The Dark Child
The Dark Child is Camara Laye's autobiography, tracing the development of his cultural and personal values as a young man coming of age within the Malinke tribe of Upper Guinea during the 1930's. After his death, Guinean writer Camara Laye was rightfully acclaimed by The New York Times Book Review as his continent's preeminent novelist. He is the author of several well-known pieces of literature, the most widely-read and taught being The Dark Child (1954) and The African Child (1953, translated in 1955 into English).
No where in his autobiography do we see evidence of the primitive, dark, "uncivilized" culture of Africa as depicted in classic colonial works like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but instead encounter a quiet, solid, emotionally-scaffolded narrative, in the context of sophisticated nonfiction that calmly relays milestones in the author's childhood and young adult experience. Both the supernatural realm and traditional Muslim religion are depicted as minor characters orchestrating Laye's evolution from young boy to "adult male" and provide a rich backstory to the narrative.
the more poignant descriptions in the book occurs about midway through
the biography, with Laye's tale of his tribal initiation into manhood
by enduring the circumcision ritual during his earlier teen (approximately
14-15) years. He participates in a festival consisting of public and private
ceremonies for "several days" and later a period of physical
healing and recovery from the circumcision itself for over one month (Laye
112, 130). Laye spends his days of recovery lounging on a mat with the
other young men, isolated from his family for the most part, allowed only
to visit with his mother and father from a distance between the end of
the ceremony and the day he is able to walk home comfortably (130-132).
after moving into his hut, Laye leaves at 15 years of age to attend "Ecole
Georges Poiret, now known as the technical college" in Guinea's capital
city of Conakry (136). Like any mother, Laye's warns him to "be careful
with strangers" and sends him off on a train to live with his Uncles
Sekou and Mamadou in Conakry, sadly (144). In the school, in a new city
for the first time in his experience, Laye encounters difficult language
barriers and a hot, humid climate more taxing and oppressive than that
in his Koroussa home (155). In some sense it is a metaphor for the psychological
and sociological systems under which he finds himself strained.
is more evident in Conakry than in Koroussa. French is the dominant spoken
and written language, and Laye's school is being revamped under French
reform to include both "technical and practical training" and
not just trade skills (157). Laye lives the life of a typical college
or boarding school student, studying at the school's campus and returning
home to Koroussa during breaks.
years after leaving for Conakry, Laye returns home with his "proficiency
certificate" and a "troublesome" offer from the director
of his school to continue his studies through a scholarship, in France,
many hours from Koroussa (179). While his uncles and father support and
encourage him to take the foreign study opportunity, Laye's mother is
less enthusiastic, forbidding him to accept the offer. Laye accepts the
offer despite his mother's resistance to the idea, and parts with her
and his father during a heartbreaking scene with Laye's mother shouting
insults and pushing him away, then falling into a heap of tears, grasping
her son and turning her anger instead to the European influences she perceives
as taking her son away to France- justifiably so (186). The disruption
of family life in the push-and-pull created by Europe's French Colonial
rubbing against existing culture in Guinea in 1947, is most evident during
the last few chapters of the book.
The Dark Child fits well with a number of postcolonial works of literature, both within the continent of Africa and in the world at large. Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God or Things Fall Apart, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness can work well to create a multi-layered, polyvocal conversation with The Dark Child. Achebe's work is similar to Laye's in that we receive detailed accounts of family and tribal rituals, customs, and ceremonies through the stories the characters tell us. Laye's autobiographical narrative differs from Arrow of God for example, in that he renders the story from the first person point of view, and we receive only a picture of his experience growing up in Guinea, without an exploration into his immediate and extended family's perspective on life in Kouroussa.
Achebe creates more
distance between readers and the novel's characters through his use of
the third person point of view, making it slightly more like a chronology
than story at times. Achebe exposes several dimensions of African colonization,
involving both the "native" and British colonizer's sides as
contributors to a base plot. The action takes place during the 1920's
implementation of indirect rule, as it altered the social and political
structures of the Ibo tribe in Nigeria, run by leaders like Achebe's Ezeulu.
The motives and actions of the British officers controlling the Ibo's
land, Captain Winterbottom and Tony Clark, are highlighted against the
life we witness through the eyes of Ezeulu's family. This European vantage
point of colonization does not surface as strongly in The Dark Child,
but acts more as a back story to the action Laye takes to attend school,
leave home, etc.
