emotional energy I need to find the words to say. At such times, love allows me to lose myself in the universe. It provides those moments when nature and humanity, or passion and serenity, all seem to harmonize without erasing the inherent contradictions. During those moments, I forget the world that defines my people solely on the basis of skin color. I no longer feel myself as the Black woman that history has been so harsh to, but as a human being in harmony with eternity, the sky, the earth and the gods. I feel as if the ancestors sent the bougainvillea in bloom, the Savannah at sunrise, the snowy peak of Mount Kenya on a clear morning, the cool afternoon rain in April, and the ocean waves on the sandy Mombasa coast as signs to celebrate my happiness. This exhilarating experience of seeing myself in the universe and the universe in myself, is reflected for me in Senghor’s poem that ties the woman’s beauty to the nature:
Ripe fruit of firm flesh, deep rapture of dark wine, lips whose song is my song,
Savanna of pure horizons, savanna trembling at the East Wind’s eager kisses
Carved tom-tom, tight tom-tom, groaning under the hands of the conqueror,
Your heavy contra-alto is the spirit song of the loved. (Williamson, 33)
Other times I just want to relax and let him soothe the tiredness of my soul with words like: “Oil of no ripple or flow, clam oil on the flanks of the athlete, on the flanks of the princes of Mali.” I sit back and enjoy the magic of listening to the man I love express what I am feeling or thinking without needing to seek my confirmation. It is in this magic, in this mystery of someone speaking your thoughts and feelings through his own words, that the power of poetry resides. And it is this power that Christopher Miller misses when he says of Senghor’s poem: “Here is a literate ‘silence’: a woman who exists on paper and who is spoken for rather than speaking” (259). For me, the question of silence does not arise, because when a man is expressing his love through a medium as creative and profound as poetry, I am more than happy to be silent. Besides, it is Senghor’s poem, not the African woman, who is on the paper. Speaking about African women need not conflated with flesh-and-blood women.
I would not so bold to say, as Miller does, that “[t]he silence of Senghor’s black woman [. . .] therefore stands as a figure of women’s exclusion from francophone literacy” (260). First of all, illiteracy does not equal silence. Secondly, if we’re going to talk about exclusion, let’s talk about the fact that the schools built by the colonial administration for African boys grossly outnumbered those for African girls. That the few schools that existed for girls did not teach professional or science subjects, but offered subjects like “puériculture” (infant care), as if African women had not been raising children for centuries before the French stepped on the continent. Let’s talk about that the fact that the colonial administration established girls’ schools with the intention of providing spouses for the men leaving boys’ schools, and for raising African children to love France. I think that these policies have more to do with African women’s illiteracy than Senghor’s poem does.
While I disagree with Miller that the poem silences African women, I concede one important point: Senghor’s woman exists on paper. I do so not because of the woman’s silence, but because the woman has no identity. The woman’s relationship to the poet remains vague, we are not sure if she is the poet’s mother, sister or lover. In the following line of the first stanza, it is suggested that she is the poet’s mother: “I have grown in the shadow while the sweetness of your hands cradled my eyes.” However, the poem does not give any other indicators of her identity. We are therefore left to wonder: Who is this woman? What are the poet’s personal feelings towards her? What does she do? Where does she live? The only question that the poem seems to answer, and quite generously at that, is – Is the woman beautiful? The poem leaves no doubt that the answer is affirmative.
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