In Maryse Condé’s The Last of the African Kings, the main characters have been dispersed throughout the Caribbean and United States due to years of oppression and colonialism. In the preface to the novel, Richard Philcox writes: “African American music influences not only the atmosphere of the novel but also its structure.”
He continues by saying, “Just as Jazz is a reworking of African rhythms so the structure of the book reworks the links between Africa, the place of origin, and its Diaspora of Guadeloupe and South Carolina” (ix). This constant movement has created an ever-changing development in their art and culture. Condé’s novel depicts how the constant movement from one society to another creates new directions for the African culture.
Jazz creates an expression of African emotions and beats. Rhythm and syncopation are most key to the structure of jazz.
“Rhythms became one of the most important elements of this rich cultural expression that would find its way into the folk and religious music of white European Colonists. The unlikely mixture of such diverse cultural activities between black and white people produced the basic elements for jazz music in terms of rhythm and harmony” (Yurochko 4).
Throughout the development of jazz, there have been different genres of jazz including, ragtime, bebop, swing, etc, but fundamentally jazz is the culmination of African tribal sounds and traditional brass and woodwind instruments. The rapid evolution of jazz from one style to another reflects the changing African culture.
While analyzing Jazz as a constantly changing sound, one can see the connections to the African culture within the music. As the beginnings of African king culture started in Benin so did the tribal sounds of African music. From there the African culture swept to the Caribbean where they picked and engulfed new cultural influences and infusing them with the traditional African traditions. As with Jazz, the movement from Africa to the Americas brought about new sounds that developed an alternative, creative form of music.
In the United States Jazz continued to develop. In New Orleans, New York, and all across America, jazz became popularized by great artists such as Charlie Parker, Louie Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. As the jazz movement evolved in America, so did the African American culture. With movements like the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans began new forms of art and exploration.
From the beginning of the African culture in Benin to the depressing aftermath in South Carolina, the trail of African culture is constantly changing. The opening scene in the novel entails Spero having a reoccurring nightmare about his ancestors in Benin. He has haunting images of his ancestors running through his head in disgust and sadness.
“Djéré, Spero’s grandfather, was cradled on the far left in the arms of the oldest queen; this blissful, apparently loved illegitimate son, however, would be left behind by the family together with other relics when they returned to Africa. This abandonment would drastically affect Djéré’s entire existence and that of his descendants” (Condé 5).
Spero, being a descendant of Djéré feels this abandonment and in turn, cannot connect with his past. His inability to fully embrace his ancestors has spawned a new culture which can be seen through the eyes of his daughter, Anita. Spero, a man of few morals, reflects the unfortunate happenings of his ancestors through his affairs with women and alcohol. If he was content with his past, he wouldn’t have to drink all the time to erase his painful memories.
On one level, he seems aware of the sins he commits but subconsciously through his dreams he appears haunted by the memories of his past. “He had been having the same dream for two years, three or four times a week…. What sadness was hidden at the bottom of his heart” (Condé 5). As Condé emphasizes throughout the novel, the history of the African heritage exists in their culture forever, regardless of whether or not one chooses to embrace it. Spero’s acknowledgment of this fact truly has made him a flawed character. Condé writes:
“He really was suffocating in Charleston! He had his fill of black churches, black universities, and black stories by black friends! Sometimes he was taken with the urge to go home. Take a plane. Land at le Raizet…. But can you return home empty-handed with holes in your pockets….He was one of those immigrants whose stories are best left untold so as not to frighten candidates about to leave” (Condé 27).
It is evident here that Spero appears to struggle with his personal identity. He lives in America but feels disconnected from his peers, but his past in the Caribbean and before are too troubled to return to, so in turn, he lives in confusion.
In any family household, the parent-child relationship has a profound impact on the mentality of the offspring. As for Spero’s daughter, Anita, witnessing her father as an unemployed glutton has had an extreme impression on how she views not only her father but her own culture and history. To balance her life, Anita’s mother, Debbie has made an effort to form her into a respectable woman.
Debbie, who is the breadwinner in the family, provides the role-model status for Anita by having her be educated and cultured from an American perspective. Ironically enough, throughout the lineage of their African heritage, the men have always fallen short and it is the women who maintain and preserve their culture.
Sometimes in society when one’s relationship with one’s father becomes shattered, those feelings are reciprocated to their kin. Spero’s lack of fatherhood can be linked to the severed bond between Spero and Justin (Spero’s father). When Spero lived with Justin in Martinique, he meant the world to Justin. It was Justin’s dream to have Spero pass on the heritage that came from Benin, but when Spero denied his own culture and moved to the United States, this tore Justin apart.
“He was shattered when Spero left for America” (Condé 37).
Similar to how Spero had issues with his father, Justin had trouble connecting to his father, Djéré.
“Justin could not bear his father…. Why did Djéré just sit at the dining room table, dipping his pen into a glass inkwell, scribbling and scratching from morning to late afternoon on pieces of paper, and in the evening when he was drunk, telling stories that nobody could make head or tail of?” (Condé 29).
The troubling relationships in Martinique and Guadeloupe are not at all different from those in South Carolina. Just as Debbie controlled the positive flow of African influence into the next generation, Marisa provided the same support for when Justin was of no service. It seems that in the evolution of the African movement the women have played the strongest role in preserving and forwarding their own heritage. On the other side, the men appear to be the characters that lack structure and stability. They generally are absent from their own family and drown themselves with alcohol. Their jobless, sloth ways only hinder the positive movement of their culture.
In the novel, The Last of the African Kings the ethnic trail from Africa to the United States created many ups and downs for their culture. The constant change from location created new influences in language, music, and art. The collaboration of all the positive and negative outcomes of the developing heritage has shaped the African community into what it appears today. Just as Jazz moves and changes over time, with the advent of new genres like bebop and swing, so did the characters of The Last of the African Kings.
The cycle of African displacement and movement has created a contemporary culture that’s rooted in the history of the old Africa with the hopes and aspirations of the new African society. At the end of the novel, Anita continues her education and proves herself to be a respectable woman. She stands as the new hope for the African culture in the family lineage.
“The fact of continuous singing and dancing by the African from his home to shipboard to a new home on an ocean away proves one thing: The African never stops such activities any more than he stops breathing” (Lovell 49-50).
Whether it stems from music or ancestry, the African culture will always be moving, changing, evolving and rearranging itself forever.