The divisive, controversial debate over whether their sons should attend European (or missionary) schools is a point of convergence between Arrow of God and The Dark Child. In Arrow of God, Ezeulu's son Edogo also leaves his immediate home to study at the Christian missionary school to be educated by the British (Achebe, 46). Laye's father too agrees to send him to Conakry and pushes him after secondary school to accept the scholarship to college in Paris. Ezeulu sends his son off with feelings of hope and anxiety, knowing his "blessing" to attend the school has sent a strong political message to British colonizers. Laye's father experiences similar feelings, sending him away with a map- the best support he can offer from thousands of miles away. Laye's decision to attend the Paris college is, in some ways, a political decision as well. By accepting the offer, he too sends a message of support for French values despite objections by his mother.
This theme is also explored in Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood.
I. In Arrow
of God, the concept of polygamy is depicted among Ezeulu and his
several wives. Women are more or less property for Ezeulu, and all Ibo
men for the most part (172). Ezeulu utilizes his wives to carry out daily
life activities for his extended family, giving each a separate hut within
his large compound of dwellings. The women each take on separate duties
each day, and switch up their responsibilities throughout the weeks (64-65).
In The Dark Child,
West African women, namely Laye's mother, play similar roles in their
relationships with their sons and husbands. Laye claims early in his autobiography
that his mother has separated him from her other children and keeps him
close by in her hut. He is privileged among his other siblings, and speaks
little of them throughout his story. His father usually undermines the
feelings and authority of Laye's mother, openly vetoing her decisions
to keep Laye from attending school in the city, or playing with groups
of village boys and girls.
II. In Research in African Literature, in an article by Patricia Duffy, "To Paris and Back: Seeking a Balance," a thorough discussion develops around Laye's struggle with assimilation into French culture- against several other African postcolonial autobiographies. In it, she examines the wisdom or rather naivety, of Laye's commentary as he leaves Koroussa for Paris. She suggests he is more displaced than anything else, citing examples from the end of the book where he locates the subway map given him by his father, and sits in confusion on the plane, pondering his next course of action. The "balance" she refers to is finding a middle ground of truth considering Laye's bias and naive age, the Colonialism coloring his experience, and his experience weighed against other African writer's coming of age chronicles. The article has rich potential for setting up a comparison/contrast writing assignment or essay questions. It would also be a good piece to weigh against Laye's autobiography after it has been read as a class, to create discussion around where the "balance" does lie.
Links to Information on the Author
1. Summary of works & brief biography of Laye. Includes text extracted from The African Child and notable information about the author's life. ***
2. Brief biography & bibliography of Laye. Webguinee.net's thumbnail sketch of the author's writing life and bibliography of links to several of his more well-known works. **
3. Purchase The Dark Child at Amazon.com. Link to buying information for new & used copies of the book, and customer reviews.*
4. Biography and index of works by Laye. A thorough biography, list of works by Laye, links to The Dark Child information, and recommendations for newer readers of authors similar to Laye for additional reading.***
More on Guinea, its geography, arts & people
of Guinea, & facts about Guinea climate, people, political system
and more. An excellent site with many links to maps, climate
reviews, political profiles and much more. Very easy to use.***
& information about Guinea music. Highlights some of the more
popular musical composers and performers from Guinea, and includes sample
lyrics and music reviews.**
6. French& English: Explore Personal Web Sites of Guinean people A get-to-know citizens placing biographical, personal, and professional information about themselves on the net for others to experience. A diverse offering of personal sites, some links don't work, but most do and those offer an interesting perspective from that you'd encounter in a history book. ***
7. Detailed information on the jembe, Guinean percussion instrument described by Laye in his autobiography, an article by Eric Charry, written for Percussive Notes, in April, 1996. The instrument's heritage has been associated with the class of professional blacksmiths ("numu") in the region of Guinea where Laye grew up, as a son of a numu.***
8. Essay on the concept of time as it's changed through artist's treatment of it in their literature. The articles touches on post-colonial literature, & specifically how Laye approaches the linear time concept in Le Regard du roi (1954).**
9. Art traditions of West Africa. A Guggenheim museum on-line preview of its exhibit. Includes historical information and West African sculptures and castings found through archaeological digs.***
10. The Advent of Islam in West Africa. The religion of Laye's childhood as depicted in The Dark Child. A brief history and map of where and how Islam established its roots in West Africa.***
11. African links to film, literature, and cultural information. A table of contents of major sites linking to a plethora of more specialized sites providing quality information on this amazing continent and its people.***
