The Children of Wounded Warriors: from Okara to Beyond
by Ashish Dwivedi
Often lauded as the “first Modernist poet of Anglophone Africa”, Gabriel Okara (1921-2019) has been a prominent Nigerian poet and novelist who is celebrated for having indigenized African literature by investing it with a local sonority and a pan-African significance. In doing so, he joins hands with other acclaimed names as Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), and Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967)- whereas the timelessness of his poetic voice finds treasured in works like The Voice (1964), The Fisherman’s Invocation (1978), The Dreamer, His Vision (2005), and As I See It (2006).
The image of Gabriel Okara, however, personally-speaking, appears unforgettable in an oft-anthologized poem, entitled “You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed”, that is a scathing critique of the machiavellian paraphernalia of European modernity, and outlives amongst “the best of Senghor’s nostalgic verse [and] the militancy of many of David Diop’s lyrics” (Echeruo, 1992).
Upheld as “a quintessential expression of African humour”, as Echeruo avouches, the monologue opens with a reference to a European colonialist, scoffing at the African way of life, who emanates as being incarcerated within a psychic cave of his deluded imagination, and who is blind to the enchanting cultural expressions of Africa (that are further communicated via the speaker’s ‘song’). This situation is a brief explanation of the cultural construction of the ‘White Man Laughs’, which finds its complete meaning in Chinua Achebe’s radical essay of postcolonialist philosophy, “Colonialist Criticism” (1988), and that registers Achebe’s anger towards European ignorance and racial bigotry that had plagued the roots of humanity.
The monologue follows the tradition of literature wherein ‘laughter’ is employed as a metaphor for angry resistance- this could ring a bell in feminist discourse, thanks to Hélène Cixous (b. 1937) and the philosophy of ‘Medusa’s laughter’ which was further experimented in Indian feminist discourse by writers like Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) and Kamala Das (1934-2009). Nonetheless, Okara employs it to serve his own personal ends, draped in the spirit of anti-imperialism. It is surprising to note that the purpose of the ‘laughter’ is three-fold: i. a gesture made by the colonialist to repudiate the African cultural symbols; ii. a symbol of passive acceptance of the colonialist’s superiority by the colonized and iii. an act of courage- by the African speaker- to fight back and defend the cultural prestige of Africa (Azuonye, 2011):
“You laughed at my song,
you laughed at my walk.
. . .
You laughed at my dance,
you laughed at my inside.”
Four other antithetical tropes further support the magnitude of the speaker’s laughter- in the shape of ‘song’, ‘walk’, ‘dance’, and ‘inside’- and combine together to (1) paralyze the cold repugnance of the colonizer’s gaze, and (2) celebrate the authentic and individual flavours and features of the speaker’s Africa. The tropes vehicle the potential of the speaker’s natural ‘laughter’ to vilify the unnaturalness of the mocking colonialist’s laughter:
“but my laughter is not
ice-block laughter. For I
know not cars, know not ice-blocks.”
The monologue concludes with the speaker’s association of his laughter (epitomizes meaningful human existence) with ‘fire’ in its varied manifestations (Azuonye, 2011), metaphorically comparing himself to the supreme elements of nature that helps in the sustenance of life on earth. This metaphorical streak of comparisons aids the speaker’s struggle to thaw the pretensions of Eurocentrist cultural arrogance and awaken the colonialist to the richness of the African cultural heritage. Okara’s pursuit seems to achieve fruition when the colonialist’s question (“Why so?”) is answered via the speaker’s acknowledgement of his forefathers as the children of earth.
As a monumental pièce de résistance, recording the genius of Okara, “You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed” emerges as a poignant expression of the colonizer vs. colonized tension(s) that are confronted and challenged by an African intellectual who soon silences “the colonizer’s… contemptuous disparagement of [the] indigenous African culture” (Parekh, 1998). It has been a favourite since the first time I chanced upon it during my Master’s, and it was a joy to go back to my archives and relish its treasures again. If you are interested in expanding your oeuvre (around works like this), kindly refer to The Shadow of Laughter (1968) by Kwesi Brew, Path of Thunder (1971) by Christopher Okigbo, and Decolonising the Mind (1986) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I call all them, the children of wounded warriors.
- Azuonye, C. (2011). ‘The White Man Laughs’: Commentary on the satiric dramatic monologues of Gabriel Okara. Africana Studies Faculty Publication Series, 3. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.umb.edu/africana_faculty_pubs/3/
- Echeruo, M.J.C. (1992). Gabriel Okara: A poet and his seasons. World Literature Today, 66(3), 454-456. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/40148369.pdf
- Parekh, P.N. & Jagne, S.F. (1998). Postcolonial African writers: A bio-bibliographical critical sourcebook. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
- The African Book Review. (2014). You laughed and laughed and laughed / Gabriel Okara. Retrieved from https://theafricanbookreview.com/2014/05/09/you-laughed-and-laughed-and-laughed-gabriel-okara/