_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Sciences sociales et humaines
Université de Bouaké
Morrison's concern in her writings is
mainly to show the richness of the past and its
confrontation with new values. In her probing into
Toni Morrison was born February 19, 1931 Chloe
the past, Morrison examines the traditional West
Anthony Wofford, in Lorain, Ohio, to George
African familial pattern and communal solidarity.
Wofford and Ramah Willis. Herparents had moved
The idea that various aspects of West African
to the North to escape Southern racism. She spent
cultures survived in America is common knowledge
her childhood in the Midwest. During this period,
today. So this paper does not have the sociological
she learnt many folktales and black folk culture
ambition of identifying more African survivaIs in
from her parents and also from the close black
Black Amerians' way of life. We shaH rather be
neighbourhood. Later, when she started her writing
concerned with Morrison's use of West African
career, she drew from this background to probe
traditional communal values as an alternative to
inter/intra-racial relationships, as weil as treat such
Black Americans' blind assimilation to or radical
themes as the individl1al versus the community.
separation from western valu~s in their search for
In pre-colonial West Africa and in the slave
identity in America. In our eXamination of those
communities the community overshadowed the
African communal values in the context of Song of
individl1al because survival depended on group
Salomon, we shall first cast a look at the African
familial pattern including the role of women in
cohesion and solidarity. However, Morrison claims
family organization. Then, we shall try and see the
that the capitalistic thrust of recent decades is
important role of African communal solidarity.
dispersing that sense of community. She deplores
that state of things in her interview with Charles
1- The African Family pattern
This civilisation ofblackpeople, which was
The African familial pattern conflicts with European
underneath the white civilization was there with
norms because of its extended notion and the place
its e\\:erything. Everything olthat civilization was
accorded to women.
nol worth hanginR on ta; but some of il was and
nothing has taken ifs place while it is heing

1.1- The notion of extended family
dismantled. There is a new capitalistic modern
American hlack which is what everyhody thought
In his study of the black family in America,
was the ultimate in integration l
Andrew Billingsley distinguishes three types of
families: nuclear, extended and augmented
families. 2 Nuclear families' only comprise the
husband, his wife and their children. As for extended
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families, they take into account the parents and the
years. That's why Pilate put an end to her wandering
relatives of the two spouses. Augmented families
life and headed for Michigan where her brother
include members who are not even related to the
lived. She knew that "the child, Hagar, needed
nuclear family but who share the same household
family, people, a life very different from what she
with them.
and Reba could offer" (P.I5I).
So, Pilate wanted to give Hagar a chance,
In Song of Solomon Morrison rejects the
which Macon's inhospitability denied her. Late in
nuclear familial type represented by the Deads and
the novel when Hagar nearly goes out of her mind
the Fosters. In Morrison's sense it is Pilate who has
because her lover Milkman has abandoned her, the
the best grasp of family relations. She lives with
narrator notes that part ofher misfortune stems from
her daughter and her granddaughter. She introduces
her alienation from the nurturing quality of the
her nephew Milkman to her granddaughter Hagar
extended family and the community :
calling him "her brother" rather than her "cousin".
The argument that ensues shows the difference of
She neededwhat most colored girls needed:
views between Pilate and her daughter Reba. While
a chorus of mamas, grandmamas, aunts, cousins,
Reba and Hagar define the notion of brotherhood
sisters, neighbours, Sunday school teachers, best
in terms of the nuclear family Pilate focuses on
girl friends, and what ail to give her the strength
affective relations. For her there is no difference
life demanded ofher-and the humor with which to
between a brother and cousin because "you treat
/ive if (P307).
them both the same" (P.44).