7. Educational System of Guinee. Articles & description of the public education offered to students in Guinee. ***
8. Guinee Government Official site (hear the national anthem). Even if you don't speak French, you can listen to the National Anthem of Guinea! Many links to more in-depth information about visiting and learning about the country. **
Relevant Teaching Web Sites:
1. Study questions & novel review. Chapter-by-chapter review questions from a professor of Non-Western literature. Highlights important characters, ceremonies, themes, and settings from the Dark Child.**
2. A student's reflections on The Dark Child. An interpretation by a university literature student of Laye's strategy in constructing this novel and speculation as to the author's views of God and African culture.**
3. Read student reflections on A Dream of Africa, compared against The Dark Child. A university literature student's book report.**
4. Curriculum unit on teaching African literature in English & study questions for The Dark Child, includes annotated bibliographies for teachers and students and activities that work well to introduce post-colonial themes when reading modern African literature texts.***
5. Chinua Achebe Information & Teaching Resources. A thorough overview of Achebe's life, literary works, themes in his writing, and links to more broad information on African politics, religion, history, etc. A very rich site. ***
Essay writing ideas:
Out of many postcolonial texts can come many interesting and critical student papers, ones that may relate well to student's own personal life experiences and cultural backgrounds. In Educating the Imagination, one of the contributing authors, Margot Fortunato Galt presents her ideas for writing a tall tale based on the American Frontier experience. I've adapted this to fit more of the Colonial experience, in Africa specifically.
Colonial Story in History: Writing a tale, or tall tale based on the Colonization
Read an excerpt from
a true life account of African life to suggest some origins of the current
or old views/stereotypes of African peoples. [Laye, Achebe, Conrad's work
would all provide solid starting points for this writing.]
Read models of student's character writing in peer review groups.
Step Five: Shaping
II. Writing Assignment: "The Folklore of Childhood."
Elizabeth Radin Simons
devised a writing unit based on "The Folklore of Childhood,"
a fitting companion writing assignment for The Dark Child and many
other colonial narratives or autobiographies (Edgar & Padgett, 149).
Day One: Begin
with nostalgia. Ask the students to brainstorm after asking them to, "Tell
[you] me about some of the games you played as a child, ones you learned
from other children." Develop a list of the games and record on a
board or overhead sheet. This is like an oral prewriting exercise, and
answers like "Jacks? I used to play jacks." can be followed
up with a request for more detail for future writing such as "what
do you remember about playing jacks specifically?", "why do
you think you remember this game?"
Day Two: Creating
the Master Game List
Choosing a topic & Writing the First Draft
Day Five: Starting the Research- Interviewing: Students now work on obtaining interviews from three people: an older person who remembers playing their game as a child; a peer who also remembers the game; and a child who is currently playing the game. Devise the interview questionnaire in class, and have students practice asking these questions to one another.
Day Six: Scholarly Analysis of Children's Folklore: Examining the writing of published folklorists, and literary criticism on them. One suggested text by Simons is: "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren" by Iona and Peter Opie.
Day Seven: Student Analysis of Children's Folklore. After writing memories of their own folklore topic, conducting several interviews, and examined work by professional folklorists, they are prepared to construct their own analyses. Simons suggests students using their own papers for starting texts as a prewriting activity. After exchanging their papers with another student, the reader writes down their impression of the function of folklore. Following this in-class analysis, students draft their own ideas on why the folklore they study has remained alive in oral or written tradition.
Day Eight: Writing the Final Draft. Some students turn in three drafts, and more advanced writers may turn in one incorporating their memory, description of folklore, and an analysis of it. She also publishes the final product in a class anthology at the end of the unit where students can showcase their best pieces and take home a personalized folklore collection.
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1967, second edition, 1974. Originally published by The John Day Company, 1967.
Burgos-Debray, Elizabeth, ed. I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. New York, NY: Verso, 1984.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 1990. Originally published in Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories. London, Great Britain: William Blackwood & Sons, 1902.
Edgar, Christopher and Padgett, Ron. Educating the Imagination, Volume Two. New York, NY: Teacher's & Writer's Collaborative, 1994.
Hirschberg, Stuart. One World, Many Cultures. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1995.
Laye, Camara. The Dark Child. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1954.
Stoller, Paul. Embodying Colonial Memories. New York, NY: Routledge, 1995.
Duffy, Patricia D. "To Paris and Back: Seeking a Balance." Research in African Literature 31 (March 2000): 12-25.