The Dark Child

views updated

The Dark Child

by Camara Laye


A memoir set in French Guinea during the 1930s and 1940s; published in French (as L’enfant noir) in 1953, in English in 1954.


A Malinke recalls his youth and the choices he faced between the traditional and colonial paths to adulthood.

Events in History at the Time of the Memoir

The Memoir in Focus

For More Information

Camara Laye wrote The Dark Child while he was a student in France, to ease his homesickness by recalling his youth in West Africa. Laye was born January 1, 1929, in Kourassa, French Guinea, and became the eldest son of 12 children fathered by Camara Komady, a leading blacksmith in the region. At 15, Laye traveled to the colonial capital, Conakry, to study at a technical college, and four years later left his homeland on a scholarship to study in France. When his scholarship was not renewed, he found work in France. He took a job at the Simca auto factory and with the French railroad, pursuing his studies in night classes. It was during this period that Laye wrote The Dark Child:“Living in Paris, far from my native Guinea, far from my parents… I bore myself in thought a thousand times to my country, close to my people… and then, one day, I began to write” (Laye in King, p. 14). The resulting memoir recounts his youth from the early 1930s to the late 1940s. A seminal work in African literature, The Dark Child was the first to convey in French to European readers the experience of growing up in Malinke society in colonial Guinea.

Events in History at the Time of the Memoir

Malinke society

The Malinke are a subgroup of the larger Mande people who dwell in lands by the Upper Niger River, including those around the Guinea-Mali border. The area featured in the memoir, known as Upper Guinea, lies in the Mande heartland. The Mande count among their ancestors the legendary Sunjata Keita (see Epic of Son-Jara , also covered in African Literature and Its Times), who early in the thirteenth century established the Mali empire through a series of conquests. Sunjata’s forefathers are thought to have immigrated to the Mande region from the Ghana empire, and to have found there a number of small societies, including the Camara, Traore, and Kone clans.

According to Laye, the political, social, and religious framework of the Malinke society existed largely unchanged from Sunjata’s day through French colonial times. In religion, the Mande practiced a mix of Islam and their own indigenous faith. Society allowed men to marry more than one wife. The traditional household consisted of a polygamous compound, or “concession,” as it is called in the memoir. There was a separate, circular thatched structure for each adult (circumcised) male and for each married woman; all others shared the house of their mother or closest relative. Artisans like Laye’s father might even have apprentices living in the concession; the average concession housed 18 or so people. The size of a town varied from perhaps 20 concessions in a small community to 100 or more. Aside from the capital of Conakry, however, the large town was more a cluster of villages around an administrative and commercial core than it was a modernized urban area. Within the compound, or concession, women tended children, prepared food, drew water, raised crops, washed, and gathered firewood. Meanwhile, men raised cattle and sheep, farmed, or pursued a craft. Contrary to popular opinion, says Laye’s memoir, which holds the African woman to be “ridiculously humble,” in his country her role “is one of fundamental independence, of great inner pride” (Camara, The Dark Child, p. 69).

Mande society in general long consisted of three groups—nobles, specialized professionals, and the defunct subdivision of slaves. The nobles consisted of farmers, who grew rice, millet, and garden vegetables for subsistence; from their clans came the political leaders. Their lives were intertwined with those of the specialized professionals, known as nyamakala. The nyamakala inherited the spiritual means to perform and be protected from the consequences of their trades, which were thought to unleash nyama, energizing force. Divisions of nyamakala were blacksmith (numu), leatherworker (garanke), musician and historian (jeli), and Qurʾanic praiser/geneal-ogist (June, fine). The blacksmiths fashioned hoes, saddles, wooden plates, statues, rifles, and amulets; their trade was fraught with potential danger. Some were healers too. Among the most hazardous acts a blacksmith performed was circumcision, a rite Laye undergoes in the memoir.