The unavailability of such a structure
Pilate's point caUs to mind the African
favoured Hagar's psychological instability which
notion of brothç:rhood in the extended family. The
led to her death. Even the love of her humane
African notion of family includes the whole lineage
grandmother couldn't replace the need for the
of the couple and their in-laws. Sometimes, people
community. The aU-importance of the community
from the same village or the same region will caU
in children education is an offshoot of the West
each other brothers and sisters. As a consequence,
African extended family.
this notion of brotherhood or sisterhood reinforces
the sense of community and solidarity in the village
The West African family type is community-
or the region.
based. Even marriage is not a private affair. As
example, Jean Marie Keletigui notes that among
Morrison adheres to the African notion of
the Tangbana of Côte d'Ivoire marriage is viewed
family. In her interview with Charles Ruas she
as an aUiance between two families rather than
expresses her scorn for the nuclear familial pattern
between two people. 4 As a consequence, the
which is more typical of western culture. She said:
children who result from such a marriage are the
children of the community. So, one 's responsibility
1 remember 1 had to read the bible to my
is to aU the children of the community on account
grandmother when she was dying, and somebody
of the complex family ties which bind aU the
assigned me to do that ... It is important that my
members of the group. Such a structure offers
children participate in that ... That s part of
psychological support to the children because they
knowing who they are and where they come from.
are assured of the presence of a family member
It enhances them in a particular way, and when they
wherever they go. In this respect, there is an Igbo
have children of their own if won't be this /ittle
proverb that "The rearing of a child is not a job for
nue/ear you and me, babe·3
one person, nor is a child a chiId for only one
In Song ofSolomon Pilate tries to recreate
thatAfrican familytype. She lives in the same house
The African family type conflicts with the
as her daughter Reba and her granddaughter Hagar.
western nuclear type represented in the novel by
Since Pilate knows the mirturing quality of the
the Deads and the Fosters. Doctor Foster lived with
extended family she tries to reconnect with her
his wife and single daughter Ruth in the big mansion
brother Macon with whom she had lost touch for
on Doctor Street. When her mother died Ruth
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Sciences sociales et humaines
transferred all her love on her father to such an extent
of the Gold Coast for example the mother was the
that their relation had incestuous overtones. (P.23).
central figure; the children belonged to the family
The lack of an extended family favoured these
of the mother and could only inherit from their
incestuous contacts for no one could check on the
maternaI unc1e, not from their father. Even in the
relationships between father and daughter once the
patrilineal family organization of the Yoruba of
big gates on Doctor Street were c1osed. In addition,
Nigeria or the tribes of Dahomey, Herskovits
the lack of relatives made Ruth consider her father
further notes, the polygamous system favoured the
as the center of the universe and when he died she
centrality of the mother 's role because it was to
had difficulty making it without him. Hence, her
her that the children's education was assigned. In
necrophiliac visits to Fairfield Cemetery to lie on
the new world slavery reinforced the central
her father 's grave in order to "re-ignite" the affection
position of the mother in the family organisation
that he had for her (p. 124). Had Ruth benefited from
since families were split up most ofthe time with
the support of an extended family the loss of her
the mother staying with younger children. In
father would have appeared less cruel.
addition, she had an important economic role. As
Herskovits noted in his study of African and
Similarly, Macon Dead's family is
African-American cultures, the important
restricted to its immediate members. There are no
economic role played by women in West Africa
grandparents who might instruct the children in folk
was reinforced under slavery because the plantation
ways or tell them about the days of yore. As a
system did not discriminate between a male and
consequence, First Corinthians and Magdalene
female slave. Herskovits further noted that this
become alienated from their culture. However,
economic independence of women led to their
Milkman who was at first under the influence of
sexual independence because they no longer
his immediate family eventually discovers the
depended on their husbands. 1
family ofhis father's sister which functions as his
extended family. And owing to Pilate, Milkman
Morrison's characterization of Pilate in
casts away
capitalistic and
Song of Solomon fits in with the West African
individualistic principles to embrace the communal
image ofwomanhood. She is strong and imposing.
values of black people.
