A human is human because . . . | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 20, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 20, 2010

A human is human because . . .

Nora Nahid Khan goes for a dissection of an essay collection


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"STORIES are not always innocent,” states Chinua Achebe in his new essay collection, The Education of a British Protected Child. Whether told by a colonizer, a correspondent on the news, or in a children's book, a story can be insidious, dispossessing, and difficult to un-root from collective consciousness when disseminated without care. To illustrate this point, Achebe recounts reading a children's book he bought for his daughter, in which a white boy's kite is caught on the wind and lands in a coconut tree outside an African village, where it is then solemnly worshipped as a supernatural object. Sacrifices are offered, and a witch doctor leads “the village in a procession from the coconut tree to the village shrine.” How do we understand the telling of such “African” stories by people who are not African? With great circumspection, Achebe replies, and with a keen eye towards the story's origin, and maker (Achebe went on to write his own children's books). Without such vigilance, he warns, we become intellectually complacent, and “we run the risk of committing grave injustices absentmindedly.”
Chinua Achebe, the world's most-translated African writer, has, through his polemic, continually shown himself an advocate for such vigilance, for complexity and rigor of thought, and conscientious questioning. He is best known for his 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart (a world classic translated into over 50 languages), which depicts Igbo tribal life through the struggle of Okonkwo against his father's disreputable legacy and the encroachment of Anglican missionaries. He also founded the renowned African Writers Series in 1962; in 1972, Achebe began his career as an academic and lecturer at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He began to write elegiac poetry and essays consistently over the next two decades, winning the Man Booker International Prize for his body of work in 2007. He has written four other novels; many of the essays in Education are gleaned from past speeches, lectures and writings. He is currently a professor of literature at Brown University.
In the introduction to Education, Achebe modestly claims his position is “unspectacular”; his prose and insights, however, are anything but. He reflects over the course of 16 essays on his life as a writer and a Nigerian, an existence both “abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting." Achebe claims to speak from a “middle ground” perspective, caught in dual language loyalties, Igbo and English. His more gauzy memories of his British public school days run parallel to clear-eyed critiques of the “complex psychology of the imperial vocation,” which is “planted and watered by careful social, mental and educational husbandry.” Achebe's conclusions are as devastating as the old Igbo and Bantu proverbs that he drops in his writing (including the powerful He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down): Victims must know the names of their oppressors; Nigeria is a child; Africa's gift is the art of cooperation with people and communal aspiration.
Achebe's main strength is the skilled hand he uses to steer the reader calmly towards his revelations. Buoyed within these waters are moments of outright thrill, as when Achebe de-constructs overly easy rationalizations and the arguments of his critics in a single flourish. In an essay again critiquing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he counters the statement that Conrad “shows great compassion towards” Africans with a cool riposte: “Africans are not really served by his compassion.” His humour, too, is dark and wry; Achebe terms the old practice of “giving slaves the names of European heroes” to be “rather like someone calling his cat Napoleon.”
Achebe's interests are often in historical figures: from Jesuit priests and missionaries to Dom Afonso I, the converted Christian King of Congo with ties to the Vatican, to Olaudah Equiano, all who traversed the former Congo. Achebe also writes of his experience teaching and advice for teachers worldwide, raising four children, of his relationship with his evangelist teacher-father, of meeting Nuruddin Farah, and of sitting in the front of an all-white bus on a trip to Victoria Falls. Throughout, one considers the force of Mr. Achebe's polemic, as in his essay “Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature.” Attending to attacks by writers like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who accused Achebe of being unpatriotic for writing in English, he notes: “Language is a handy whipping boy to summon and belabor when we have failed in some serious way. In other words, we play politics with language, and in doing so conceal the reality and complexity of our situation from ourselves…” For writers like Thiong'o, then, language is less a matter of fluid communication, but a question of resistance; their sense of self-respect is tied up in a story, or fantasy, of a monolingual Nigeria that did not ever exist, here deployed in the name of patriotism. Achebe's ultimate support of the English language is for its practical and economic power to unite Nigeria.
In one of the most beautiful essays of the collection, Achebe describes the art of Mbari, a traditional art form which seeks to invoke the gods' protection through celebration of the world and of the life lived in it. In a constructed temple, stage and auditorium, artists build clay and earth sculptures, of deities, human beings, scenes from mythology and village life, fights, marriages, and deaths. On the day of the festival, the community gathers for feasting and viewing of the house of mbari, where all significant events in the community not simply ideal are portrayed. Hence, Europeans were eventually enshrined, as well (“seated amongst the molded figures, complete with his peaked helmet and pipe […] his iron horse, or bicycle, and his native police orderly”) in order to acknowledge his presence:
To the Igbo mentality, art must, among other uses, provide a means to domesticate that which is wild; it must act like the lightning conductor which arrests destructive electrical potentials and channels them harmlessly to earth. The Igbo insist that any presence which is ignored, denigrated, denied acknowledgment and celebration, can become a focus for anxiety and disruption. To them, celebration is the acknowledgement, not the welcoming, of a presence. It is the courtesy of giving everybody his due.
