ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
For continental Africans, colonial rule became their Middle Passage. Achebes
tradition-based novels, TFA and Arrow of God, were thus carefully crafted
to counter the stereotype of the African as a savage
Books by Rose Ure Mezu
* * * * *
An Africana Blueprint for Living
in the 3rd Millennium Global Community1: An Essay
By Rose Ure Mezu
Achebean thoughts have profound Global signification. Pardonably, peoples of African descent tend to think of Chinua Achebe only in terms of cultural redefinition and authentication. But I posit that there are multiple layers of the writers humanistic, poetic, philosophical and intellectual worldview – his vision de monde if you will (see Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works). Above all, with his many writings, Achebe attempts to provide clarification about ways to tackle the problems besieging Africa, Diasporan African peoples, and the modern global youth, so as to promote understanding among peoples and nations.
In Achebean fictional universe, the author is not dead but very much alive within the human community. Consequently, the following Achebean thoughts can serve as blueprint and guide for negotiating the choppy, cultural waters of modern living in a Third Millennium Global Community:
Africas Pre-colonial Inheritance and Colonial Rule as Africas own Middle Passage
The point is restated ad infinitum that Africa is an ancient civilization with a holistic way of life. The ancient Africans did not need the West to teach them about God; they lived and moved, and had their being in the Godhead; nor did they require assistance on how to organize their society. The ancient Africans could do so, all by themselves. For this reason, the first part of Things Fall Apart (TFA) avoids any mention of European colonials. This is a conscious effort to recreate a cultural way of life which Achebe acknowledges is his own, and African peoples Pre-colonial Inheritance.
For continental Africans, colonial rule became their Middle Passage. Achebes tradition-based novels, TFA and Arrow of God, were thus carefully crafted to counter the stereotype of the African as a savage, without culture seen in books by Joyce Carey (Mr. Johnson, The African Witch), H. Ryder Haggard (King Solomons Mines, Ayesha), and Joseph Conrads The Heart of Darkness (1899).
This is similar to Edward Saids evaluative critique of Orientalism defined as an ideology that depicts persons from the Orient as eccentric, backward, sensual, passive and separate as the non-Western Other; an individual considered inferior, conquerable and therefore to be rechristianized / civilized to accept the values of the dominant society. In Saids words, Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”). For his part, in order to remedy this estrangement of the natives from themselves, Achebe therefore vows through his tradition-based stories:
[…] to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement [. . . ] [f]or no thinking African [Black] can escape the wound on his soul [. . . ] I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past–with all its imperfections–was not one long night of savagery from which the first European acting on God’s behalf delivered us (The Novelist as a Teacher in MYOCD 45).
However, because the West and the colonized Others are inextricably linked for good or for bad, there can be no complete rejection / denial of existing differences, but rather a re-evaluation of such differences in a more critical and objective fashion to enable a peaceful cohabitation in a Third Millennium global community
Tradition of Cultural Nationalism: Colonialist Criticism as Forerunner to Post-Colonial Critical Theories
Chinua Achebe is considered father of modern African literature. Even though, he modestly disclaims laying a proprietary hand on African art which he regards as a communal enterprise in creativity, as seen in the Mbari art tradition of the Igbos (African Literature as Restoration of Celebration 1), Achebe does lay a sort of claim all the same, as seen in this response:
I think what we did was literally to create African Literature [. . . ] There may be different opinions about the quality of particular texts but nobody anywhere who lays any claims to being knowledgeable can ignore African literature now (Daily Times. Nov. 18, 1989, 12).
And the secret of this self-confidence comes from his prescription as to how to combat colonial and postcolonial exploitation, which is: the best education possible. Armed with the best philosophical, critical, and creative tools that the West could offer, he embarked on a revisionist course, and inaugurated what was called Colonialist Criticism which naturally became a fore-runner to what today is called Post-colonialism in Criticism and Theory. Achebe cites a character in Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kanes Ambiguous Adventure who says to a white Frenchman,
We have not had the same past you and ourselves, but we shall have strictly the same future (qtd. in African Literature as Restoration of Celebration, 10; my emphasis).
