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For continental Africans, colonial rule became their Middle Passage.  Achebe’s

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

 

Women in Chains: Abandonment in Love Relationships in the Fiction of Selected West African Writers (1994) / Songs of the Hearth (1993) /

Homage to My People (2004) / A History of Africana Women's Literature (2004)

 Black Nationalists: Reconsidering Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T. & Nkrumah (1999) Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works (2006)

*   *   *   *   *

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 writer’s 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:

Africa’s Pre-colonial Inheritance and Colonial Rule as Africa’s 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.  Achebe’s 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 Solomon’s Mines, Ayesha), and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1899). 

This is similar to Edward Said’s 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 Said’s 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 Kane’s 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 one’s 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, today’s writer has become society’s critic—the sensitive point of the community, guide, prophet, visionary. Consequently, Achebe’s 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 storyteller—griot—gives 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 afterwards—each 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 Achebe’s 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 Africa’s malaise, and he points directly to this:

Take for instance the issue of racial inequality which—whether or not we realize it—is at the very root of Africa’s 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 call—Omenala—which takes its meaning from ”Ala”—the 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 anyone’s 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 goddess—the 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 TFA’s Okonkwo’s 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, today’s 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 Machiavelli’s The Prince, the Pan-Africanist / political thoughts of W.E.B. Du Bois, and gender issues in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as platforms for comparison with African political, gender, and cultural attitudes and systems.

But the book also examines Achebe’s indictment of African leaders for post-colonial abuse and exploitation of the masses. Beyond the era of Achebe’s 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 African’s 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 Morrison’s 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 Achebe’s 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, “Equiano’s 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 Equiano’s 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 Equiano’s 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 America—Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals—who 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 readers—the community and academia alike—re-examine Igbo (African) religious thoughts, socio-cultural world, its folklore, mythopoeia—all 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 book’s discourse also covers Africa’s respect for nature and the environment—formerly dubbed “animism,” “paganism,” heathenism,” and “polytheism,” which now is a model for today’s 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 Mezu’s Religion and Society 57).

And thus, the abuses, violations, inaccurate, disrespectful treatment, and ignorant misperceptions by Christian Churches of Africa’s 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 saints—canonized or not.

That Africans are now being encouraged to revisit the honor given to their dead—the veneration of ancestors—is 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 (“Achebe’s Writings as Authentication of the Igbo Culture of Equiano’s 1789 Narrative”). 

As Africa and its diasporan youth should take comfort, the “African soul” is still intact since Africa’s 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 Achebe’s World

In the Third Millennium global community, women’s 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 writer’s 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 Nneka—Mother is supreme), a position that equally renders women ineffective since they play no part in society’s 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 Ikem—Anthills of the Savannah—says 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.

Womanist Creativism

Achebe’s words naturally inspired the formulation of my poetics of women’s writing titled “Theorizing the African Feminist Novel: the State of African Literature Today” (A History of Africana Women’s Literature, 24-47) that calls for a reconstructive phase of female writing—termed Womanist Creativism—a phase that does more than protest women’s 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 Women’s 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 Ezeulu—the respective heroes of his two tradition-based novels—are 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. Brown’s 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 Akunna’s 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 Achebe’s 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 Christ’s compassionate dictates: “O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you—Learned 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 Judaism—and unlike Christianity and Islam—indigenous African traditions have not sought to convert the whole of the human kind. The Yoruba do not seek to convert the Ibo to Yoruba religion—or 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 other—but 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 God’s 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 Ezeulu’s 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 me”—an 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 it”—an 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 nation’s 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 community’s 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 other’s viewpoint, more respect for the other’s 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 writing—“a conviction” that the novelist tells us that “this is the truth” (A Room of One’s 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 people’s 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 today—in 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 world’s 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). 

Achebe’s 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 acceptance—for whatever reason—of 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

Pan Africa.                        

                                             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 Community—qualities 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 life’s 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 today’s 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)

 

Notes:

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 Reed’s 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).

Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day.  London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975.

                          Anthills of the Savannah. Heinemann Educational Books, 1987.

                          Arrow of God.  New York: Random House, 1969.

                         Things Fall Apart. Heinemann Educational Books, 1958. 

                         Interview with the Nigerian.  Daily Times. Nov. 18, 1989, 12.

Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness, Edinburgh, GB: Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899.

Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, Written by Himself. Ed. David W. Blight. N.Y.: Bedford Books, 1993.

Ezewudo, Gabriel. “Christianity, African Traditional Religion and Colonialism: Were Africans Pawns or Players in the Cultural Encounter?” In Religion and Society. Ed. Rose Ure Mezu. -- Baltimore, MD: Black Academy Press, 1998. 43-61.

Mezu, Rose Ure. Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works. London: Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd., 2006.

        “Theorizing the African Feminist Novel: the State O f African Literature Today.” In  A History of Africana Women’s Literature.

        Baltimore, MD: BAPress, 2004. 

Mezu, Rose Ure & S. Okechukwu, eds. Pope John Paul II and Africa. Baltimore, MD: BAP, 2005.

Mezu, S. Okechukwu. Communalist Manifesto. Washington, DC: Nigerian Students’ Voice, 1966.

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran.  New York: Random House, 2003.

Said, Edward. “The Public role of Writers and Intellectuals.”  In The Public Intellectual. Ed. Helen Small.Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

                  Summary Points of Edward Said's "Orientalism" ttp://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Orientalism.html

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. London: Hogarth's Press, 1929.

*   *  *   *   *

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.

*   *   *   *   *

Other essays by Dr. Rose Ure Mezu:

An Africana Blueprint for Living in the 3rd Millennium Global Community1: An Essay / Pope John Paul II: A Life with a Mission: A Mission of Grace and Moral Strength

 

A History of Africana Women's Literature   (Introduction) / Africana Women: Their Historic Past and Future Activism

 

Black Nationalists: Reconsidering: Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T., & Nkrumah (Introduction) / Chinua Achebe The Man and His Works (Introduction)

 

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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posted 6 December 2006 / update 1 January 2012

 

 

 

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