The cultural production and literary history of epic poetry are almost one and the same—both owing their roots to oral storytelling and the documentation of history. What, then, distinguishes the epic genre from other literary forms is an interplay of verse, myth, history, and poetics. Epic poems often succumb to parochial, regional, and national isolationisms. The European canon of epic poetry cites its origins in the works of Homer and Virgil. But this is not without cultural and ideological implications, as the canonical gatekeeping of the epic omits adjacent literary cultures and canons of thought. 

The epics of the Black Atlantic have long existed and have now resurfaced. Epic poetry of this kind writes back to empire and eurocentrism, redressing the epistemic violence inflicted by the experience and inheritance of the African slave trade, colonialism, and modernity. Though there is a want of a comparative, or even, a collective grouping of British, American, African, and Caribbean vernaculars and cultures in a literary body politic, here is a list that traces the history of the African diaspora, and its literary styles, through the (middle) passage of both people and ideas. So begins the project of chronologising and mapping the epos of the Black Atlantic across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

10. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali by D. T. Niane (1960)

Keywords: griot, oral tradition, heroic poetry, Mali

The epic of Sundiata, first documented as an oral account, captures the histories and splendours of African kingship in the medieval era. It is a mytho-historical tale recounted by generations of griots, the guardians of African society, culture, history, and an oral tradition handed down from centuries past. This version of the epic of Sundiata is told by griot (storyteller and keeper of history) Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté. He begins with details of Sundiata’s ancestors before digressing to his travels and military campaigns as well as the eternal, supernatural force of history led by a man whose victory went on to create the Mali Empire. The griot ends the epic by praising Sundiata and his rule as synonymous with the golden age of the Mali Empire.