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5000 Years of African Literature

Walter Cohen, University of Michigan

February 7, 2023 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 219 Aaron Burr

Committee on Renaissance and Early Modern Studies

2022-2023 CREMS Faber Lecture

This talk’s central claim is that Africa has a 5000-year literary history. Why does such a possibility remain almost entirely unrecognized? How well does the extant evidence support such a claim? And what difference might the answers to these questions make? The presentation takes up each of these matters in turn. It approaches the first by looking at the organization of academic programs—what they enable and obscure. The second follows the successive fortunes of various African writing systems, from ancient Egyptian to the present, including indigenous and imported literary languages. Transmission is traced via direct connections among these languages; through the reconstruction of oral linkages, where possible, and utilizing extra-African relays, with the African literary diaspora constituting a brief if recurrent, motif. Finally, the conclusion reviews several issues raised by the preceding survey—the rationale for disciplinary divisions, the ethical and political resonances (if any), the (un)importance of contributions to knowledge, the relationship between broad historical summary and close reading of texts, the tension between continuity and rupture in literary traditions, the importance of geography in literary networks, and, not least, the relative hierarchy of African literary languages.

Respondent: Wendy Laura Belcher, Professor of Comparative Literature and African American Studies, Princeton University

Chair: Ousseina Alidou, Professor of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures, Rutgers University

Walter Cohen is a Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, after having taught from 1980 to 2014 in Comparative Literature at Cornell University, where he received a distinguished teaching award and held various college and university administrative positions for two decades (including Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost of the University). He is the author of Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Cornell UP, 1985), A History of European Literature: The West and the World from Antiquity to the Present (Oxford UP, 2017), and of numerous articles on Renaissance literature, literary criticism, the history of the novel, and world literature. He is also one of the editors of The Norton Shakespeare (3rd ed., 2015). His current research interests include the literature on ecological catastrophe, the history of African literature, the languages of Jewish literature, the social agency of written language, and the role of social class in literary study.

Reception to follow the presentation
Please RSVP to blleavey@princeton.edu if you plan to attend


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