The Role of Literature in Human Rights
NNN: Being a paper presented at the first Webinar of the International Human Rights Art Festival (IHRAF) African Chapter by , Lecturer at the University of Calabar
As a matter of interpretative convenience, this talk reframes the theme of today’s discourse in a rhetorical manner by asking, “What is the role of literature in human rights?
Human rights literature is the appropriation of creative literature as a tool for social change. It is the use of literature to amplify the voices of the oppressed and in the seeking for social justice and equality in the society. Human rights literature re-enacts and reflects society through highlighting of social interactions and actions, which sometimes leads to subjugate of the subalterns within their social space.
This social depiction provides a moral focus for those who still have conscience to act in an attempt to correct social ills. Human rights literature is a form of creative testimony that provides a balance of narrative for all parties involved in social controversies to make a case for their own existence through balance of characters depiction and engagement within the framework of art.
African Literature from the time of Achebe until now has played a functional role in social justice and equality in the society. The foregoing foregrounding Achebe’s postulation when he submit, that art for art seek is a deodorised dog shit. Achebe believes in the functionality of literature in the society and that is why he clearly state in Morning Yet on Creation Day that; “I will be quite satisfied if my earliest novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past- with all its imperfections- was not one long night of savagery from which the first European acting on God’s behalf delivered them (45).
From the foregoing, Achebe’s earliest novels were seeking for the dignity and the rights of Africans within the framework of art. An attempt to reject the human rights violations and exploitation of the colonialist government as depicted in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, through literature Achebe makes a case for the pre-literate African society before the coming of colonialism.
Literature as depicted by Achebe frames social justice within alternate spaces and allows us to reimagined situations through the framework of reflection as represented by art. Achebe’s depiction of human interactions in Umuofia in Things Fall Apart implicates the role of literature and human rights when he affirms; “Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure. (…) art is important but so is education of the kind I have in mind”.
This in brief shows that literature assist in the depiction of human rights. The role of human rights literature educates the masses on the abuse of their human rights as foregrounded in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God etc. Literature in human rights is an applied form of literature as clearly illustrated by Achebe. It is a form of literature that makes a case for the masses on their rights and the abuse of their rights in the society.
Sometimes, the role of literature in human rights takes the form of propaganda to draw the attention of the world to the subjugation of the masses. W.E. B. Du Bois in “Criteria for Negro Art” note that; “…all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that what ever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the others is stripped and silent” (103). Oppression and injustice is backed by a form of propaganda that emphasizes the superiority of one above the other.
And W.E.B Du bois thus re-domesticates the operation of the propaganda to seek for the existences of his people through the framework of literature. Feminist literature foregrounds the function of literature in human rights, literature and propaganda in the advancement of equality of gender within the African traditional society as portray by feminist writers in the depiction of subjugated and liberated woman within the framework of art and the African Novel.
Feminism is t a clear illustration of the functionality of the role of literature and human rights in the human society. Feminist literature advocates for gender complementarity and gender equality in literature and by extension in the society. Human rights literature through representation re-engages social norms and belief in the society in a form of interactions that reflects various advantages and disadvantages as criteria for change and social justice.
Denis Brutus’ Letter to Martha did a poetic witnessing to pain and trauma in South African prison as a depiction of the functionality of the role of literature and human rights abuse. Poetic witnessing is used to illustrate the climate of uncertainties and a bearer or witness to pain. Brutus’ Letter to Martha is the poetic narrative of the oppressed through an autobiographical presentation of his plights and suffering in the hands of Apartheid administration.
Writers over the years have used art as testimony as witnessing against the nation state and its exploitation of the masses within such political discourse. Achebe in witnessing and resistance through poetic composition captures the pain and alienation during the Nigerian Biafran in his Girls at War captures the pain and annihilation of the people of the former eastern region during the Nigerian Biafran Civil war.
In recent times, the poetic composition and video recordings on social media captures the not too long python dance in the Eastern states is the to the brutality of the people of the Eastern region and the function of literature as witness to human rights abuses and advocacy in Nigeria. Creative literature aids the dislodgement of the fierce python dancing in Eastern region in the sense that literary and (auto) biographical representations of the actions of the military in that part of Nigeria raises questions on the motives of their actions in the region.
Kan Saro Wiwa through his literary writings and activism seek for social and environment justice for his people within the Nigerian society and the concept of resource control. Saro Wiwa employs literature as a tool for enlightenment and to highlight the effect of oil exploration in the Niger Delta. Many writers after him have used literature to x-ray the effect of oil spillage and the exploitation of the people of the Niger Delta and thereby demanding for social justice. The foregoing illustrate how literature functions within the framework of human rights or how human rights function within the framework of literature as literary materials for the advocacy and the survival of the subalterns in the society.