A blacksmith is born into a caste which enables him to smelt iron ore, to transform the iron, earth, and wood, and to survive the forces unleashed by his transformation…. The means or powers required to perform an act are referred to as dalilu. All acts and their associate instruments have nyama [energizing force]…. The inherent dalilu of the nyama-kala [nyama caste] affords protection against the nyama they release.

(Bird and Kendall in Charry, p. 52)

The farmer nobles were obligated to provide for the nyamakala—recompense for the goods they crafted and the services they furnished. Apparently blacksmiths ranked high in the nyamakala hierarchy; they were obligated to furnish lower-ranking nyamakala such as the professional musician/oral historian (the jeli, or, in French, the griot) with gifts, as Laye’s father does in The Dark Child. In the memoir, a jeli serves as an intermediary for a woman who wants Laye’s blacksmith father to fashion a gold trinket. The jeli, a hired voice, appeals to the pride of the blacksmith, recalling the lofty deeds of his ancestors in couplets, while plucking the kora, a 21-stringed harp unique to the Mande. According to Laye, the jeli exceeded his mercenary status— “he was no longer … a man whose services anyone could rent. He was a man who created his song out of some deep inner necessity” (The Dark Child, p. 39). The explanation touches on a negative image under which the jeli labored: often he was looked down upon, perceived as a “yes” man whose praises were less than heartfelt and resented for the money he managed to amass. In fact, a debate rages today about the status of the nyamakala in general. Historians long thought them an inferior caste, but recent scholarship suggests that relationships were more complex, and in the memoir, Laye’s father certainly commands a great deal of respect. While nyamakala could not own land or hold public office in Mande society, political leaders would not make a decision without first consulting a senior blacksmith. Clearly there were many facets to the status of nyamakala.

From age 10, apprentices worked by a blacksmith’s side, learning to harness their innate power. Born into a blacksmith family themselves, these apprentices were believed to possess the heretofore untapped power as their birthright, and older blacksmiths kept it intact by marrying among themselves. In The Dark Child, Laye’s mother’s father was a blacksmith too. Those born into such families could leave the trade, as do Laye’s uncles (one is a farmer in Tindican; another, a businessman in Conakry). However, only children born into such a family could pursue the craft. It should be noted that there were farmers and tradespeople who also engaged in sideline businesses. A farmer, for example, might sell surplus produce while not preoccupied with planting or harvesting, while a blacksmith might raise crops in his spare time.


For most Malinke, education was dispensed by parents, especially the mother, who imparted traditional knowledge in the form of songs, tales, and proverbs. On-the-job training came from other family members too, who had children help at herding cattle, chasing birds from crops, and harvesting rice, the way Laye does in the memoir. At one point in his memoir, Laye wonders whether he would have been better off had he been schooled in his father’s workshop instead of the classroom. Vocational education, as suggested by the discussion of apprentices above, was a matter of learning by experience. A youth would be apprenticed to a master; as maturity approached, these apprentices were taught not only the necessary practical skills, but also the trade’s spiritual secrets: its chants, its rituals, and its taboos.

Before Guinea’s independence in 1958, formal schooling was limited to a minority of Malinke children. Islam demands a basic knowledge of the Qurʾan and the teachings of Mohammed, so Qurʾanic schools were always widespread and well attended; however, for a child destined to labor in the fields or at a forge, until European colonialism this was all the classroom experience parents thought children needed.

As late as 1949 only about 6 percent of the school-age population in French West Africa attended European-style centers of learning. Village schools were sparse, and secondary education was limited. Between 1903 and 1944 the French Federal School System founded a number of elementary and preparatory schools, which emphasized basic instruction, assuming that most students would not go on to secondary schools. For the most part, higher education focused on vocational training—Laye attends a technical school in the capital—and was reserved for the especially gifted or well disciplined. The French aimed to create an indigenous elite, a small class that could govern the colony effectively. The cream of the elite—those who excelled in the French schools of West Africa—might be rewarded with a scholarship to a school in France. However, this “reward” often came at considerable cost. In France, Guinean students found their African degrees to be all but meaningless: their education had not prepared them for the rigors of French schools, and their diplomas were disrespected. On top of these disadvantages, they coped with new experiences of racism in a predominantly white society and with inner pangs of homesickness. By 1954 some 512 West African students held such scholarships, and perhaps as many financed their own way to France (Hargreaves, p. 151). It is into this tiny fraction that Camara Laye falls.