Milkman noted that: "She was as tall as his father,
head and shoulders taller than himself' (P.38). In
1.2 - The Role of Women in the Family
addition, her economic independence which she
gained from selling wine parallels the economic
status of West African women. In this respect,
Scholars have lengthily discussed the
Herskovits notes that in West Africa business is
effects of slavery on the black family organization.
mostly in the hands of women who sell goods in
While sorne aspects of the African family
the marketplace, and that economic independence
organization were destroyed by slavery others
gives them a position of authority in the family.
resisted and were reinforced by the peculiar
Hence, they can break from their husbands
whenever they desired because marriage is not seen
as an everlasting contract. Herskovits further notes
In the main, slavery reinforced the outstanding
that it is this independence which is the major
role ofwomen in the family. As Herskovits rightly
difference between the West African and the
observed, in the matrilineal system of the Ashanti
European notion ofwomanhood, for the European
woman is wholly dependent on her husband. 2
True to his image, Pilate stands in sharp contrast
1 Charles Ruas. "Toni Morrison" in Conversation with American
Writers. New-York: A. Knopf, 1985. P.223
with Ruth who seems to represent the European
l Andrew Billinsley. Black Families in White America. New-Jersey:
Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1968. P.16
model ofwomanhood. The narrator captures Ruth's
J Charles Ruas. Op Cil. P. 229.
dominated position in the following passage:
• Jean-Marie Keletigui. Le Sénoufo face au cosmos. Abidjan, Dakar:
NEA. 1978. P.36.
l Gay Wilentz. Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and in
the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. P. 3.
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SaUd, rumbling, likely ta erupt withoutprior
conception of childbearing has survived in America,
notice, Macon kept each member of his family
especially among rural Blacks who consider that
awkward withfear ... Ruth began her days stunned
"there is an inherent value that children cannot be
into stillness by her husband's contempt and ended
illegally bom".6
them wholly animated by it (P 10-11).
Just like her African sisters, Pilate does not feel
ashamed in the least by her having a fatherless child.
A shadowy figure, Ruth is wholly dependent
For her the continuity of the family lineage is of
on her husband Macon who lords it over her. Ruth 's
paramount importance. We can guess that from her
delicate frame, her submissiveness and dependence
efforts to trigger Milkman's birth on the grounds
on her father and later on her husband make her a
that Macon ought to have a son or "this be the end
victim ofher milieu in which she feels "pressed ...
ofus" 'P.125).
small" (P. 124). It is only on crucial occasions when
she has no choice that Ruth shows her willpower.
ln another respect, Pilate's refusaI to marry
As an example, she is "energized" when she hears
Reba's father stemmed from her desire for freedom.
that Hagar is about to kill Milkman who represents
She did not want to be dependent on a man like
"the last occasion she had been made love to"
Ruth because she thought that she would suffer if
(P.134). Similary she confronts Macon to get the
Reba's father abandoned her on discovering that she
necessary amount of money to organize decent
had no navel.
funerals for Hagar.
11- The African community-based Solidarity
Another trait of the African family
organization pertains to people's attitude toward
ln traditional West Africa a wide range of
"illegally-born" children. In his study ofAfrican and
proverbs and tales give expression to the importance
black American cultures Herskovits notes that the
accorded to community-based solidarity.
black family differs from the European type with
regard to the role assigned to women and the great
"Give me your pipe, and 1will giv~ you my matches"
number of illegally-born children. 3 Morrison
7 , an Agni proverb says. And a Bambara proverb
recreates this "pathological" family structure in
says: "What am 1 without the others? 1 came into
Song ofSalomon. Pilate has not married the father
the world in their hands and, in their hands 1 shall
of Reba. Likewise, Reba has a daughter but no
husband. Macon Dead II, who has the same
A Songhaï proverb states: "both hands need each
prejudices as mainstream Americans is ashamed of
other to get clean".9
the fact that :"( His sister) ... had a daughter but no
husband and that daughter had a daughter but no
ln the context oftraditional West Africa,
husband" (P.20).