Interpretively, this means that we are now in an age of Globalization which calls for multiculturalism, not monoculturalism. Monoculturalism is a unidimensional view of ones culture as being putatively superior; it carries with it the arrogance of a unversalist perspective that not only degrades its subject victims but blinds its practitioners. Universalism2, Achebe opines, should be banned because it is only life seen from an ethno-European angle.
Molefi Asante re-emphasizes that Eurocentrism is an ethnocentric view posing as a universal view (What is Afrocentrism? 15). In much the same fashion, Feminism is a narrow Euro-ethnic bourgeois view of the woman question necessitating Womanism to serve the needs of the women Others. Equally, Feminism speaks of racial arrogance when an ethnic view of life is made to represent a global view. African American literary icon Ishmael Reed3 (Japanese By Spring) as an exponent of multiculturalism continues to harp on the theme of an expanded plurifocal, ethnically-varied human community.
The Cultural Encodes the Political
Next, Achebe believes that Cultural Writing is as effective as, or even more so than, political activism. But, how do peoples of African descent reclaim pride of self and community? The answer is: through a tradition of Cultural Nationalism arrived at by way of telling stories. No foreigner, Achebe concludes, can tell my story for me, no matter how talented, or knowledgeable. Stories, Achebe believes, are not innocent; they can be used to put you in the wrong crowd, in the party of the man who has come to dispossess you (African Literature as Restoration of Celebration 7), who with determined earnestness, lays a claim to your territory, then carves out a space for you, and wants you to be content with that slice of life.
But writers who symbolically used to belong to a sacred but lofty profession have metamorphosed into writers as intellectuals now testifying to their regions experiences, thereby giving these experiences public exposure in the agenda of global discourse. Thus, todays writer has become societys criticthe sensitive point of the community, guide, prophet, visionary. Consequently, Achebes very sophisticated 1987 Anthills of the Savannah (Chapter 5 of Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works) is meant to be a panegyric to all writers / artists.
It celebrates the primacy of Writing as the one art par excellence. The writer as storytellergriotgives political leaders headache because s/he elucidates the problem, challenges and seeks to defeat an imposed and sometimes the quiet normalcy of unseen hegemonic forces. The storyteller does, as the Hellenic gadfly Socrates did (to his peril) make the citizenry think and start to question how they are governed. This has universal application.
To hammer home this ideological paradigm, Achebe uses the Igbo metaphor of Nkolika Recalling-Is-Greatest (which also re-emphasizes storytelling as a female artform) to establish the primacy of storytelling, an art which like woman which nurtures, shapes, and reshapes humankind. The story, Achebe insists, contains the literary DNA that is passed on to future generations:
The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwardseach is important in its own way. I tell you, there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather [notice this metaphor that comes from the African rain forest], I will say boldly: the Story. Recalling-Is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind [. . .] the story is everlasting . (Anthills of the Savannah 123-4; my emphasis).
Art and Functionalism
Achebe thus takes a stand against a purely abstract / esthetic use of art (writing), arguing instead for committed, functional art that serves a social purpose. In The Novelist as a Teacher, Achebe speaks of an earnestness appropriate to my situation. Why? Because I have a deep-seated need to alter things within that situation, to find for myself a little more room than has been allowed me in the world (Chinua Achebe: the Man and His Works 14). Interpretively, he is saying that most conflicts have their genesis in claims of superior power, space (land metaphorical or otherwise), or the lack thereof.
The West runs the world, and things turned upside down must be rectified. The current tragic conflicts in the Middle East, with suicide bombers to boot, ready to die in order to resist occupation serve as cases in point. However, the writer as an intellectual, while not resorting to the violence of weaponry, yet understands the issues at stake and can change such notions of power, superiority, and appropriation of space.
