Published on April 1st, 20132
Chidike Okeem: Remembering Chinua Achebe
On Thursday, March 21st, 2013, the world lost an intellectual heavyweight in Professor Chinua Achebe. He died at the age of 82. Commonly regarded as the father of African literature because of his development of the field, Achebe penned many significant books—most influential of these being Things Fall Apart, a 1958 novel that examined the manifold effects of British colonialism on the culture of the Igbo tribe in southeastern Nigeria. At the point of Achebe’s death, he was a professor of English at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Most remarkable about Achebe’s life is the fact that his extraordinary pen and sui generis literary talent took him from the provincial African town of Ogidi to the hallowed halls of the Ivy League as a professor. Achebe excelled during his early educational pursuits and had such a virtuoso grasp of the English language that he earned the nickname “Dictionary.” The fact that Achebe’s work continues to be required reading all over the globe—from the primary school level to the graduate school level—makes it difficult to impeach his literary credibility. His rise from obscurity to international prominence is a testament to the lofty heights that can be achieved when tremendous talent is merged with the same level of tremendous devotion to hard work.
In his writings, Achebe celebrated, explained, and defended Igbo culture. The late professor was famously critical of the portrayal of African culture in Western literature, and he believed the most efficient way to combat this was to write his own stories. Describing the purpose of his distinguished writing career in his final book published in late 2012, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Achebe writes that “a major objective was to challenge stereotypes, myths, and the image of ourselves and our continent, and to recast them through stories—prose, poetry, essays, and books for our children. That was my overall goal.” He exhibited no trepidation about taking on Joseph Conrad, a Western literary hero, for his negative depiction of Africans. In his devastating critique of Conrad, Achebe referred to him as a “thoroughgoing racist.”
Although Achebe is of inestimable importance as a global literary icon, his magnitude vis-à-vis the Igbo tribe cannot be understated. Additionally, his intellectual significance to Africans in the diaspora cannot be discounted. West African history is African American history. Africans in the diaspora—both descendants of West African slaves and West African immigrants to the Western world—have an intellectual tradition of which to be proud. As pointed out by historian Douglas B. Chambers in his book Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia, many of the early black Americans who were taken as slaves to Virginia were of Igbo descent. Moreover, many black Americans who are descendants of slaves have ancestors from the Igbo tribe. Any person with a serious appreciation for black history must see beyond country lines and appreciate the African origin of black people.
Africans have been victimized by Westerners, either through the savage immorality of slavery or through the oppressive system of colonization. Black history is essentially one of overcoming bigotry, both in terms of breaking off the literal manacles of slavery, as well as overthrowing systems like colonialism. Given this history, it’s impossible to believe that the maladies that black people face today, both on the African continent and in inner cities across the Western world, are too hard to overcome.
In the American context, many cultural observers point out that if blacks in inner cities had the same group behaviors as other minority groups, such as Asian Americans, then their socio-economic standing would be significantly better. However, observations like these are rarely ever made by people serious about improving the livelihoods of black, inner-city residents. Rather, such comments are simply counterproductive, and they are intended to reinforce the construct of an inferior Negro race. In reality, what black people in inner cities need is an understanding of African history, the relationship it has with African American history, and how holding words in high esteem is a deeply African tradition. This will inspire a greater focus on education and scholarly learning—and less focus on socially damaging behaviors.
The expert use of words to express ideas is a deeply West African tradition. The Igbo culture, which Achebe wrote about, holds communication through proverbs in very high regard. Similarly, the soaring oratory commonly associated with the black church in America is evidence of the importance of words, and the delivery of those words, to black American tradition. Grand literary and oratorical expression is an unmistakable feature of African culture. The notion that having the ability to express oneself articulately and being a skilled wordsmith constitutes “acting white” is a preposterous stereotype that exists because of widespread ignorance of West African culture. Sadly, many inner-city youth run around believing the nonsensical conclusion that effective use of words is “acting white”—when nothing could be more authentically black.
Chinua Achebe’s goal in combating stereotypes about the Africans and the African continent is remarkably consistent with the views of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of black history and the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. In his 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson writes, “From literature the African was excluded altogether. He was not supposed to have expressed any thought worth knowing. The philosophy in the African proverbs and in the rich folklore of that continent was ignored to give preference to that developed on the distant shores of the Mediterranean.” Woodson argues that blacks are systematically indoctrinated into believing in the concept of Negro inferiority, which starts from a dismissal of the African continent.
Africans in the diaspora must know black history—all of it. When this understanding of African history, African American history, and the inextricable link between the two occurs, we will see an inspired black youth so dedicated to academic achievement that they will have no appetite for engaging in destructive behaviors. This is the power of understanding one’s history. This is why Chinua Achebe picked up his pen. Hopefully, just as “Dictionary” rose to international prominence as an intellectual and literary icon, many more black literary greats will follow his blueprint and emerge from the most improbable and disadvantageous of locations to incredible zeniths.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chidike Okeem is a writer. Born in Nigeria, raised in London, England, and now living in California, he writes about race, culture, religion, and politics. You can find contact information and read more of his writings at www.voiceofchid.com.