Miriam Gyimah



"I could not understand them, yet I thought they were pleasant to hear."

Listen to these words....


Kon kon kon kon

kun kun kun kun

Funtimi Akore

Tweneboa Akore

Tweneboa Kodia

Kodia Tweneduru


Odomakoma’ Kyerema se

Odomakoma’ Kyerema se

Oko babi a

Oko babi a

wa ma ne-ho mene so oo

wa ma ne-ho mene so oo

akoko bon anopa


akoko tua bon

nhima hima hima

nhima hima hima...

ye re kyere wo

ye re kyere wo


The above words are utterances of a speaking drum in the Akan society of Ghana. The Atumpan, the name of this particular drum and also the title of this poem by Brathwaite, is used as a tool of communication. J. H. Kwabena Nketia explains that drum language involves not merely a communication through sound but one of words. It is a poetic text for linguistic communication rather than for playing music for dance. That the text is written and sounded in Akan and obviously not accessible to those unfamiliar with the language is significant to my argument but it is not my entire focus here. My contention here is that drum language would simply sound like noise or some form of music to one who does not know how to listen and determine the message of the text. Furthermore, I will be using the poem in this paper along with the above words of Robinson Crusoe to communicate a point regarding subaltern language.

Upon meeting Friday, Crusoe admits that although Friday’s words were sweet to his ears, he could not understand them. His means of correcting this was not to learn Friday’s language and thereby gain another tool of communication but to teach him English. Defoe’s text is not the only one which illustrates the need of the European to erase other texts and center his. Shakespeare’s The Tempest also demonstrates a similar situation as Prospero disregards Caliban’s mother tongue and replaces it with his language. A dialogue between Caliban and Prospero introduces questions regarding a privileged language.

Prospero: Abhorred slave, [w]hich any print of goodness wilt not take, Being/capable of all ill! I pitied thee, [t]ook pains to make thee speak,/taught thee each hour [o]ne thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,/Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like [a]thing most brutish,/I endow’d thy purposes [w]ith words that made them known...

Caliban: You taught me language; and my profit on’t [i]s, I know how to curse./The red plague rid you [f]or learning me your language.

Both Crusoe’s and Prospero’s use of language here is to subordinate another. Friday is said to be grateful for the use of his master’s language, but Caliban, allowed to speak, clearly declares that he has no purpose for a language used to oppress him except for cursing the one who taught it to him. Here, Caliban demonstrates that even as a victim, he can use the Master’s oppressive tool, his language, to resist imposed domination. Hence, even in his subordination, he claims agency. Caliban may no longer be able to hear the words of his mother’s speaking drum, but because he has been made to understand the Master’s text, he is able to utilize it for his self assertion. The arrogant and ethnocentric Prospero comments on Caliban’s supposed linguistic inferiority. The argument here regarding a privileged language is that both Friday’s and Caliban’s mother tongues are suppressed and eventually erased. The erasure then is often translated as a lack of language prior to encountering the European or sometimes, the erasure follows the reduction of the subaltern’s language to noise, gibberish or animalistic utterances. Disregarding the subaltern’s text allows for only the dominant’s account and presentation of the subaltern. But because Prospero and Crusoe cannot legitimately disclose Caliban or Friday’s narratives, since both masters do not have access to the meaning of the speaking drums, as a result of dismissing it as nonsense, they can only provide an inaccurate master text.

I began with the discussion of a subaltern and master text to illustrate that the majority of African texts remain outside the access of many readers and critics unless they, like the author, had made a specific journey into knowledge of the culture(s) of the characters presented in the works. I want to make a related argument about black women’s texts. This is a point often overlooked and not considered in the examination of the literary presentation of black women by others. The point is that portrayals of black women by anyone other than themselves is usually characterized and informed by racist-sexist perceptions. Part of the arrogance leading to such portrayals is the failure to acknowledge that one may not understand and therefore cannot accurately present and interpret another text. Hence, the insistence to colonize "unknown" texts has resulted in faulty depictions and is therefore part of the reason that black women writers/critics attempt to re-write and re-create themselves. As Abena Busia says in "Words Whispered Over Voids: A Context For Black Women’s Rebellious Voices in the Novel of the African Diaspora,"

[a]s black women we have recognized the need to rewrite or to reclaim our own herstories, and to define ourselves. We are not reaffirming our presence or ‘actualizing’ ourselves as if we have been absent, we know we never left; we are simply, but quite radically, reclaiming our own stories, which have for so long been told for us and been told wrong.

In another essay, "Silencing Sycorax: On African Colonial Discourse and the Unvoiced Female," Busia postulates that crucial to the act of black women’s presentation by the colonial text is their deliberate unvoicing. While arguing about the erasure of black women and their voices in colonial texts, Busia says of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that because Conrad conjures up the black female out of a void, "for her there can be no coherent or comprehensible language: not because it cannot be uttered, but because...her language either cannot be heard or cannot be understood." Busia’s analysis is important to my argument because what it proposes is a departure from questioning whether the subaltern can speak and asserting that she speaks but that her text is simply not understood. The subaltern woman is not mute as Guyatri Spivak had asserted, but is rather not heard. Carole Boyce Davies also argues in "Hearing Black Women’s Voices: Transgressing Imposed Boundaries," that instead of focusing on black women’s supposed voicelessness and thus, their disability, rather, the inability of the oppressors to HEAR or what she considers their "selective hearing" and "strategic deafness" should be critiqued and resisted.


(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)