Through the earnestness of storytelling, or writing as an art, the writer seeks to change an unjust status quo. Jesus Christ, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, et cetera, effectively used the power of ideas in words and writings to effect lasting, radical social change.
The Dynamics of Proper Governance
As said earlier in this essay, it is not immediately obvious that Achebes writings, above all else, are deeply involved with the questions and dynamics of proper governance familial, communal, national, and international. Things Fall Apart; No Longer at Ease (sequel to TFA), Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, and The Trouble with Nigeria, Morning Yet On Creation Day (MYOCD)., Hopes and Impediments deal squarely with the problems of correct governance. Achebe admits that his is a new voice, coming out of Africa and speaking of African experience in a world-wide context (The African Writer and the English Language 61). Racial inequality, he indicts as the core factor responsible for Africas malaise, and he points directly to this:
Take for instance the issue of racial inequality whichwhether or not we realize itis at the very root of Africas problems and has been for four hundred years (MYOCD, 78).
And Achebe is also speaking for Africans forced into the diaspora through slavery. Obviously, while blaming African-born, greedy, neo-colonialist stooges for bad governance, Achebe lays the core blame for improper governance on the imposition on Africa of an alien and very brutal governing concept which treated with contempt the peoples way of life. This way of life the Igbos of Nigeria for instance callOmenalawhich takes its meaning from Alathe earth, soil, land (represented by a female deity) which the Rev. Ezewudo describes as a system of consensual belief as to what constitutes virtue or vice whereby the overall communal good conditions and limits anyones actions.
This way of governance is very well illustrated in Things Fall Apart. For instance, before the farming season, the community would practise peaceful coexistence so as to get increased yield from ala / ani and hence honor the earth goddessthe most powerful deity after Chukwu (Chi-Ukwu Supreme God) whom they reverenced. Omenala also symbolizes belief in a supernatural law in which politics, and justice are integrally interconnected. Any contravention of moral law such as TFAs Okonkwos beating of his wife-becomes nsoala, or aru (abomination), a crime of dishonor against the earth goddess, the arbiter of morality, demands that reparation be made, as Okonkwo did make. Thus, agricultural, economic, and moral considerations were linked together holistically.
Consquently, it can be stated that the ideal of Western capitalist democracy is fundamentally at variance with the familial and communal structure of traditional governance ethos not just in Africa but in all community-based, non-Western countries. Again, the political upheavels tearing apart the Middle East region illustrate the point. Western capitalism as introduced into the erstwhile Western colonies lacks social interaction between governors and the governed.
As a politico-economic ideology, it was very dictatorial because the colonizers never consulted the native leaders and land owners on the proper mode of governance, suitable for the peoples wellbeing. The system was also exploitative because the Western administrative officers lived like royalty, commandeering the peoples mineral and other wealth, and were accountable to nobody. This exploitaiton was sustained through policies, discourse, and visual imagery laced with notions of power and superiority, formulated to facilitate Western colonizing mission.
And so presently, caught at the crossraods of opposing cultures, and finding nothing to identify with, todays natives tend to address this new democratic governing model as they. Consequently, they adopt a free-for-all, chop-I-chop or eat-as-much-as-you-can attitude towards this alien Western concept, with no checks and balances, which contrary to traditional native ethos exalts the individual over the community. Thus, various chapters of Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works also re-examine Niccolò Machiavellis The Prince, the Pan-Africanist / political thoughts of W.E.B. Du Bois, and gender issues in Zora Neale Hurstons Their Eyes Were Watching God as platforms for comparison with African political, gender, and cultural attitudes and systems.
But the book also examines Achebes indictment of African leaders for post-colonial abuse and exploitation of the masses. Beyond the era of Achebes writings, African nations political, and socio-economic malaise has worsened because of unprecedented corruption, embezzlement of the nations resources, internecine conflicts, political thuggery, compounded by the recourse to murder as a weapon of political intimidation. Hence, in countries that were former West European colonies, there persistis a lack of identification, commitment, trust, or loyalty on the part of the disengaged African, or Asian natives.