There is an ongoing dispute among critics about how to use the author’s name. Critics generally refer to him as “Laye” rather than “Camara,” even though the latter is his real last name. The discrepancy arises from the fact that, during his schooling, French teachers required students to put their family name first, followed by the given name, which prompted the switch from Laye Camara to Camara Laye.

Colonial society

In Conakry, Laye lives with Uncle Mamadou, whose family occupies one house, not separate dwellings as in Kourassa, although each wife and circumcised male inhabits separate quarters, observing the law if not the letter of custom. Although the specter of French colonial authority hardly appears in Laye’s memoir, there was some agitation in Guinea at the time and a proper appreciation of the memoir’s context demands awareness of it.

Not in the memoir, but important for understanding its backdrop, is the fact that the post-World War II years, when Laye attends technical school in Conakry, saw the rise of vigorous nationalism in French West Africa. World War II inspired movements for social and political reform that would lead to independence. In 1944 (at the Brazzaville Conference) France reaffirmed its commitment to empire, not the independence of its colonies, but its leaders also promised reforms in the colonies, which were ultimately enacted. France’s 1946 constitution entitled its African territories to their own elective assemblies and to representatives in the French national legislature. Perhaps most significantly, the colonized changed from “subject” to “citizen,” though their new status remained only vaguely defined. Nevertheless, it freed Africans from the most oppressive features of colonial rule—forced labor and discriminatory law. Africans themselves had a hand in bringing about these reforms. In 1946 they banded together to form a movement (the Rassemblement Democratique Africain) that agitated for constitutional guarantees of their rights, and in 1947 an arm of this movement (the Parti Democratique de Guinee) was established in Guinea. All these reforms suggested that perhaps France would finally implement a policy that so far it had invoked only as


Built between 1902 and 1914, the railroad in French Guinea connected the interior (and the products found or grown there) to coastal Conakry and, through that port, to European manufacturers and consumers. The rail lines made concrete the essential fact of colonialism: that it was designed to send physical and human wealth to the European capital, in this case, Paris. In the colony, all advancement is found in Conakry; and the only way to get to Conakry is by rail. Carnara recalls that the railway passed so close to his family’s compound that, during the months of dryness, children had to be ready to extinguish the fires that the sparks of passing trains set off on the compound’s thatched fence. Every day of his life, the sight of the railway provided Camara with a visual reminder of the colonial power that would shape his life. When he is ready to go to school in the capital, it is a train that carries him away. In short, the railroad encapsulates the changing world of the Malinke; in moving from Kourassa to Conakry, Camara moves from a cozy life bound by tradition and enchantments to a colder and harder society governed by the kind of technology that the train represents.

cant: full assimilation, which African activists demanded just after the war. At the same time, many called for a peaceful end to the colonial system throughout Africa. Laborers in Guinea started to marshal support from the population at large—youths as well as women and farmers. (The majority of Africans continued to live in villages and to practice subsistence agriculture in the 1940s.) In Laye’s memoir, the French colonizers make almost no appearance; their imprint is reflected only in his education. Given that the movement, initiated by workers, was still in its infancy at the close of his memoir, it may have not yet reached students like Laye or his uncle, an executive in a French firm in Conakry.


When the French formed the colony of French Guinea in 1891, they chose for their capital the small fishing village of Conakry. Conakry sat on an island called Tombo, from which the French built a thousand-foot causeway to the mainland. By 1944 the population of Conakry had swelled to 26,000, and the city was by far the most important place in the colony.