community-based solidarity pervaded every aspect
of sociallife. The community was treated as a body
Macon's world view contrasts with the
and, as such, an offence committed by one
ideas widespread in Africa that a child, even born
individual could have far-reaching consequences on
out of wedlock, is a blessing4 . The West African
aIl the members of the community. In her study of
attitude toward children born in extra marital
the Agni societies of southern Côte d' Ivoire, Linda
relations may be explained by their concern for the
Stevenson noted that in the Agni group as weIl as
continuity of the family lineage. This attitude can
in most West African societies, a great emphasis is
be seen in various parts of Africa. As an example,
laid on the group. As she remarked,
among the Mayombé of the Congo the bridegroom
is required to get the bride pregnant before his
The individual is only a part of the
marriage request is accepted. This precaution is
community conjiguration; he bath reaps the benejits
taken to ascertain that the couple wiIlbe productive
and shares in the misfortunes ofothers, and even in
and bear many offspring.5 Thus, the great emphasis
the guilt oftheir misdeeds JO
on childbearing overshadows the importance ofthe
child's origin. In her study of African survivaIs in
What Stevenson has witnessed among the
America, Joyce Ladner has found that this
Agni is illustrated by a proverb which has it that
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"the lizard alone does not carry the burden of his
own excrement "11. A similar communal solidarity
pervades the Igbo society of eastern Nigeria. In
Chinua Achebe's Things FaU Apart, Okonkwo's
killing of a member of his clan was viewed as an
offence against the Earth goddess. His act might
have damageableconsequencesfor the whole tribe
because the eIders say that "if one· finger brought
oil, it soiled the others". 12 As a consequence, this
sense of solidarity creates a feeling of security in
the members of the group because they know that
they might rely on the support of everybody in case
of misfortune. Keletigui in his study of Senoufo
Tagbana culture remarked that the first thought that
cornes to the mind of a Tagbana at the sight of an
Pilate's sense ofhospitality can be traced
unfortunate person is "doesn't he have people ?13
back into the West African tradition. In that tradition
hospitality is a sacred duty. Hampaté Ba observed
The West Africans' sense of community
this custom among Malian and Senegalese tribes·1
stems to large extent from the belief in the unity of
One would give water or cola nuts to visitors before
aU the natural elements. Among the Bambara for
asking them the motive for their visit.
instance, every natural disaster is thought to be the
Hampaté Ba further explained that the roots of this
consequences of somebody's violation ofthe sacred
codes of nature, which creates an imbalance in the
custom lie in ancestor-worshipping: in the same way
cosmic order. 14 In such a system the individual is
as one sprinkles water on the ground before asking
bound to pattern his behaviour on the prescription
the ancestors' assistance or protection, one must give
ofthe tradition because he knows that his misdeeds
water to anyone who cornes in for a visit before
will affect the whole community, not himself alone.
conversing with him. Keletigui noted the same sense
So, he somewhat feels responsible for the welfare
ofhospitality among the Tagbana, for people would
of the group. This conception contrasts with the
deprive themselves in order to feed strangers
western worldview in which the accent is laid on
because it is believed that any stranger who caUs in
the individual's liberty and responsibility. In this
might be "a messenger of God".2
respect Linda Stevenson comments: "Rugged
Apart from her hospitability and solidarity Pilate
individualism is a western notion while sharing is
appears as the messianic figure that will bring the
the essence of the West African tradition". 15
protagonist from his individualistic perception of
life to a deep sense of community by offering him
her life as a mode!.
At the outset, when Pilate instigated Milkman's birth
her concern was about perpetuating the community
1 Melville Herskovits. L'héritage du Noir: myth ou réalité. Trans. Arnold
and the Dead family lineage. She didn't even care
Grémy. Paris: Présence Africane, 1966. P. 88; P. 196.
1 Ibid. P. 208.
about her brother's inhospitability. "He ought to
J Ibid. P. 208.
4 Ibid. P. 194.
have a son", she declared, "or this be the end ofus"
, N. De Cleene. "La famille dans l'organisation sociale du Mayombé".
Africa Vol X, nOI, (1937) ;
(P.I2S). When the child was born, Pilate's lessons
• Joyce Ladner. Tomorrow's Tomorrow. Qtd in Binding Cultures. P.70.
Op. cil. New-York: Doubleday, 1972.
were meant to lead him toward his African heritage.
, Linda Stevenson, "Agni Proverbs". African Arts Vol VI, n03 (spring
In this connection, her name was often
1973), P. 54.
, Harris Memel Foté. Le systeme politique des Adioukrous. Unpublished
mispronounced "Pilot", thus alluding to "Piloting"
paper presented for the doctoral degree at the University of Abidjan.
November, 1969.
role in Milkman's life.
, Ibid.