A politico-economic model must must be worked out which will reconcile this complex mix of the Africans cultural-history and inherited alien ideas and equally allow space for varieties of dynamic human experience suitable for indigenous governance and a Third Millennium global living.
Equiano and Achebe: A Common Literary Ancestry for Africa and its Diaspora
Certainly, the enslaved Africans sent to the Americas and the West Indies sought to preserve what they could of their original language and folklore. But dispersal, forced separation, family fragmentation (See Morrisons Beloved, and Frederick Douglass Narrative), and their complete immersion and socialization into an alien culture created a cultural vacuum. Into this vacuum stepped Olaudah Equiano with his 1789 Narrative which I believe received corroboration and authentication, albeit by way of the fictional narratives, with Achebes Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God.
Chapter Seven of Chinua Achebe: the Man and His Works therefore examines similarities in the portrayal of this African Igbo society by both Equiano and Achebe. As the Preface points out, Equianos work has lately become the focus of some controversies by some people who are neither Igbos nor inhabitants of Essaka. These people question, out of ignorance, the authenticity of Equianos place of birth. And so without setting out to do so, Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works has presented a veritable defense of the truth about Igbo / African culture and Equianos recollection of its traditions (viii).
As established by Cheikh Anta Diop and other scholars, Africa was not and is not culturally, socially and technologically a tabula rasa. Christian missionaries from Europe and AmericaCatholics, Protestants and Evangelicalswho scoured the length and breadth of Africa to establish churches possessed limited knowledge of African cultures, and, therefore, of African spirituality. They had biased perceptions in their reports of Igbo culture, for instance. But it must be accepted that it was not their responsibility to promote or advance the Igbo institutions but rather to justify their overthrow and replacement with their own religion-system of beliefs, just as racism was invented as justification for slavery which was economically motivated.
Many years in the making, Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works is therefore designed to help adult and youthful readersthe community and academia alikere-examine Igbo (African) religious thoughts, socio-cultural world, its folklore, mythopoeiaall the features that have informed the writings of diasporan artists as diverse as Sonia Sanchez, Ishmael Reed, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, including also African poet / novelist S. Okechukwu Mezu as he puts forward African Communalism (The Communalist Manifesto) as a model of economic-cultural living which is totally opposed to the individualist Western capitalist economic structure that is descended from a feudal totalitarian model. The books discourse also covers Africas respect for nature and the environmentformerly dubbed animism, paganism, heathenism, and polytheism, which now is a model for todays Western concerns for the Eco-system, et cetera.
Religious Tolerance as Prerequisite for Harmonious Global Co-habitation
A case is also made for religious tolerance as a sine qua non for harmonious global living. Presently, the current project that gives recognition to African cultures and African spirituality is called inculturation. Inculturation stands for the process of letting the Christian church experience growth on non-Western native soil; it is the process of bridging the gap between faith and life. Inculturation aims at stimulating a transforming dialogue of the Christian faith with African cultures. The late Pontiff John Paul II puts it succinctly to African theologians during his trip to Nigeria (March 21-23, 1998):
Do all that you can […] so that your people will feel more and more at home in the Church, and the Church more and more at home among your people. Necessary here will be research into traditional African religion and culture (Qtd. by Ezewudo in Mezus Religion and Society 57).
And thus, the abuses, violations, inaccurate, disrespectful treatment, and ignorant misperceptions by Christian Churches of Africas artifacts, shrines, cultural / religious beliefs became the subject of an extensive apology by Pope John Paul II (Pope John Paul II and Africa, 51). As a first step, the Pope encouraged African ecclesiastics in their position as insiders to encourage the assimilation of positive traditional values that proclaim belief in One Supreme Being who is Eternal, Creator, Provident and a Just Judge: values which are readily harmonized with the content of the Christian faith. He exhorted the African Christian Church to draw up their own martyrology to honor people we know who are saintscanonized or not.
