African literature has been defined by several dominant threads and accompanying paradoxes. In both its oral and written forms it has a long history rooted in the continent’s famous storytelling and performance traditions, and its classical civilizations are as old as that of any other geographic region of the world. The linguistic traditions of Africa are ancient, dating back to the Egypt ofthe pharaohs, the Carthage of the Romans, the Sudanese empires, the Eastern Christian traditions of Ethiopia, the kingdoms of the Lakes region and southern Africa, and the Islamic heritage of West and Eastern Africa. Yet it is only intwentieth century, especially its last half, that African literature became an institutionalized subject of study and debate in the institutions of education and interpretation. Thus, African literature has the sense of being simultaneously old, almost timeless in its themes and forms, and new, the latest addition to global literary culture. Written and oral literature in Africa is now associated with the continent’s drive for freedom from foreign domination and the search for acommon identity. Yet the most powerful and compelling literary texts are associated with some of the most catastrophic events in the history of the continent, most notably slavery and colonialism. The first African writers in the European languages in the eighteenth century were slaves, or former slaves, whoturned to writing to assert their own humanity, reclaim the memories lost in the process of enslavement, or affirm their new identities in the enslaving cultures. At the same time, the foundations of a modern African literature were laid by the process of colonization. In fact, it was the institutions of colonialism, most notably Christianity, the school, and later the university, which enabled the production of what are now the dominant forms of African literature.