10 Linda Stevenson, Op. cil. P. 53.
Il Ibid. P. 53
12 Chinua Achebe, Things FaU Apart, New-York: Fawcett Crest, 1959, P.
Il Jean-Marie Keletigui, Op. Cil. PP. 43-44.
14 Amadou Hampate Ba, Op. Cil. P.136.
1 Amadou Hampate Ba, Op. Cil. P. 118.
" Linda Stevenson. Op. Cil. P. 53.
2 Jean-Marie Keletigui. Op. Cil. P. 40.
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From her father's posthumous messages Pilate
He didn t feel close to them but he did feel
knows that "a human life is precious. Vou shouldn't
connected, as though there was some cord or pulse
fly off and leave it" (P.208). However, Milkman's
or information they shared. Back home he had never
individualistic perception oflife makes it impossible
{elt that way, as though he belonged to anyplace or
for him to digest Pilate's notions of community-
anybody (P.292-293).
based solidarity. He does not feel concerned by other
people's problems. For instance, when his father
At this stage Milkman is unaware of the
tells him the troubles of his household, Milkman
fact that Shalimar is the soil of his ancestor
does not feel concemed by his story:
Solomon, a man to whom a11 the Shalimar
inhabitants daim kinship. However, the ring game
He felt curiously disassociatedfrom al! that
played by the children sheds light on the mystery of
he had heard. As though a stranger that he 'd sat
his family history. Thus, after piecing together the
next to on u park bench had turned to him and begun
bits of information that he gathered from Susan
to relate some intimacy (P 74).
Byrd, a relative ofhis grandmother Sing, Milkman
can easily guess the story ofSolomon: Solomon was
Similarly, Milkman does not feel concerned
an African slave who fled one day like a bird to his
about the racial problems affecting the black
African homeland leaving his wife Ryna and twenty
community; so his friend Guitar reproaches him
one children in toil and trouble. He tried to take
with his lack of commitment: "If things ever got
Milkman's grandfather with him but the child
tough, you'd melt you're not a serious person,
slipped and feU down. Jake was taken by an Indian
Milkman" (P.I 04).
woman named Heddy who raised him since Ryna
had lost her mind by dint of crying. Having
Another indication of Milkman's lack of
deciphered the story Milkman understands that
commitment is his desire to go for a solo flight. So,
Pilate had misunderstood her father's posthumous
when he sets out for his gold hunt by plane Milkman
thinks that commitment to other people prevents
Nevertheless, when Milkman returns to
Michigan with his new-found treasure he does not
receive from Pilate the "warm embrace" that he
In the air, away from real life; he felt free,
expected. Instead, Pilate knocks him down and
but on the ground '"
throws him into her cellar. Milkman guesses that
Hagar died when he left. At ·this stage Milkman
The wings of aIl those other people's nightmares
becomes aware ofthe real implication ofSolomon's
flapped in his face and constrained him (P.220).
At the very beginning when Milkman heard
Milkman's terming other people's desires
the story ofSolomon's flight he was overwhelmed
"nightmares" is also indicative of his self-
by that incredible gift, partly because it was the
absorption. However, Milkman's first contacts with
realisation of his childhood desire to fly. But now
southern Black show his graduaI interest in human
Milkman understands that Solomon's flight is a
relations. First in Danville when Reverend Cooper
negative pattern of flight. By considering it from
tells him that he knows his people, Milkman feels
the perspective of those Solomon left behind,
relieved because he thinks that he is going to locate
Milkman sees its selfishness:
the gold cave but he also ponders on the notion of
"people" or kinship because, as he said, "he hadn't
He left Ryna behind and twenty children ...
known what it meant: links" (P.293). However, late
And Ryna had thrown herselfal! over the ground,
in the novel, after the deansing ordeal of the hunt
lost her mind, and was still crying in a ditch. Who
Milkman sees his connection with the Shalimar
looked after those twenty children? Jesus Christ,
he left twenty-one children! (P. 332).
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Milkman understands that even ifSolomon's flight
his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew:
means glory and escape from toil it also means
if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it
desertion and denial of communal ties. By
implication Milkman's sees the selfishness in his
desertion of Hagar but aU that he can do now is
Milkman's flight is not like Smith's flight; his is an
accept responsibility for her death. So he accepts
affinnative flight illustrated by the lodestar imagery.
