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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy

Conclusion: The Rights of One Are the Rights of All

Having identified and honored her foremothers, and having established the tradition of Igbo women writers, Unigwe carefully positions herself among these women, and highlights the unique challenge facing her generation of writers: “If knowledge is power, then Igbo women of my generation are empowering themselves to carry on the fight begun by the pioneers.”53

Unigwe is not interested in presenting images of strong women, or necessarily in challenging the stereotypical images of women. That work has already been done by her foremothers. She is more interested in drawing attention to the bodies of women as a theater of universal human rights abuses. What she has done in On Black Sisters’ Street can best be understood with the help of what Toni Morrison has identified as one of the most important challenges of our times. Morrison is a master in the art of storytelling as a means of preserving memory and survival. In November 2006, she inaugurated a six-week, multidisciplinary exhibition in Paris titled “Etranger Chez Soi.” As the presiding spirit of the exhibition, she chose Theodore Gericault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) as the focal point of the exhibition. The Raft of the Medusa is a depiction of the tragedy of the French ship Medusa off the coast of Senegal. In June of 1816, the Medusa set sail to the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis. The ship sailed too close to the African shoreline and hit a sandbar. After the wealthy and the well connected had been saved, the rest, numbering more than 100, were forced onto a makeshift raft. It sailed for more than two weeks in stormy seas. There were cases of brutal murders, insanity, and cannibalism on board, and only about 15 passengers survived.

In Morrison’s reading, the survivors depicted in the painting have a story to tell; they present an effective metaphor for the millions who, in our times, are set adrift, wandering “like nomads between despair and hope, breath and death.” The bodies of present-day migrants, mostly on ships to Europe and Australia, or crossing the boundary to the US, tell stories, and their stories have a common theme: they demand that we witness people as bodies fleeing pain and extinction and that we accord them respect and dignity. Morrison draws special attention to “the body as the real and final home” of reality; to lose it is to lose everything, and for one to control another body is to control everything that comes with the body.54 What Morrison says about the bodies of the present-day migrants applies to the bodies of the four women around whom the narrative of On Black Sisters’ Street revolves. It is also the story of African women fleeing patriarchal oppression. Their flight can be seen as a symbol of a universal call for the inviolability of every individual body’s dignity. They represent every body fleeing oppression, and seeking a place where that dignity can be assured. We recall what Richard Rorty said about the world deriving moral progress from descriptions of individual lives rather than from philosophical or religious treatises. We empathize with people whose stories we know, and we even love to do so.

To write about the wrongs of society is to take steps towards righting them by drawing people’s attention to them. Unigwe has undertaken nothing less in On Black Sisters’ Street. Slavery in Africa is not a thing of the past; it is very much alive just as it is in many other societies, including those in the West. Chattel slavery, to be sure, may be a thing of the past, but people are still being exploited and held against their will in bondage. In many ways the oppressive patriarchal structures in many African societies hold women in servitude, or in conditions close to that.

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