African literature refers to the literature of and for the African peoples. As George Joseph notes on the first page of his chapter on African literature in Understanding Contemporary Africa, while the European perception of literature generally refers to written letters, the African concept includes oral literature. As George Joseph continues, while European views of literature often stressed a separation of art and content, African awareness is inclusive: "Literature" can also imply an artistic use of words for the sake of art alone. Without denying the important role of aesthetics in Africa, we should keep in mind that, traditionally, Africans do not radically separate art from teaching. Rather than write or sing for beauty in itself, African writers, taking their cue from oral literature, use beauty to help communicate important truths and information to society. Indeed, an object is considered beautiful because of the truths it reveals and the communities it helps to build.
The storyteller speaks, time collapses, and the members of the
audience are in the presence of history. It is a time of masks.
Reality, the present, is here, but with explosive emotional images
giving it a context. This is the storyteller’s art: to mask the past, making it mysterious,
seemingly inaccessible. But it is inaccessible only to one’s present
intellect; it is always available to one’s heart and soul, one’s
emotions. The storyteller combines the audience’s present waking state
and its past condition of semiconsciousness, and so the audience walks
again in history, joining its forebears. And history, always more than
an academic subject, becomes for the audience a collapsing of time.
History becomes the audience’s memory and a means of reliving of an
indeterminate and deeply obscure past. Storytelling is alive, ever in transition, never hardened in
time. Stories are not meant to be temporally frozen; they are always
responding to contemporary realities, but in a timeless fashion.
Storytelling is therefore not a memorized art. The necessity for this
continual transformation of the story has to do with the regular fusing
of fantasy and images of the real, contemporary world. Performers take
images from the present and wed them to the past, and in that way the
past regularly shapes an audience’s experience of the present.
Storytellers reveal connections between humans—within the world, within
a society, within a family—emphasizing an interdependence and the
disaster that occurs when obligations to one’s fellows are forsaken.
The artist makes the linkages, the storyteller forges the bonds, tying
past and present, joining humans to their gods, to their leaders, to
their families, to those they love, to their deepest fears and hopes,
and to the essential core of their societies and beliefs.