Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Fall 2011 Newsletter

Africa and the Archive:
Researching the Transcription Centre

By Samantha Pinto

Woman sitting at library table. Click to enlarge.

Samantha Pinto received a research fellowship to work in the Transcription Centre collection.

Printed program. Click to enlarge.

IFE Festival of the Arts program, dated December 10-19, 1968, from the Transcription Centre collection.

Approaching an archive that very few scholars have written about can be a daunting task, and that is exactly what I encountered in taking on the wide-ranging Transcription Centre archive at the Ransom Center. The Transcription Centre was an organization for African literature and culture based in London, with complicated roots in Cold War, CIA-funded initiatives against socialism on the continent, as well as in diasporic writing communities of expatriate and visiting writers from Africa and the Caribbean. Its range was short in terms of time period (1962–1977) but vast in terms of medium. Serial radio programming, radio and televisual dramas, arts festivals, political interviews, and various literary publications fill its folders, along with copious correspondence with many authors who have since become the luminaries of contemporary African literature, from Wole Soyinka to Ama Ata Aidoo.

The challenge with such a wide-ranging archive was to resist the urge to include everything—to trust that writing about a small part of the Transcription Centre's world would illuminate its larger significance. I chose to focus on the Centre's radio program, "Africa Abroad," with transcripts of broadcasts from 1962–1963, in order to demonstrate the intersection of the Centre's historical context (Africa's emergent, independent states coming to power in the midst of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and post-war migration to London from former Anglophone colonies) with the new voices coming out of the art scenes of the continent in the same period. What I found in the radio program were frank discussions of politics, aesthetics, genre, and the diaspora experience, often in the form of trenchant critiques of African-American incorporations of and newfound fascinations with Africa. There are also cutting critical pieces on what African art and writing should or shouldn't be, including coverage of the African Writers Conference at Makerere University in 1962 where the debate over the use of English in African literature originated.

If the questions debated in "Africa Abroad" point toward the constraints and canonization that were to follow in contemporary African literature, they also introduce a surprising set of lesser-known texts. Satellite writing from "Africa Abroad" contributors is included in the Transcription Centre's collection, writing that attempts to enter into and transcend the debates that are so active in the radio program's context. But reading through the Centre's archive, including the radio transcripts, is also to engage in a lost minor canon. I was introduced to forgotten texts, texts that never made it out of their time period or their geographic area except for mention in the Transcription Centre archives. One example was Rebecca Njau's play The Scar, an award-winning, one-act play concerning female genital mutilation in 1962, far before it became a popular topic of Western-led aid (and one of the comparatively few texts by a woman author referenced in the collection, although "Africa Abroad" does try to take up "the woman question" in Africa and the diaspora at several points). These connections could easily lead to threads picked up by other Ransom Center collections, like that of African-American playwright Adrienne Kennedy, who writes of and from Africa in the same time period.

Beyond a catalog of both well-circulated and neglected literary and artistic texts, the Transcription Centre also offers a link to a critical international era, one where "Africa" becomes the focus of international attention politically and culturally, and where those two domains are specifically (and often problematically) intertwined in targeted programs like the Congress for Cultural Freedom that sponsored the Transcription Centre. I took the virtually untouched scope of the Transcription Centre as a sign, symptom, and antidote to the way that Africa as a complex continent exists in contemporary discourse and in contemporary literature. The collection offers a glimpse into the continent's modern emergence from colonial history, how it imagined itself, and how it was imagined by both African writers and more subtle neocolonial powers at this pivotal mid-century moment. Broadly, then, it offers present-day scholars of African literature and politics a way to trace the formation of discourse around the continent that challenges notions of African corruption, victimization, and the predominance of foreign aid. In all its complexity, the Transcription Centre's depth also opens up how those dominant representations of Africa in the West came to pass after a powerful but deeply compromised articulation of African agency in the 1960s.  

Samantha Pinto is an Assistant Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at Georgetown University. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the intersection of literary aesthetics, diaspora studies, and transnational feminist thought, entitled Intimate Migrations. Her work on the Transcription Centre is part of a second book project on African Diaspora celebrity and human rights, and her research was funded by a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She returns to the Ransom Center as a fellow in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at The University of Texas at Austin in 2011–2012.

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