That Africans are now being encouraged to revisit the honor given to their deadthe veneration of ancestorsis a vindication of the pristine value of the spirituality and faith of the Africans ancestors discredited through Western missionary superciliousness and ignorance. These modern developments are the fruits of the cosmo-theological thoughts propagated by (among others), Achebe (in essays and fictional works), and by Equiano the earliest, important literary and cultural ancestor of all peoples of African descent (Achebes Writings as Authentication of the Igbo Culture of Equianos 1789 Narrative).
As Africa and its diasporan youth should take comfort, the African soul is still intact since Africas lost reverences are gradually being recovered owing to the resilience and authenticity of African cultural and spiritual heritage. The point at issue is that religious faith is an abstract concept conditioned by culture and environment, and these certainly dictate the many ways of apprehending the reality of Godhead.
Women in Achebes World
In the ThirdMillennium global community, womens fate rests squarely in their hands. Enlightenment has brought a lot of freedom from traditional patriarchal strictures. And so, Chapter Eight of Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works discusses women in the writers fictional universe. It must be acknowledged that Achebe is not your typical misogynist writer. Rather, I accuse him of over-idealization of women (represented by the Igbo metaphor of NnekaMother is supreme), a position that equally renders women ineffective since they play no part in societys governance because they are idealized and over-protected. Confronting him with this in a 1995 interview, Achebe defends vigorously his portraiture of women as a mere comforter figure, picking up after men when things go wrong, Achebe quipped back,
And who is to blame? You see, many people do not read fiction the way it should be read as representing what is. They think it should show what ought to be. Fiction is not a political argument. The book showed what there is. I am telling a story that illustrates that society had a huge flaw [. . . ] (231).
Chinua Achebe, in turn, asks me a question:
Achebe: Tell me, how do you think I viewed women in Things Fall Apart?
Mezu: You viewed the concept of the mother idealistically. Women were treated sympathetically. In fact, Okonkwo received indictment for being violent with his wives.
Achebe: But Okonkwo was always violent with everyone. Both he and his society had weaknesses which included the female species, and the adoration of power. They paid terrible prices for these. Okonkwo paid a terrible price by being banished for ever in the evil forest, and so did the Igbo society by suffering defeat at the hands of an alien civilization.
His character IkemAnthills of the Savannahsays to Beatrice and Achebe, by extension, to all women I can’t tell you what the new role for Woman will be. I don’t know. I should never presume to know. You have to tell us. (Anthills of the Savannah 98. In Chinua Achebe: the Man and His Works 28-9).
Of course, no modern woman needs to be told that she has to work hard to provide a platform for her own fulfilled existence. Third. Millennium global community has an equitanble place for everyone.
Achebes words naturally inspired the formulation of my poetics of womens writing titled Theorizing the African Feminist Novel: the State of African Literature Today (A History of Africana Womens Literature, 24-47) that calls for a reconstructive phase of female writingtermed Womanist Creativisma phase that does more than protest womens sufferings / exploitation but urges women creative writers to use all of the resources of literature to create positive, energetic, and resilient female characters as paradigmatic models of real-life women who can participate capably in the governance of society. And who is to blame? And since women have to initiate their own freedom from all strictures, even through ideas, I did just that in A History of Africana Womens Literature (2004).
Igbo Pragmatism: A model for Third Millennium Community Living
Achebe explores and offers up the pragmatism of the ancient Igbos in especially TFA and Arrow of God as a possible mode of survival in the present treacherous world of shifting values, and from the imperialistic, hegemonic tendencies of the powerful nations. Okonkwo and Ezeuluthe respective heroes of his two tradition-based novelsare inflexible, overbearing, intolerant, and unaccommodating of differences and other peoples opinions. In the end, both men end up ignominiously. Achebe appears to recommend the Traditional Religious concept of the pragmatic Igbos as perhaps a viable way of living with others within a global community. There is no religious absolutism in the mentality of the traditional Igbos. Therefore, chapter twenty-one of Things Fall Apart can be regarded as the theological chapter of the book in which an influential village elder Akunna disputes with Mr. Brown, the reasonable and somehow liberal-minded European missionary:
You [Mr. Brown] say that there is one supreme God who owns heaven and earth, said Akunna on one of Mr. Browns visits. We also believe in Him and call him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other Gods.
