On the Subject of Kings and Queens: “Traditional” African Leadership and the Diasporal Imagination

by Al-Yasha Ilhaam Williams


“Then you will die indeed, Chila Kintasi!  Your own mouth pronounced judgment.  Die and deliver the land from the abominations of drunkenness and gluttony.  (She used a bunch of soft feather [sic] attached on a bamboo stick on the Fon [King].  The Fon begins to reel until he collapses.)  Die!  Chila Kintasi.  Die, Fon! So that we may think.  The people need your death to think. Die!  Die!  Die!…  The only men left in the land are the women.  And they do not want any more Fons….”

– Kwengong, from Bole Butake’s play And Palm Wine Will Flow


“The ‘historical conditions’ must of course not be imagined (nor will they be so constructed) as mysterious Powers (in the background); on the contrary, they are created and maintained by men (and will in due course be altered by them): it is the actions taking place before us that allow us to see what they are.”

– Bertolt Brecht, from “A Short Organum for the Theater”


These two excerpts show that the role of leadership is a highly contested and tenuous space. Cameroonian playwright Bole Butake’s And Palm Wine Will Flow presents a dramatic representation of women who challenge a corrupt leadership and rethink the distribution of authority, while German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s essay “A Short Organum for the Theater” suggests that power in societal institutions is maintained or changed by its citizens.

Drawing illustrations from Cameroon’s history especially its colonization by Germany, the following discussion of “kings and queens” explores some of the conventions (of what I interchangeably call) “traditional”, “pre-colonial” and/or “hereditary” African leadership and authority systems and its influence on the construction of a Diasporal “imagination”.  I use the term “traditional” not to invoke a philosophical binary with “modern” or “modernism” but to denote indigenous forms of African cultural group identity formation and nation-state governance that predate substantial European colonial influence, which is to say, pre- late 18th and early 20thcentury.  This is then contrasted with the “modern” African nation-state which retains vestiges of European colonialism in land redistribution, amalgamated cultural/linguistic groupings and, as I argue, political structure.  For example, on this account, the cultural groupings and leadership of the “traditional” nation-state of Yoruba had a different arrangement than the “modern” nation-state of Nigeria, which fuses Yoruba with other “traditional” nation-states by retaining British land delineations and governmental procedures.

My argument is inspired by Benedict Anderson’s analysis of nationalism that suggests that “imagination” plays a role in any conception of leadership, identity, boundary or ideology that delineates a nation and that literature is often instrumental in creating these notions of group identity. I use the term imagination to argue that the emphasis on regal power typifying African American conceptions of traditional African leadership and society are not based entirely on historical or archeological facts about African nations.

The Diasporal imagination has been constructed by contrasting the contemporary poverty and political upheaval faced by many contemporary African nations, such that the stable, rich, respected and powerful kingdoms of old seem to represent the best of times.  I argue that, specifically, the concept of “kings and queens” is based on a largely romantic nostalgia that, for the purposes of recovering a lost African identity and dignity, ultimately serves no valuable end for Africans in the Diaspora.  I will also propose that the democratic aspects of traditional leadership and authority systems were instrumental in mediating the autocracy of the kingdom but were deeply undermined by colonialism, but are now diminished in contemporary understandings of traditional governance in the Diaspora.

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Al-Yasha Williams received a Ph.D from the Department of Philosophy, Stanford University and is currently an Assistant Professor at Spelman College.