Pilate's "version of punishment" by taking a box
In the same way as the lodestar is suspended in the
filled with Hagar's hair as a token of guilt.
sky Milkman is suspended in the air and so, he does
not falllike Smith. Milkman flies both in the literaI
Milkman's acceptance of Hagar's hair is
and symbolic sense because he is ready to die for
interesting in many ways: before dying, Hagar had
his community. Both Milkman and Guitar are
told Pilate that Milkman did not love her because
willing to die out oflove and commitment for their
ofher hair and her skin colour and her eyes. As she
ideals. So, their confrontation becomes the duel
put it, Milkman preferred "silky hair the color of a
between two opposing loves and worldviews.
penny .. , lemon colored skin... gray-blue eyes and
However, there is hope and life in Milkman's love
thin nose" (P.315-316). So, by accepting Hagar's
as echoed by the rocks in his final confrontation
hair Milkman accepts his own blackness. Now,
with Guitar: "Tar tar tar. ..1 Am am am.. .1 Life life
Milkman's understanding of the importance of
life" (P.33?).
communal ties enables him to confront Guitar in
This massage invites the black
the closing pages of the novel. After his failed
community to emulate the values inherent in "tar"
attempt to kill Milkman in the Shalimar woods
or blackness because of the life-affinning quality
Guitar mistakenly shoots Pilate on the second
ofAfrican culture. And, by implication, it identifies
Guitar's commitment to the Seven Days as distorted
love which is doomed to death and destruction.
This episode reinforces our understanding
However, the unachieved ending of the
ofPilate's love for her family and her community:
confrontation between Milkman and Guitar parallels
mindless ofthe blood spurting from her neck, Pilate
the unresolved conflict between the two strategies
concerns herself with Reba's future by asking
in reallife.
Milkman to take care of her. In addition, Pilate's
legacy to the Shalimar population into which she
had "blended" at her arrivaI is a message of love: "1
wish l'd a knowed more people. l would of loved
'em all" (P.336).
On the whole, Morrison's exploration of
On account ofPilate's incredible capacity for love
black Americans' West African-inherited values and
Milkman wishes that "there's got to be at least one
traditions is meant to reveal the richness of black
more woman like her" (P.336).
life. These values add a spiritual dimension to the
sterility ofmodern life because they offer humanity
This episode is also full of symbols. When
and freedom. Just as they ensured the survival of
the birds snatch the ear-ring containing Pilate's name
the black communities throughout the indignities
they symbolically point to her ability to fly
of slavery, the African community-based values are
spiritually. In the same way, Milkman risks his life
paramount to the building ofa more integrated black
by flying toward Guitar out oflove and commitment
life in America.
for the dead Pilate:
Although Morrison claims that it is in
their own culture that black people can find their
Asfleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled
sense ofidentity, she does not idealize the old ways.
toward Guitar and it did nut matter which one of
Morrison's treatment of black people's African-
them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of
inherited culture is mixed. Pilate was abandoned
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by the pickers because they thought that she was
"something God never made". In the same way,
Freddie was abandoned by his people because he
was bom in odd circumstances. Although Morrison
1. Achebe, Chinua. Things FaU Apart.
daims that black people don't suppress evil in the
London: Heinemann, 1958.
way of "tarring and killing", there is a hint that not
aIl thelr deeds are life-affirming.
2. Bettelheim,
Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance
Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe raises a
ofFairy Tales. New-York: A Knopf, 1977.
similar question in is novel Things FaU Apart.
Obierika the friend of the nove!' s protagonist
3. Billingsley, Andrew. Black Families in
ponders on the odd facets of the tradition: " He
White America. New-Jersey: Englewood
remembered his wife's twin children, whom he had
Cliffs, Prentice-HaIl, 1968.
thrown away. What crime had they committed? The
Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the
4. Body, Sophie; Maslow L. Gendrot; Daniele
land and must be destroyed"·l
Armand. Les Noirs Américains aujourd'hui.
Paris: Armand Colin, 1984.
Among the Igbo the birth of twins was considered
an offense against the Earth goddess; so Obierika
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