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Diasporic Spidering: Constructing Contemporary Black Identities


in Black Performance Theory: An Anthology of Critical Readings

eds. Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez

Durham: Duke University Press

June 2014

pp. 33-44




The complexities of the spiderweb interest me and draw me to the figure of Anansi. Anansi was/is a god, man, sometimes woman and spider. Like the signifying monkey described by Henry Louis Gates Jr., he is at times a trickster but at other times the one tricked. He rarely works for his food, which leads some to call him lazy. Yet he always manages to eat, which leads some to call him resourceful. In most of his tales, Anansi manages to procure food and shelter by deceiving unwitting animals and humans. And even in those tales where his plans backfire, Anansi manages to survive to play his games another day. In Ghana, Anansi is a messenger god existing as a liminal presence for the purposes of unsettling organized society. In Jamaica, he becomes a freedom fighter and a symbol of survival, at nearly any cost. His godhead is sacrificed for the benefit of more humanly practical pursuits. This complex character is at once a revolutionary hero and a petty thief. He does not always represent the morally correct path and moves readers/audiences to consider him beyond binaries of good and evil. However, his saving grace is that he uses ingenuity rather than brute force and more often than not triumphs. As Emily Zobel Marshall claims, "It is vital to remember that Anansi is a master of transformation and metamorphosis and therefore resists fixed definitions and interpretations" (11). 


Anansi stories have significant reach, occurring throughout the traditional African diaspora (West Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas). They span the globe like a giant game of cultural telephone, taking on local nuances influencing and being influenced by other stories (e.g., the Cherokee Tar Wolf story) while maintaining diasporic similarities to other Anansi stories. Two stories in particular, "Anansi Becomes the Owner of All Stories" and "Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom," have Anansi negotiating with Nyame, the sky god, for sole proprietorship of vital qualities -- history (or memory) and knowledge. These quests articulate projects crucial to critical race theory, for in addition to denying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (and/or property) the transatlantic slave trade and the resulting systems of slavery and oppression also denied heritage and education to slaves. Anansi's strategies in these two stories are foundational to the theories of Diasporic Spidering.

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