End SARS poets as depicted in End SARS Rhythms continue in this form of poetic tradition of witnessing and resistance to injustice in Nigeria as an illustration of the role of literature in human rights. The poets through poetic remediation of memory engages in poetic activism and resistances to police brutality in Nigeria. Human rights poetics in literature is a form of literary mediation of resistance and the erecting of memorial in art as confrontation to totalitarian system of governance. The poetics of End SARS Rhythms highlights how poetry participates in movements and fashions its content based on the agitation and redefines the memory of such movement as freezing the memory in poetic frame.
The role of literature in human rights is framed in poetic resistance and is founded on the ideological concept of Marxism which is geared toward emancipation of the oppressed in the society. This is also the temperament and the function of literature in human rights. The Editor’s Note in in End SARS Rhythms indicates the functionality of poetic witnessing in literature and by extension the role of human rights thus; “Literature and arts owe society the duty not just to entertain and educate but also to document the history of the people as well as mirror and x-ray the society” (5).
End SARS Rhythms does three things which are: to entertain the people within the site of their trauma and brutalisation, document in poetic form various instances of their brutalisation and through this medium question the moral fabric of the society. Through such questioning the poetic rendition of End SARS Rhythms highlight human rights violations and implicates the role of literature as a tool for confrontation of social injustice.
In accounting for Marxism and how it functions in human right literature, Charles Bressler note that;“…society shapes our consciousness; that social… conditions directly influences how what we believe and value…Marxism offers us an opportunity and a plan for changing the world from a play of bigotry, hatred and conflict resulting in class struggle…” (115).
Marxist poetic which is steeped in the use of poetry as resistance to oppression in the society highlights such oppression as witnesses against the Nigerian Police force and by extension bad governance in Nigeria. This is an indication of how literature function in human rights. Human rights literature does not only portray abuse of human rights but suggest methods and medium to change such social abnormities and make the world a better place for humans.
Furthermore, Endsars.com is a Digital Storytelling site that hosts testimonial which became part and collect cause for resistance to police brutality and activism during the End SARS in Nigeria. The narratives in Endsars.com are a form of (auto) biographical narrative in blog clearly depicts how police brutalities have destroyed many Nigerian youths. Digital Storytelling becomes testimonies and memorials as a form of activism and resistance to police brutality in Nigeria. #Endsars narratives in #Endsars.com portrayals the damage police brutality has done to many Nigerians and through such narratives keep protesters of #Endsars across Nigeria in the streets during the protest.
In the human rights literature, memory plays an active role in the composition of art. The human memory powers the human creative imagination and leads to literary output. The authorial vision within the framework of art is the principle that aids the gleaning from memory amidst the interfacing influence of the imagination.
Onuoha writes about memory that; “Memories are a defining characteristics of man; they are a form of socialisation of self-worth and they are the promise of the definition of what is good and bad in the African traditional environment” (84). Raji’s work strives on memory and poetic justice is one of the cardinal principles of Remi Rjai’s Webs of Remembrance.
In the attempt of the poet persona to remember the injustice done to his people by those in the corridor of power the poet persona proclaims hailstone judgement against them amidst the memorials of the afflicted. Michael A. Quinlam writes in regards to poetic justice that; “The study of poetic justice necessarily involves a study of ethical principles in literary art; for the very idea of poetic justice implies a judgement regarding the morality of action. As a result, then, of studying criticism it is possible to come to a partial knowledge of the principles of by which a given races of people was governed at same given time” (ii). What the foregoing highlight is that poetic justice is an act of literary retribution within the work of art and it reflects the morality of the society.
Memory and history is an enabler to the poetic composition of Web of Remembrance. Raji reimagines the past under the same sign of the past even in the present; memory recall makes him to locate the search for justice within the sight of historical crime. Paul Ricoeur corroborates the foregoing that; “Under the sign of the same: “Re-Enacting” the past in the present under the sign of the same. I place the conception of as a re-enactment of the past…(13).
Web of Remembrance is a re-enactment of the past and the coming back of traumatic memory of the poet person is a product of history which is powered by memory of such history. Raji’s Web of Remembrance is a re-enactment of memory in fierce remembrance of the evil of military dictatorship and by extension an enactment of memorial for the plight of the masses using poetry as the memorial tomb as an evidence for seeking of justice.
Finally, literature in human rights provides realist evidence on the actions and inactions of man within his immediate environment. it educate man and provides a medium and a second handle in the assessment of man in an alternate space as a representation of his environment. Human rights literature gives man a sort of objective representation to see his actions and relationship with others in his environment. Literature plays a functional role in the liberation of the people and enables the people to change their ways and to be involves in issues that affect them and the society. Human rights seek for the equality of all including the environment in the society.
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