ART CHECK

Salute to literary fathers as sociocultural patriarchs

The world recently marked Father's Day. It's time to revisit it from literary perspective

In Summary

• Fatherhood is a platform for visions for a better world in good times and bad

Jean-Paul Sartre,
Jean-Paul Sartre,
Image: COURTESY

Last week, Kenyans joined the rest of the world in celebrating Father’s Day on Sunday. Various acts of verbal and physical kindness were showered on the patriarchs of our society.

Notably, the media saluted Health CS Mutahi Kagwe as he marked 100 days in office as a father of our national campaign against the new global pandemic. Under his watch, men and women of resolute commitment have woven our coping strategies to stave off the vile virus.

Fatherhood is best expressed as a platform for provision of leadership and strategic vision. It is a social role extending beyond the natural responsibility of fathering to the social one of nurturing offspring. Whenever we encounter deadbeat dads, we decry their abdication from this social mandate to nurture their scion.

Good fathers are those who sire and inspire their offspring through words, acts and presence of support. They hold the hands of their wards in life and walk the talk of their once-convincing courtship poetry, coquettish persuasion and winsome seduction of the children’s mothers.

 

Non-biological fathers exist, too. Mentor or patron is the word we normally use to refer to them. How many can you count in your life as you safeguard the life donated to you by your biological mother and father?

In the literary world, on the same June 21st but 115 years ago, the birth of a unique father occurred. In 1905, the father of the existentialism movement in literature, Jean-Paul Sartre, was born in Paris. He was a major French writer, philosopher and adroit anti-colonial campaigner.

By the end of his life of three-quarters of a century, he would leave a legacy that astounds many far and wide to this day. Is it not him who in 1964, as our republic here was being born, turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature in the spirit of freedoms?

In 1940s, at the height of anticolonial movement and campaigns against European colonialism and racialism, it is Sartre who towered high in support of black cultural struggles in the Francophone world.

Though a white person himself, born in the Parisian manger of European enlightenment, he vivaciously threw his intellectual energies into the anticolonial bandwagons of black intellectuals, led by Leopold Sedar Senghor. The latter was the first president of Senegal, that bastion of assimilation policy of colonial France.

Sapiosexual Sartre and his lover Simone de Beauvoir, the matriarch of French feminism, were at the helm of a post-war generation of French thinkers who aided the birth of European post-structuralism.

In 1948, he presented the first extensive literary exposition of the Negritude movement and its existential thoughts. Sartre wrote a blistering essay, entitled ‘Black Orpheus’, undressing the vacuity of European jingoism.

It appears as preface for the first anthology of poetry by black poets from the French colonies entitled, Anthology of New Black and Madagascan Poems in French. This landmark text was compiled and edited by Senghor, himself a poet and one of the fathers of modern African poetry.

Scholars both European and African who study Sartre’s patronage legacy in the literary world of the last century agree on his prominent role as a cogent theorist of decolonisation and the cultural politics of colonial Africa. They include the doyen of African literary criticism and prominent Africanist from Nigeria, the late Prof Francis Abiola Irele, formerly of Harvard University.

One recalls here Abiola’s with reference to reification of the ideals of Sartre in his article, “A Defence of Negritude”, published by Wole Soyinka in 1976 in the famous international review, Transition. This landmark journal is currently housed by the Hutchin Centre for African and African American Research at Harvard but was founded here in East Africa in Kampala by the late Rajat Neogy.

Rajat got jailed on seditious grounds by the Obote regime and Soyinka, who mentored Abiola in University of Ibadan in the early 70s, took over Transition as editor and patron between 1971 and 1976. 

Jean-Paul Sartre played a critical role in shaping anticolonial thought of a phalanx of young black intellectuals in the 1940s to 1960s. Many of these luminaries became champions of their own people in the long march towards freedom and self-determination. They include Senghor and Aime Cesaire, the Caribbean poet and statesman who mentored Frantz Fanon. Fanon is one of the foremost influences on the intellectual thoughts of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. 

 

The place of Ngugi as a patriarch of literature in our corner of the world needs no belabouring. As we mark this end of the mid-summer month, it rings true that fatherhood is not only biological but sociological and cultural also. Fatherhood is a platform for visions for a better world to predecessors in times of light and even in the darkest of days, be they colonial or coronal.