Laye is overwhelmed by his initial experience of the city. His own village had a population of just over 6,000, so the sheer number of people shocks him. On top of that, the majority speak a language (Susa) he does not understand, and the climate is oppressively humid compared to that of his inland home. Finally, Conakry is planned like a modern city, with straight, tree-lined streets, and, as mentioned, single homes instead of concessions. But perhaps most amazing to the youth from the interior is a novelty that has nothing to do with school, city, or colony at all: his first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. It is this type of emotional reaction that makes The Dark Child such a unique mix of particular (Malinke) and universal (human) experience.

The Memoir in Focus

Contents summary

The Dark Child unfolds as a series of sentimental recollections of Camara Laye’s childhood and adolescence. The narrator expresses his longing for his lost natal community by remembering the joy and wonder experienced by his younger self. Less a continual narrative than a grouping of thematically distinct chapters, The Dark Child moves at a leisurely pace from Laye’s earliest memories to the day he leaves for France. The first eight chapters center on life in the Camara compound, Laye’s trips to visit his mother’s family, his life at school, and initiation ceremonies. In these chapters, Laye appears to be just another boy in a loving family—a happy Malinke youth, living in the manner of his forefathers. Only in the last four chapters, in which he recalls his experiences in Conakry, does he take on a more distinct identity. His life there cannot follow a customary model; when he returns to Kourassa on holidays, he realizes that he is slowly changing, and his mother recognizes it too, adding European touches to his dwelling. These changes become official when he accepts his headmaster’s offer of a scholarship in France.

In the memoir’s opening scene, a very young Camara is playing with a snake that, unbeknownst to him, has a deadly venom. One of his father’s apprentices jerks the child to safety as another apprentice kills the snake. In this way the boy learns about the dangers of snakes. One day he spots a small black snake slithering into his father’s workshop. He prepares to kill it, but fortunately does not: it is his father’s totem animal. His father feeds and houses it and, in return, the snake’s spirit comes to the father in dreams and imparts foreknowledge that helps him plan his business, his financial affairs, and his family life.

The memoir moves on to describe his father’s work at the forge, a job that requires not only manual dexterity, but also mastery of chanting, cleansing, and ritual. This spiritual dimension is contrasted to the less quantifiable, but no less powerful, magic of his mother, whose totem is a crocodile. Not only is she safe near crocodiles, but she appears to have power over animals. Whenever a farmer finds his horse or mule unwilling to move, he appeals to Laye’s mother, because animals listen to her direction.

Laye spends the next two chapters on his youthful vacations with his mother’s family in the small village of Tindican, describing his twin uncles, the care his grandmother takes in bathing him, the joy and arduous work of the rice harvest. He describes his days at Tindican as ones in which he is pampered, examined, made much of; his grandmother plies him with dish after dish, convinced that he does not eat enough in Kourassa. And of course he is taken around to all her friends, who call him her “little husband” and stuff him even fuller. However, his time at Tindican is not idle; besides helping the whole village during the December rice harvest, he aids other children of the village in whatever tasks their parents have set them to achieve. In these chores, he is hampered by the school clothes he wears. His less citified playmates are fascinated by, if not envious of, these fine, strange clothes, but he is less enchanted: “I envied their freedom of movement. My city clothes … were a great nuisance, for they might become dirty or torn” (The Dark Child, pp. 52-53).

School life presents the boy with a different set of problems. Laye devotes a chapter to describing the bullying the young children receive at the hands of the older children in the schoolyard. The youngsters are teased and forced to do manual labor that the teachers dole out to the older children as punishment for misbehavior. The younger students bear the abuse quietly until one of Laye’s friends and then Laye himself break down and tell their fathers. Incensed, the fathers see to it that a bully himself is thrashed and Laye’s takes a swing at the school headmaster. The situation nearly comes to a breaking point, until the headmaster is fired, and security at the school grows tighter.

