This panel aims at analysing the evolution, in terms of literary structure and social function, of African oral literatures, and ultimately aims at exploring the role they can play in the development of African states and communities.
For a long time African oral traditions were considered residuals of a pre-modern past. They were mostly analysed from an anthropological point of view, as disclosing a communal cultural imagination. From the 1970s onwards scholars have called for a deep reconsideration of such early assumptions. Anthropologists started advocating an interpretation of oral tradition as individual artistic creations, rather than reflections of a homogeneous collective culture. Similarly, scholars of literature have started questioning the conception of literature as eminently written (and Western), and began acknowledging the high level of literary accomplishment of certain oral traditions. Recent studies all highlight the dynamism of these traditions. Far from succumbing to the cultural alienation instilled by Western colonialism, many African oral traditions have adapted to the new social environment of the colonial state first, and the independent state afterwards. Many genres incorporated exogenous elements without losing their traditional artistic identity. And not only have they adapted: they have often retained a very strong social function. From time to time, oral literature proved able to influence the people's political opinions, to voice the people's views and grievances, to support one or the other leader, to reinforce or negotiate the cultural features of their communities, to define the social identity of the individual. This panel explores how artists renegotiated their own social function in 21st century African societies, and how they creatively reinvented their literary traditions in order to adapt them to mutated historical circumstances.