Is there something about Africa and its history that endears it to tragedy? I have often wondered why some of greatest Box Office successes that have to do with Africa lean towards tragedy as a genre. Think of Cry Freedom, Hotel Rwanda, Lord of War, Blood Diamond, Black Hawk Down, Tears of the Sun and most recently, 12 Years a Slave. Notice the tragic connotations that these titles contain – Weeping, War, Blood, Darkness, Tears, Slavery…

Aristotle, one of the greatest Greek philosophers, in his Poetics defined tragedy as a work of art containing a series of events with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of such emotions. He went on to say that tragedy is a more serious genre than comedy and that therefore, unlike comedy it can only be fully appreciated by the high-minded. Many of the terms used in Aristotle’s Poetics are quite technical and naturally therefore require some sort of apprenticeship in the aesthetic theories of ancient Greece.

It is important to note that ancient Greece did not view tragedy as we view it nowadays. In general the normal attitude of the modern world towards the different genres of drama or literature tends to be something like this: “tragedy bad, comedy good”. But what if we nuance these stereotypes a bit? Could there be a good or positive side to weeping, to blood and gore or even to darkness and slavery that we are unconsciously blind to? For instance, isn’t weeping positive and even attractive when it is a reaction against grievous evil and isn’t laughing negative and sadistic when it is directed towards an evil? At the end of a “woeful” movie such as 12 Years a Slave, aren’t we comforted when we read that the tragic hero Solomon Northup was reunited with his family and eventually became a staunch abolitionist who fought for the rights of black slaves? When the protagonist Solomon is released after 12 years, don’t we sense with him the exhilaration of liberation and don’t we somehow escape with him from the bondage of slavery? And when we have been cleansed by the cathartic or “redemptive” force of such a well-crafted tragedy, can we still afford to be blind to the positive dimension of pain and suffering?

Last month when listening to Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech at the Oscars, this idea of the positive dimension of pain and suffering came back to me forcefully. This radical idea, which I submit, may not be congenial to our modern sensibilities can be summarized by her first words: “it has not escaped me that so much joy can come from the pain of another”. Which words I chose to interpret as; “our joys are not incompatible with sorrow or pain”. Put differently, our deepest joys can really and truly spring out of our meanest sorrows. The realization that suffering needn’t be all doom and gloom is good news for all oppressed peoples. Perhaps it is the Good News for Africa. More often than not, we in Africa are the culprits of that “tragedy bad, comedy good” cliché and we are often not even aware of this tendency in ourselves. For instance, whenever we complain about the Western world’s obsession with reporting negative news about Africa, aren’t we wittingly or unwittingly endorsing such a cliché? It is true that there are many good things that take place in Africa that are not reported but at the same time we must admit that by and large, poverty, war, and disease are historical facts in large swathes of our continent that we cannot imagine away by censuring the media. Have we ever thought that maybe, just maybe there could be “something about Africa and its history that endears it to tragedy” and that this could actually be “good news” and could even constitute our contribution to history?

Am I saying that we should embrace poverty, espouse war and engender violence because these things are lodged in the African’s “DNA”? No. All I am hinting at is that, in the same way that Aristotle in ancient Greece and later on Shakespeare in Renaissance England found profound meaning in the tragic myths and histories of their civilizations, we too in modern Africa, by reclaiming the original meaning of tragedy, can and should be in a privileged position to transform our historical bitterness into present sweetness – we can “make lemonade out of the lemons of our tragedies”. A good tragedy does not let evil fester and destroy the protagonist from within. It arouses the emotions of pity and fear in order to purge away their excess and to reduce these passions to a healthy, balanced proportion.

I think that in order for us to internalize such a paradigm shift, we need to accept two concrete and connected ideas: The first is that all of us have the power to transcend the present moment and the second is that as a consequence of this power, we are all connected – mysteriously yes, but nevertheless, really and truly. 12 years a Slave was written in 1853, and for some strange reason, took more than one hundred years to be discovered (i.e. to reach the public eye) and eventually to be made into a movie that has brought joy to the likes of Lupita Nyong’o. And again, when in her speech she saluted the spirit of Patsey for her guidance, can we not glean therein a spiritual or trans-temporal connection between the two of them and between them and us?

As actors on the world’s stage who have specific roles to play, we are too puny and insignificant to wipe away that ever present evil that tragedies mull over. If indeed it is our destiny to play the role of the tragic or long-suffering hero on the world’s stage, so be it! In tragedy, we do not “enjoy” evil for its own sake; we endure it so that a ray of goodness (which always lingers behind), may spring from us. Aristotle spoke of the “pleasure” that is proper to tragedy, apparently meaning the aesthetic pleasure one gets from contemplating the pity and fear that are aroused through an intricately constructed work of art.

Anyone who has enjoyed reading Northup’s 12 Years a Slave should also try Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) published just one year before. This best-selling, anti-slavery novel, which heavily borrowed facts Northup’s documents, was credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In it, Stowe wrote:

If ever Africa shall show an elevated and cultivated race – and come it must, some time, her turn to figure in the great drama of human improvement, – life will awake there with a gorgeousness and splendor of which our cold western tribes faintly have conceived. In that far-off mystic land of gold and gems and spices and waving palms and wondrous flowers and miraculous fertility, will awake new forms of art, new styles of splendor; and the negro race, no longer despised and trodden down, will, perhaps show forth some the latest and most magnificent revelations of human life.

Let keep our fingers crossed for a well-crafted, contemporary film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, preferably featuring many more Oscar-winning, authentically African heroes and heroines. 

Robert Odero is a staff member of Strathmore School in Nairobi, Kenya.