Following this episode, Laye describes, in vivid and emotional detail, his participation in the rite of Konden Diara and in circumcision. Having being taught that Konden Diara is a ’“lion that eats up little boys,’” Laye and the other initiates are taken to the forest to spend the night near the lair of the alleged lion (The Dark Child, p. 94). He describes the stages involved in this rite, as he does later for circumcision. In these two events, Laye comes as close as he ever will to being a full participant in the customary life of his people. At the dance that precedes the circumcision, mothers hold aloft the implements of their son’s future profession: A future peasant’s mother holds a hoe; Laye’s “second mother” (his father’s other wife) holds aloft a notebook and pen, bragging about her half-son’s status as a scholar. To the extent that scholastic success was the key to advancement in colonial society, Laye’s diligence and intelligence are highly respected. However, these same qualities are tragic, in that they remove Laye from his native environment, and eventually into the cold northern foreignness of France.

When he has completed elementary schooling in Kourassa, Camara wins acceptance to a technical school in the capital. Of all his classmates, he is the only one so honored. In Conakry, he lives with his father’s brother, Mamadou. Ma-madou is among the first wave of the indigenous colonial elite; French-educated, he serves as head accountant with a French firm in the city. Mamadou encourages his nephew to persevere, even though Laye finds city life difficult and his schoolwork initially boring and simplistic. Although Laye underplays the extent of his unhappiness, Conakry’s humidity and the long hours spent standing in the school’s workshop combine to give him horrible ulcers on his feet. A month or two after his arrival, he is hospitalized, and he remains in the hospital for the whole school year—miraculously healing as school ends and he can return to Kourassa for the summer.

The next term he finds that the school has been reorganized. Now he is challenged and engaged by the curriculum, and further stimulated by the presence of Marie. A close friend of Uncle Mamadou’s family, she and Laye themselves become intimate, if platonic, friends. Even though they never declare their love for each other, Laye calls her friendship one of the sustaining forces of his life in Conakry. After three years in which he flourishes as a scholar, he places first on the final proficiency exam and is told by the headmaster that he has been offered a scholarship in France. He accepts without thinking; not until he returns to Kourassa does he realize that he failed to consult his parents.

The final chapter describes the pain his decision brings to himself and his family. Reluctantly his father agrees: “Yes, I want you to go to France. I want that now, just as much as you do. Soon we’ll be needing men like you here” in Guinea (The Dark Child, p. 182). Laye’s mother flatly rejects the possibility of her eldest son leaving her, perhaps forever. She wonders if the French even have families, since they are so eager to destroy hers. Together, father and son prevail upon Laye’s mother, who finally accepts, though tearfully, the inevitable. In the last moment of the memoir, Laye is on the plane bound for Paris with Marie, who will be dropped off to finish her studies in Dakar. He thinks sadly about all he is leaving behind, then sticks his hand in his coat pocket and discovers a map of the Paris subway system.

Sleeping with the enemy?

Laye’s book drew criticism from many African intellectuals. They felt he had idealized village life, presenting Africans as happy, superstitious primitives, and totally ignoring the devastation wreaked on African cultures by the colonial system. Europeans embraced the memoir. But given the era’s rise in African self-consciousness and anticolo-nialism, the early 1950s was seen by many Africans as the wrong time for a mostly apolitical treatment of African life. The memoir’s popular success in Europe would serve only to exacerbate such criticisms.

However, neither the purpose nor the effect of the book is as simple as Laye’s critics made it out to be. The memoir’s popularity in France proves little; it is as likely that French readers misunderstood Laye’s deeper intent as that he intended to pander to them. And the success of 1950s works by such writers as Chinua Achebe (see Things Fall Apart , also covered in African Literature and Its Times) demonstrate that European readers had a taste even for works that criticized colonialism. Laye himself asserted that the book attacked colonialism indirectly, by speaking of African civilization and culture sympathetically and by countering the stereotypes of missionaries and anthropologists with insights that promoted true understanding. Clearly the book’s statements on the nature of African culture deserve a close look.