There are no other gods, said Mr. Brown. Chukwu is the only god and all others are false. You carve a piece of wood . . . and you call it god. But it is till a piece of wood.
Such absolutist claims are contrary to the Igbo world view that believes in live and let live.
Yes, said Akunna. It is indeed a piece of wood; the tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were [ . . .] The head of your church is in your country [ . . .] Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God or Chukwu. He appoints the other gods to help him [ . . .] We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu [ . . .] We approach a great man through his servants [ . . .] We worry them more because we are afraid to worry their Master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka Chukwu is supreme
You said one interesting thing, said Mr. Brown. You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving father and need not be feared by those who do His will.
But we must fear Him when we are not doing His Will, said Akunna. And who is to tell His will. He is too great to be known. (164-5)
Ndichie Akunnas is a most pertinent question and observation that speak of another kind of theo-philosophical viewpoint: And who is to tell His will? He is too great to be known. In this, one sees elements of resilience of the African Religious worldview such as exists in Achebes narratives in which the African makes socio-cultural choices, testing and subjecting the learned Christian behavior to respond to the African situation. Thus, despite the overwhelming invasion of the West, the African soul could not be stolen. The same element of African resilience holds in the African American religious worship, as Christian as it is. Frederick Douglass would in his Narrative indict the Christian plantation overlords for their hypocrisy and non-knowledge / practice of the Christs compassionate dictates: O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask youLearned you this from God? (The Narrative 201, 209).
It can be stated truly that until the advent of Islam and Christianity (as practiced by some missionaries), traditional Africans never embarked on wars of religious conversion, being quite tolerant of other creeds. Indigenous religions were neither universalist (seeking to convert the whole of the human race) nor competitive (in bitter rivalry against other creeds), being more communal in nature. As Mazrui puts it,
Like Hinduism and modern Judaismand unlike Christianity and Islamindigenous African traditions have not sought to convert the whole of the human kind. The Yoruba do not seek to convert the Ibo to Yoruba religionor vice versa. Nor do either the Yoruba or the Ibo compete with each other for the souls of a third group like the Hausa. By not being proselytizing religions, indigenous African creeds have not fought with each other. Over the centuries Africans have waged many kinds of wars with each otherbut hardly ever religious ones before the universalist creeds arrived. (Mazrui, Africa and Other Civilizations: Conquests and Counter-Conquest. In Religion and Society, 71-91. ed. Rose Ure Mezu, BAP 1999).
As Arrow of Gods Nwaka states bluntly to the inflexible Ezeulu, the priest of Ulu, wisdom is like a goatskin bag; every man carries his own, Ezeulu has told us what his father told him about the olden days [ . . . ] My father told me a different story. Thus, the fictional Nwaka is restating an absence of an absolutist view of reality that allows the Other the freedom to think differently. At the end, while the intolerant and aggressive Okonkwo commits suicide, Umuofia as a pragmatic community survives. So does Umuaro after Ezeulus insanity, proving the truth of the Igbo proverb Ezeulu had said to Obika, It is praiseworthy to be brave and fearless, my son, but sometimes it is better to be a coward. We often stand in the compound of a coward to point at the ruins where a brave man used to live (Arrow of God 11).
Thus, for the traditional Igbos, it was never My way or the highway nor You are either with me or against mean attitude which in the inferiorized group breeds resentment and leads to conflicts. Rather, the Igbos attitude is one that accepts that where one thing stands, something else can stand beside itan attitude that is summed up in the metaphor of the dancing masquerade who goes to all sides of the market square in order to see the entire crowd.
