El Kati
Mahmoud El Kati
Teacher, History Department
Macalester College

Givens Collection
Givens Foundation


The following is an excerpt of an interview for the documentary "Literature & Life: The Givens Collection." This excerpt features Mahmoud El Kati (Macalaster College) discussing the origins of African American literature.

What one needs to appreciate is that West Africans had a profoundly rich heritage, in literature already established. A way to tell stories; that's what literature is. And transmit ideas and values and all of that in some form that is recognizable. You know. Using certain techniques. The circulatory technique of Africans, how you tell stories. The point is not to get to the point right away. It's a form, that's literature.

So, when you, when speaking expressly of these Africans in the English-speaking world, when they clash with English, what you have is an on-going tradition of literature, clashing with the literature of written language. Which is, that English people had, at least the upper crust, had become dominated by literature that was written, for, for at least three or four centuries; since Shakespeare in 1512, the settling of American started in 1600. In Shakespeare's time, in his time most people didn't talk like Shakespeare. That was upper crust. They were still speaking vernacular. And most people couldn't read like that. So you're talking to the upper crust, talking about them, primarily.

So African people come into that tradition of written word literature, or literacy, as we call it. And what happened is very interesting. It's happened many times in human history, when you have two contrasting cultures clashing. The dominant culture imposes its will over the people. And the influences are obvious. Black people speak some form of English, some patois, some Creole, some, some Pidgin English kind of thing. And all this means is that the two languages are marrying one another.

And so we have kind of a new form. And what makes African Americans different, I think--unbeknownst to most people--they have two traditions. They have a tradition of oral literacy which goes back many centuries; and they evolved into a tradition of written literacy, from as early as the, late 17th, early 18th century. Of people being able to put some things down on paper. To speak out of an English context. To define themselves anew, where they had to re-perceive themselves.

And we see this in the writings of Jupiter Hammond, a slave on Long Island. Of Phyllis Wheatley in Massachusetts, in Boston, who wrote a book called Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Which was really the second book written by a woman in American literature, was written by a Black woman. See, she came up under the Wheatleys under a very nice circumstance. And learned to speak Latin and speak English and write in it very well.

And so we have that tradition in a kind of a written literature, certainly, by the time of what we call the American Independence Movement.

And that was, before the ink was dry on the Constitution real good, these Black freed men, lodged a protest, same thing that the young Americans did with respect to the English, in protesting against the taxation without representation. That's the first, whatever you say, that may be the origins of civil rights movement, you want to date it like that. You know, lead protests in the legal arena.


The following is an excerpt of an interview for the documentary "Literature & Life: The Givens Collection." This excerpt features Mahmoud El Kati discussing the importance of Frederick Douglass.

This is a unique human being, period. Having been born a slave, who transcended his moorings, his environment, in all sorts of ways, you know. He was actually, bigger than his life, as it were, you know. He was a unique person. Everybody who encountered Douglass thought that.

There's a piece of folklore which says that he was once mistaken for the President of the United States. When he went to visit Lincoln to advise him on the Negro question of that day, and that he was sitting in the outer office, in a dark corner, and he had this incredible countenance, you know a look that, this is somebody that, you know. And one of the senators or whoever came in to see Lincoln and he walked in the door--he had never been there before, apparently. And he looked in the corner and he saw this man with this bearing, 'cause it was dark and it couldn't be with the complexion, but he saw his, his silhouette and his sort of profile, and he walked up to him and asked him, "Are you the President of the United States?" And Douglass rose to his full height and said, "No," as if, you know, "Not really, I'm bigger than the President." (laughs) He said, "No, I'm not the President; I'm Frederick Douglass." You know, that's, that's the real deal, you know. And it is said that he comes off like that. We have enough evidence about these men, these two great figures, for that to be constructed. You know. In many, both of them of humble backgrounds, Lincoln being born free, Douglass a slave, who transcended their backgrounds and so forth. Who were in their own respective ways, geniuses of sorts. They were at least minor geniuses, you've got to give them that, both Lincoln and, and Douglass.

And Douglass, we can imagine how he spoke from his language, from his writings. His words lived; they jumped off the pages.

I think that, what is important about the literature of Frederick Douglass is simply this: If it were music, you would call it "classical." if it were religious, you would call it "timeless." But let's just say, his language is as fresh as today's newspaper. Much of it. You and I could sit here all-day and go in the writings of Frederick Douglass and cull out statements that fit exactly what we're living now. Almost exactly.

Douglass said, "The American people have this lesson to learn: They have to know that where poverty is in force and ignorance prevails, where any one class of people is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to rob, oppress and degrade them, then neither persons nor property will be safe. Because hungry men will eat, desperate men will commit crimes, outraged men will seek revenge." You know.

"You have this lesson to learn: Where ignorance prevails, poverty is in force," you know, "where justice is denied, where any one class of people are made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to rob, oppress or degrade them, then neither persons nor property will be safe."

I think, in every revolutionary situation, in every social change situation, words like these are created by the experience. I think Mao Tsetung said it, in other words; I think Ho Chi Minh said it, in other words. I think that, that Patrick Henry said it, in other words, you know. I mean, conditions find certain things, conditions create language. You know.

And there are some fundamental things about the human condition that are, that are universalisms. And that is about people who are oppressed, I don't care who they are, want to be free. All slaves are inherently subversive. I want to extend that. All people who are not free are inherently subversive. They want to subvert whatever the system is that's oppressing them. It has nothing to do with people's color or race, and that nonsense that we, you know, think we are.

But, you know, it's about the human spirit. Everybody, I think human beings have, most of us, most conscious human beings, have a glorious urge to be something better than they are at the moment. Most of us, you know, like. That's just human, it's got nothing to do--and it's relative, you know. As to where you are in time and space.

And so Douglass spoke for humanity when he said that, that "The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to or all those claims have been bought of earnest struggle. The conflict must be exciting, it must be agitating, it must be all-absorbing. And for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing for. If there is not struggle, there is no progress."

"Men who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want the rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean's majestic waves without the awful roar of its mighty waters.

"The struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one, or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will. You find out what a people will submit to, and you will have found out the exact amount of oppression and wrong that will be imposed upon them. And these will continue until they're restricted by words or blows or both. The limits of tyrants are proscribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

"So then, Black people will be held at the North, they will be flogged at the South, so long as they submit to these devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men and women may not get all they pay for in this world, but they sure as hell must pay for all they get. So then, if we ever get free from all the oppressions and wrongs imposed upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by sacrifice, by suffering, and if need be, by our lives, and if necessary, by the lives of others."

That's a revolutionary statement. And it's a statement on behalf of the unwashed masses of the world. Frederick Douglass said it way back in 1856.