Admittedly the evils of colonialism are not one of the memoir’s themes; the only part approaching a direct criticism of the French regime is Laye’s dissatisfaction with the curriculum at his technical school during his first year. However, the memoir itself is shaped by a contradiction that is essential to the African critique of colonialism: the dilemma of educated Africans, seized by Europeans from the heart of their own traditions, who are not rewarded with a full place in the European world or given a philosophical outlook that satisfies them as fully as the outlook of their people satisfies their family and less-educated friends. From an early age, Laye stands slightly apart even from his closest friends: at his grandmother’s village, he must refrain from the roughest play to avoid ruining his expensive school clothes. Laye is a natural scholar, and his family pushes him to excel; but every success takes him farther from Kourassa.

The French aimed to create an African elite of well educated local people; but this elite would be estranged from the home life of their own culture. In this context, the absence of European characters from the book takes on a new, more sinister significance. Colonial policy dictated that children as smart as Laye be removed from the village environment, but it did nothing to assuage the loneliness and isolation that result from this separation. All the education in the world cannot make Laye French, or give him a community to replace the one he loses when he leaves Kourassa. In this regard, The Dark Child presents a powerful, if submerged, critique of the logic of colonialism.

This same tension between African and European understandings appears in one of the most sensitive aspects of Laye’s work: his treatment of Malinke spirituality. Writing in a European language for a largely European audience, Laye is well aware that he cannot flatly assert that his father’s small black snake actually appears in dreams and tells his father the future. To do so would be to court the ridiculous in the eyes of European readers. At the same time, he refuses to reject the beliefs of his people outright. Laye finds two solutions for this potential dilemma. First, and more frequently, he shows the rationality and logic behind what may seem to be mere superstitions. The paradigmatic example is his treatment of the night of Konden Diara. The monstrous lions who terrify the initiates are manufactured, not real. To anyone not brought up in Malinke society, this solution to the “mystery” may appear obvious. But, had Laye acknowledged that fact as he wrote his description, he would have risked making the whole event seem ludicrous. To avoid this, he insistently returns to the point of view he had as a boy. He recounts his father’s advice not to be afraid, and vividly repaints his own fear in all its aspects and details. The reader may never believe in the reality of Kondén Diara; but he or she will certainly finish the book with a deep sense of how real it is to the youthful initiates. Then, when Laye pulls back the veil to reveal what readers may have suspected, they can understand why such events are so important, how sophisticated in fact these rituals are. On this night, Camara and the other boys are not simply being tormented; they are being tested. Their courage, their obedience, and perhaps most of all, their trust, are measured. After all, it is no easy thing, when supposedly a few feet away from very real-sounding howling lions, to remember that your father has assured you that you will not be harmed. The unstated assertion is that, while the vehicle may look like superstition, the content is social genius, no more worthy of scorn than practices that initiate European youths into their adult society. Laye’s respect for Malinke beliefs results in his portraying them not as superstitions of an exotic, primitive people, but as cultural manifestations of a particular time and place, as valid for their circumstances as the ways of the French are for France.

Laye also has another tool at his disposal, although he uses it more sparingly: the weapon of belief. He never mocks or satirizes even those aspects of the traditional faith that have become somewhat suspect to him in his later years. More commonly, he implies that he still believes there is some truth to much of it, refusing to discount his native traditions simply because his Western education has told him to do so. He remains the stubborn empiricist. Commenting on his mother’s supernatural skills with animals, Laye says, “They seem to be unbelievable; they are unbelievable. Nevertheless, I can only tell you what I saw with my own eyes” (The Dark Child, p. 70). Even after he learns there is trickery behind Kondén Diara, he half suspects a supernatural hand in aspects for which he does not know the exact explanation. He learns the lion’s roars are false, and that, in a later part of the ritual, streamers are attached to houses and small trees with long poles. But how on earth did such streamers get to the thorny tops of the bombax trees? Slings? For better or worse, Laye is removed from his village before he learns this secret