The point made is that whenever any nations political authority or religion becomes universalist and indisputable, then, the result is sure to be tyranny over all others. Every point of view represents an angle of vision, a different kind of cultural conditioning. At the end, any communitys cosmological viewpoint is a slice of the Ultimate Truth, a search for Infinite Wisdom seen from a specific philosophical viewpoint. And so, what the Third Millennium global community calls for is more accommodation of the others viewpoint, more respect for the others land space, for the culture of the supposed Other.
Finally, Achebe is a creative artist who believes that writing empowers the oppressed to reject negative cultural constructions, negative racial and religious prejudices. Virginia Woolf speaks about the integrity of writinga conviction that the novelist tells us that this is the truth (A Room of Ones Own, Chapter 4). The radical Iranian novelist Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran insists on the democratizing properties of the novel which is not blind to other peoples problems and pains, for not seeing them means denying their existence (132). Chinua Achebe himself emphasizes over and over the importance of novelistic art to the world, as can be distilled in this conversation:
Mezu: On writing and its relevance, what do you consider as the core message in your works?
Achebe: To make people think. Just as a good story keeps revealing itself in different ways, in different connotations. The meaning is not finished. To make you see yourself in a different light.
Mezu: That is the meaning of the word you used in the Anthills Nkolika – the Story is Greatest?
Achebe: Yes! (Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works, 235).
Thus, literature has an important function to play in imparting the values of humane-ness, decency and fair-play without which the world would be exactly what it is todayin chaos, tottering on the edge of an immense precipice, awaiting just that one tragic push of an act of injustice to topple into the darkest nuclear abyss. In the context of global peace among nations and peoples, Achebe considers the writer more important than the soldier, or the man with political power. The writer is the worlds only hope, producing
Literature which alters the situation in the world. A great and important book does that and nothing can be done without reference to it. It has made a statement which changes the relationships and perceptions of the world (cited in Chinua Achebe 272).
Achebes song of the story in Anthills of the Savannah bears repeating:
. . the Story – Recalling-Is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the cactus fence.
Writing is thus our medium of reclaiming our personal, cultural, intellectual, and religious freedoms. These are ours for the taking, for Achebe urgently reiterates, If I were God, I would regard as the very worst our acceptancefor whatever reasonof racial inferiority (The Novelist as a Teacher in MYOCD 44). Under-girding this optimism, this self-confidence in a new and invigorating life of many freedoms is the same kind of optimism that empowered the visionary W.E.B. Du Bois to exclaim in prophetic poetic writing:
I lifted my voice and cried
I cried to heaven as I died
O turn me to the Golden Horde
Summon all western nations
Toward the Rising sun . . .
Awake, Awake, O Sleeping world
Honor the sun
Worship the stars, those vaster suns
Who rule the night
Where black is bright
And all unselfish work is right
And greed is sin
And Africa leads on
Freedomways (Winter, 1962)
Thus, through the medium of writing, especially with Things Fall Apart (1958), a classic story that transcends time and place, Achebean thoughts, like Du Boisian thoughts, provide paradigms for a Third Millennium harmonious global living. These are some of the many interpretive issues tackled by Rose Ure Mezu in Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works (Adonis & Abbey, 2006). Since cultural writing has been established as encoding true civic activism, these philosophical, literary paradigms consequently can serve as our veritable guide towards reclaiming our common humanity, towards determing the qualities of leadership and leaders of vision, moral strength and integrity who should be the guides in a Third Millennium Global Communityqualities this poem from the 2004 Homage to My People (2004) so delineates:
Who should be our leaders?
Who then should be our leaders?
Those imbued with a guiding light
Who are sensitive to our problems
Whose actions suit our needs
Those willing to speak up for us
Whose actions match their words
How do we know them?
