English in Africa

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The classics, African literature, and the critics

Roger Field


Faced with the criticism that myth and epic poetry have no place in contemporary South African literature departments, there is no point in defending the material on the grounds of intrinsic worth. No text can claim this privilege. Instead, students and lecturers alike may find value and relevance for these works if they explore a range of aesthetic, conceptual, cultural, and political issues that close readings may precipitate. After analysing a fictional demonstration of how not to teach The Odyssey, the article surveys a range of writers and cultural critics who identify as African or African-American, and whose work comments directly and indirectly on the history of the meaning, purpose and value of selected ancient and classical Greek texts. This spectrum stretches from defensive cultural nationalism to an open-ended combination of the cosmopolitan and the vernacular. The article concludes that a combination of resistance and appropriation is the best way to make new and local these canonical texts.

Keywords: Homer, African literature, Hellenism, Postcolonial criticism, Achmat Dangor, Constantin Cavafy
AJOL African Journals Online