Human Rights as Liberatory Social Thought

Sefi Atta

This chapter is premised on the idea that writing is a social activity and that to think of the human rights of individuals is to think of these rights in society at large. The practice of human rights liberates not only the individual, but also society.

The history of African literature cannot be fully conceptualized without reference to sociopolitical and cultural liberation.1 Harry Garuba, writing about Nigerian poetry, suggests that the Achebe-Soyinka generation were “Modernist-Nationalists.” He argues that nationalist tropes characterized the writings of the age, and “since such tropes often require a looking back in time, sometimes to pre-historic times, to recall the original unity and coherence of self and society, a recuperative urge is certainly present in their poetry.”2 By recuperative urge, Garuba means the need of the age to recover aspects of the past as a means of justifying the present. Therefore, nation, culture, and people were very much present in the thinking of this age, and the ideals surrounding these were presented largely in contrast to those of the West. What Garuba says about Achebe and Soyinka, of course applies to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Sembene Ousman, and other African writers of their generation.

The third-generation writers are still engaged with the task of liberation, but this time around they are more interested in liberating people from themselves, from their delusions of grandeur and from the everyday violence they use against one another. These writers are engaged in an ethical

© The Author(s) 2016 165

C. Eze, Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, Comparative Feminist Studies,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40922-1_7

reconstruction as a social project. Sefi Atta articulates this project best; and she does so by showing the role of moral consciousness as a sociopolitical tool. Based on readings of her two novels, Everything Good Will Come3 and Swallow,4 this chapter seeks to show the nexus between the abuse of the human rights of individuals and of those of society. Atta’s macro argument is directed at society as a place where human rights thrive. I do not imply that the other writers I have discussed thus far are not interested in their societies. Quite the contrary; they are. In Atta’s writing, however, the connection between the private and public spheres in regard to human rights are more forcefully established. In the introduction, I referred to Marie-Benedicte Dembour’s discussion of four schools of thought on human rights. Atta’s writing suggests that human rights in Africa must be made to exist not only when Africans talk about them, but also when they make them part of their social thought. For Atta, to think of women’s rights is not only to liberate oneself from the morally constricting ideologies of patriarchy and tradition, but also to imagine communities in which humans realize their lives in the ways they deem best for themselves.

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