While Islam is widespread among the Mande peoples, the Muslim faith never completely displaced the older, animistic religion of the group. The nature of the combination of the two beliefs varies greatly from person to person. One of Laye’s uncles is a devout Muslim, but Laye’s own father teaches him a basically traditional faith under an Islamic superstructure. As animists, the Malinke believe in the existence and power of spirits in every object. These spiritual powers must be propitiated by rites, sacrifices, and ceremonies. Methods of propitiating the spirits structure daily life. Laye recalls that his father performed secret ablutions every morning, the belief being that without this ritual cleansing his work with gold and other metals would be unsanctified and unsuccessful. Furthermore, people of certain lineages, like Laye’s mother, are thought to have mysterious powers of a mystical nature.

Rigid Muslim practice is closely associated with city life. Laye’s uncle in Conakry is the most devout Muslim in the book. Kourassa, though a smaller town, has a large Muslim population too. At any rate, no Malinke sees a contradiction between the two types of spirituality. Indeed, one good-luck potion consists of water and honey mixed with the chalk washed from the boards of Qurʾanic scholars—the holier the scholar, the luckier the potion. That the Malinke see no contradiction between Muslim faith and more traditional practices is proved by the ease with which they combine observances from the two faiths. The traditional rite of initiation for males, Kondén Diara, is performed on the eve of the Muslim holiday Ramadan. The people of Kourassa slide smoothly from observance of the first festival into the next.

Laye shares too his own conviction in connections between the Muslim faith and the practical world. Before his final exam in college, he has his mother visit marabouts (Muslim religious teachers) for good luck. In reporting the results, Laye attributes some of the outcome to the energy of the religious leaders: “Finally the examination came. It lasted three days. Three days of agony. But the marabouts must have given me all the help they could. Of the seven candidates who passed I was first” (The Dark Child, p. 167).


Some recent criticism has focused on the problems of translation in The Dark Child, Early readers of the English version denigrated Laye’s stylistic abilities, not understanding that the flaws belonged to the translation, not the work. The English version loses the qualities of alliteration and repetition that Laye uses to excellent effect. Even worse, early translators made a few gross errors. One of the most famous mistranslations is “canari.” A “canari” is a water pitcher, but an early translator rendered it as “canary/” and then had to contort the rest of the sentence to maintain logic. Also detracting from Laye’s art is the fact that some translations simply omit entire sentences.

Sources and literary context

Though gifted as a storyteller and a prose stylist, Laye was not trained in literature but as an engineer. His main source for The Dark Child are his memories of the cultural life of the Malinke people among whom he was raised. A subscriber to Malinke beliefs might also say he was born into a nyamakala family, and as such possessed creative power of his own. In any case, The Dark Child can be situated within the African literature of his time. In an introduction to the memoir, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin writes, “We are eager to know the rest—his life as a poor student in Paris, and most of all the return to his native land” (Thoby-Marcelin, p. 13). The statement alludes to Laye’s connection to a larger cultural pattern: the African scholar in the colonizing country. This ties him perhaps most importantly to the “negri-tude” movement. Founded by Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Léon Damas, African students in Paris in the 1930s, the movement gained prominence in the postwar period. In 1947 it produced a journal, Présence ajricaine, whose aim was to revise colonial stereotypes about African life by celebrating the brilliance of its cultures and artistic expression. Along these lines, The Dark Child may be said to present the deep logic behind aspects of Malinke culture that may have seemed bizarre to Europeans, such as the faith in spirits and the night of Kondén Diara. Others associated Laye with negritude, and he himself said, “if Negritude is considered the expression of the life of black people,” then his writing falls into that category (Laye in Egejuru, p. 86).