When they can walk our streets
Know our homes, call our kids by name
When they scold our kids who do wrong
When they boldly speak out our frustrations
When they work to keep guns out of their hands so kids
Do not end up bloody on some unforgiving urban pavement
Our Leaders are those who cry when we cry and
Who laugh when we laugh
When speaking our pain, they do not sell us out
Where do we see them?
In our schools replacing guns with textbooks
In churches, celebrating kids who score lifes high goals
In the streets cuddling our kids when they are hurt
In the prisons visiting the wasting lives of boys and girls
In the ghettoes, pointing out areas outside business districts
And fighting to end the human misery going on there
In civic centers counseling to keep our families intact
In Congress legislating to provide work for our jobless
In Government voiding the backrolling of just laws
Why do we call them leaders?
They are leaders who refuse to bend during a hailstorm
Who stand firm and do not flinch when maligned
Who can withstand the tumult of challenge and adversity
Who know how to fight the mental darkness of ignorance & fear
With the radiant light of knowledge, courage and self-reliance
Who wrestle with drugs and crimes plaguing our communities
Who know how to heal the festering sore of racial neglect
Who know how to effectively use the tools of democracy
Why do we call them Our Own?
When a new dance tune is played, our leaders
know which foot to put forward first
As warhorses, our leaders know when to seize the time
and use every available leverage for our communal good
They work to destroy false barriers of class, gender, color
that obstruct our efforts at Renewal and Reconstruction
Who in the past were our leaders
We hail those leaders who dead but yet live who did not slouch
Who walked through life with tall courage and large strides
Who recognized dishonor not in defeat but in surrender
Who helped to restore our belief in our dark and bronzed selves
Who helped us know we are one with the rest of humanity
Who joined with us to discover how to make a way out of no way
Who dared to dream, to take risks and to defy the odds
Who labored to widen todays narrow path for us to tread tomorrow
Who now are our leaders?
They are now our leaders
Who believe in a better Tomorrow
Who can dream and keep hope alive
Who know the ways of concrete action
Who will not backslide in the face of aggression
Who must try and survive in order to journey with us
Through the risky Present into that equitable Tomorrow.
(Rose Mezu, Homage To My People. February 17, 2001)
1. 1. Essay is modified from a Lecture delivered as Writer-in-Residence to the Assembled Faculty and Students of the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls on Monday, November 6, 2006. Program was organized by the UNI African Studies Association.
2. 2. In a July 1-7, 1983 interview in Emeryville, California, a suburb of Oakland and San Francisco by Reginald Martin, Ishmael Reed comments on and explains the origin of the word universal:
. . . [universal is] not a criticism of literature. Lorenzo Thomas tracked the term “universal” to Tolstoy’s essay on art, in which he says that universal art is the art of the people. The other art is landlord art: ballet. They got it all wrong, and they use the term to dismiss works which they consider too local or too ethnic. . . . Someone was telling me that a great book would never be written in Yiddish, and then about six months later, Isaac Singer won the Nobel Prize for literature. I think if Faulkner had been a black writer, he would have been considered ethnic. I would say 60 percent of Faulkner’s work is written in black English. People just seem to be blinded to reality when it comes to dismissing languages. I don’t think there is any standard English. I think there is such a thing as protocol English.
3. Some of Reeds books are Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974) Flight to Canada (1976), The Terrible Twos (1982), The Terrible Threes (1999), Reckless Eyeballing (2000).
4. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New American Library edition: New York, 1969).
As Writer-in-Residence, Dr. Rose Ure Mezu read the above essay as Lecture before the assembled faculty and students of the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls on November 6, 2006. It elicited very lively, soul-searching discussion, questions and answers.
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Other essays by Dr. Rose Ure Mezu:
Black Nationalists: Reconsidering: Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T., & Nkrumah (Introduction) / Chinua Achebe The Man and His Works (Introduction)
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#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”Lisa Adkins, University of London
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.WashingtonPost
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 6 December 2006 / update 1 January 2012