Mbari, or the communal use of art as celebration, seems to encourage a more tempered vision of reality; instead of worship of a perfect world, the Igbo acknowledge the world as it is, and sublimate harm within their cosmos through art.
Not all of Achebe's meandering digressions are productive. One wonders that the essays, originally delivered as lectures, were not edited down with a firmer hand. I felt, while reading, as though I were quickly thumbing through a stranger's childhood scrapbook as they peered disinterestedly over my shoulder. I hungered for anecdotes in Achebe's “novelist” voice, for more rich story and less aphoristic summations. As the collection seems intentionally cast as the moseying reflections of a grand man of letters, Achebe's meetings and encounters with personages of note are notable cultural evidence: small glimpses into a generally elusive literary figure's life. Nonetheless, the thinly outlined anecdotes would have done well with more detail and colour within. Achebe's narrow flight from Nigeria during the separatist Igbo Biafran War in 1967 is captured in one passing sentence. Achebe boils his meeting with James Baldwin down to what Baldwin said to him (“This is a brother I have not seen in 400 years”); in “Africa is People,” Achebe stands before a committee of economists and asks, “Have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people?” These moments are droll and give pause, but Achebe doesn't feel it necessary to explain or delve into the emotional fallout of his own stories, so focused are his reflections on the abstract, on the significance of language and post-colonial identity.
This meandering style is, on one level, a function of retrospection. In the title essay, we find crystalline images from his childhood in pre-independence Nigeria: reading Oliver Twist and Treasure Island with pleasure, along with Church Missionary Society yearly almanacs, filled with pictures of bishops and other dignitaries, including “King George V in red and gold, with a sword”. Most vividly rendered are the various influential Englishmen in Achebe's childhood, though British citizens' physical presence was minimal in Nigeria. He warmly remembers J.M. Stuart Young walking along New Market Road, “bareheaded in the sun,” and his teacher William Simpson who enforced a 'Textbook Act', forbidding students to read schoolwork after a certain hour, and delve into novels instead.
On the topic of his infamous criticism of Conrad, claiming Heart of Darkness and its depictions of Africans as maddened savages make for “poisonous writing”, Achebe here responds to counter-criticism, that argues the racial insensitivity of Conrad was a norm for his contemporaries: “Even if that were so, it would still be a flaw in a serious writer a flaw which responsible criticism today could not gloss over. But it is not even true that everybody in Conrad's day was like him.” Citing David Livingstone, an older contemporary who advocated racial tolerance and openness, Mr. Achebe concludes, “Without doubt, the times in which we live influence our behavior, but the best or merely the better among us, like Livingstone, are never held hostage by their times.”
Here, one may worry that the worth of some thinkers, such as the philosopher David Hume, are dismissed by Achebe because of their moral failings or outright prejudice against blacks. A number of questions are raised: How are we to contextualize writers who were, in fact, “held hostage by their times”? Should a great author of dubitable moral conviction be cast off so (just as Conrad's reputation has greatly suffered from Achebe's critique), or should the criticism itself respond to account for all the potential biases an author may have had? If Milton, for example, were revealed to have had written an overtly pro-slavery tract, how should his legacy as a writer be altered, if at all? In a sense, Achebe's concerns could conceivably tend to a blunt, even irresponsible criticism (that nonetheless claims responsibility).
Returning to the question of story-telling, Achebe is un-ambivalent about his feelings about colonialism. He presents, clearly, the confluence of religious, moral and institutional prejudice in orchestrating the uncomfortable historical realities, to say the least, of slavery, and later, colonialism. Doing so, he falls in the tradition of many thinkers and philosophers before him (notably Hannah Arendt) who probed the psychology of evil - how entire societies organize themselves around the production of atrocities. When the “event” in question (slavery) stretches across five hundred years, the orchestration of social forces is more than simply political and economic. Only through appealing to the moral sense of Europe could pro-slavery tracts suggest slavery was both desirable and good.
Some of Achebe's darkest humour is saved for these reflections. Reflecting on pro-slavery rhetoric, its widespread image of Africans as people with “no soul, no religion, no culture, no history, no human speech”, he then asks, “Any wonder, then, that they should be subjugated by those who are endowed with these human gifts?” Deconstructing the “Africa that never was,” Achebe elegantly delineates the progression of the colonizer's story-making:
If there are valuable things like gold or diamonds which you are carting away from [a man's] territory, you prove that he doesn't own them in the real sense of the word --- that he and they just happened to be lying around in the same place when you arrived. Finally […] you may even be prepared to question whether such as he can be, like you, fully human. It is only a few steps from denying the presence of a man standing there before you to questioning his very humanity.
Shortly before this, he notes that the “moment when churchmen began to doubt the existence of the black man's soul was the same moment the black man's body was fetching high prices in the marketplace for their mercantilist” cousins. In order to live with his deed, the oppressor must create a story that legitimizes him.
Countering these false stories, of course, is the divine simplicity of another favourite Bantu proverb of Achebe's: A human is human because of other humans.

Nora Nahid Khan is a graduate of Harvard University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is a writer living in New Haven, Connecticut.

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