Early readers assumed that The Dark Child was simple memoir, which, to a large extent, it is. However, Laye does not merely relate his life events; he transposes them “into a fictional system” (Wynter, p. 44). His memoir is thus comparable to other, slightly later semiautobio-graphical works of African literature, such as Weep Not, Child by Kenya’s renowned novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o (also covered in African Literature and Its Times).

Laye’s prose style owes less to the traditional African tale than it does to the slow-moving, carefully crafted sentence of the European novelists. He cites Gustave Flaubert as a primary influence on his method of composition; like the famously fastidious French novelist, Laye continually reworked his own writing—The Dark Child went through six drafts before Laye had it published.


The Dark Child met with both acclaim and criticism when it was first published. In France, the work was praised for its stylistic and thematic excellence and simplicity. Unfortunately, it played into French stereotypes about the primitive, superstitious African. French readers saw the book as an African idyll, not perceiving the cultural angst that undergirds Laye’s memoir. He was praised for maintaining optimism in the face of pain, and for not renouncing his cultural heritage. The popularity of Laye’s work in France is indicated by the fact that it won the Prix Littéraire Charles Veillon in 1954.

African readers were often less enchanted; many felt Laye was pandering to the taste of the French colonists for exotic tales of simple, contented Africans. Most objectionable, for such critics, is the complete absence in the memoir of the pressure and terrors levied on Africans by French colonialism, exposed a few years later in novels from West Africa like Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono, and Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti (both also covered in African Literature and Its Times).The critics claimed that Laye had missed his great chance to present an indictment of colonial rule. Particularly strident was the criticism from Mongo Beti, who described Laye’s book as litterature rose—literature written through rose-colored glasses. For Beti, this was a false Africa, one that ignored the harsh realities of colonialism; Laye failed to meet his ethical responsibility to present his village not as he remembered it, but as it was—full of pain as well as joy.

More recently, critics have revised the harshness of these initial rejections. Léopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet and politician, himself a driving force behind the negritude movement, has questioned critiques that assume there is a single right way to present Africa. He has defended Laye’s right to be faithful to his own vision of life, and his own vision as a writer (Senghor, p. 155). Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka has concurred, adding his own line of defense—that “a reader could be so gracefully seduced into a village idyll is a tribute to the author” (Soyinka, p. 387).

—Anne-Lancaster Badders

For More Information

Beti, Mongo. “Afrique noir, littérature rose.” Presence africaine 1-2 (April-July 1955): 133-45.

Camara Laye. The Dark Child. Trans. James Kirkup and Ernest Jones. New York: Noonday Press, 1994.

Charry, Eric S. Musical Thought, History, and Practice Among the Mande of West Africa. Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1992.

Egejuru, Phanuel Akubueze. Towards African Literary Independence: A Dialogue with Contemporary African Writers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Hargreaves, John D. West Africa: The Former French States. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967.

King, Adele. The Writings of Camara Laye. London: Heinemann, 1980.

McNaughton, Patrick R. The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Sellin, Eric. “Islamic Elements in Camara Laye’s L’enfant noir.” In Faces of Islam in African Literature. Ed. Kenneth W. Harrow. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1991.

Senghor, Léopold. Liberté I: Negritude et humanisme. Paris: Seuil, 1964.

Soyinka, Wole. “From a Common Black Cloth: A Reassessment of the African Literary Image.” The American Scholar 32, no. 3 (summer 1963): 387-96.

Thoby-Marcelin, Philippe. “Introduction to The Dark Child, by Camara Laye.” Trans. Eva Thoby-Marcelin. New York: Noonday, 1994.

Wynter, Sylvia. “History, Ideology, and the Reinvention of the Past in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Laye’s The Dark Child.” Minority Voices 2, no. 1 (1978): 43-61.