Africa’s Tarnished Name
by Chinua Achebe.
Penguin Modern Classics 28. 2018 (2009)
Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that?‘Africa Is People’ (1998)
Chinua Achebe is regarded as a giant not just of African but of world literature, yet it has taken me a while to read anything by him. Being an academic as well as a man of letters his is a legacy of factual writings as well as of fiction and so for me provides a legitimate way into his body of work.
This volume in Penguin’s Modern Classics is a selection of essays and speeches taken from a collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child, published in 2011, two years before his death. The four pieces range in date from 1989 to 2008, and I propose discussing them in chronological order rather than the order published here. This way I hope to get a sense of any common themes spread over a score of years as well as any changes of emphasis.
‘Travelling White’ first appeared in The Guardian in 1989, and describes a tour of east, central, and southern Africa undertaken soon after Nigerian independence in 1960, achieved with the help of a Rockefeller Fellowship. Or rather, it indicates that a tour did take place but the itinerary is very sketchy; instead Achebe highlights a handful of incidents that underline a racism that he, as a Nigerian, had largely been spared in his country and one that at first amused then saddened him. This racism manifested in what was then called Rhodesia, where segregation was practised on buses, for example, and in form-filling (where Africans fell under the category of ‘Other’). Another instance occurred after his novel, When Things Fall Apart, was lent to a German judge who’d intended to retire to Namibia. The book proved to be instrumental in that the judge chose to retire elsewhere: it had made him realise harsh truths not just about Nigeria’s colonial legacy but also South Africa’s then situation. Achebe considered this situation.
But how was it that this prominent jurist carried such a blind spot about Africa all his life? Did he never read the papers? Why did he need an African novel to open his eyes? My own theory is that he needed to hear Africa speak for itself after a lifetime of hearing Africa spoken about by others.‘Travelling White’ (1989)
This notion — listening to Africa speak for itself — is taken up in ‘Africa Is People’, adapted from a speech Achebe gave to the OECD in 1998. In it he points to the continued othering of the African experience by rich, mostly white nations and by prominent white individuals. He instances the imperialist, colonialist attitudes that persist in First and Second World governments and international agencies, attitudes that he quotes Albert Schweizer and Joseph Conrad uttering, attitudes that continue to ensure many African countries remain plundered and exploited, to the impoverishment of millions. The point of his argument, he says after quoting James Baldwin,
is to alert us to the image burden that Africa bears today and make us recognize how that image has molded contemporary attitudes, including perhaps our own, to that continent.‘Africa Is People’ (1998)
Africa is people, not the collective image non-Africans might casually picture: “Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone.” This is a thread he picks up in ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’, also from 1998, which is the longest piece here and which gives to this selection its overall title. Achebe takes a long view of the relationship held by Africa and Europe, from when the European perception of its neighbouring continent changed from a degree of ignorance to “a deliberate invention” of alienness, dating from its pursuit of enslavement and then colonisation over the last half millennium.
Centuries of pejorative and derogatory value judgements were thought to provide justification for Europeans to regard and treat Africans as somehow lesser beings, a viewpoint which, only slightly modified, “has been bequeathed to the cinema, to journalism, to certain varieties of anthropology, even to humanitarianism and missionary work itself.” Achebe again levels his criticism at Albert Schweitzer and particularly at Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, whose protagonist in that novel characterised Africa somehow as Europeans’ “accursed inheritance.”
Conrad was at once a prisoner of this tradition [of seeming ambivalence towards Africans’ nature] and its most influential promoter, for he, more than anyone, secured its admission into the hall of fame of ‘canonical’ literature.‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’ (1998)
And yet, four centuries before Conrad’s portrayal of Africa as Europeans’ “accursed inheritance”, the Portuguese were on equal terms with Nzinga Mbemba, the Mweni-Congo or Congolese king, whose son became Dom Henrique, the country’s first bishop, who addressed the pope in Latin at his consecration. Nzinga Mbemba, as Dom Alfonso I of the Congo, was, addressed by the Portuguese king as his ‘royal brother’. Achebe contrasts Conrad’s infamous words with Livingstone’s observation that Africans “are just a strange mixture of good and evil as men are everywhere else;” he also contrasts a crude caricature of an 18th-century Jamaican and Cambridge graduate, Francis Williams, with Gainsborough’s sensitive portrayal of Ignatius Sancho, an African man of letters. How to account for such different responses? “Perhaps this difference can best be put in one phrase: the presence or absence of respect for the human person.”
Achebe’s stringent criticism of Conrad’s racism first appeared back in 1975 in his essay ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness‘, and it’s clear that the novel epitomised what he saw as a white supremicist attitude. However, in the 2008 speech entitled ‘What Is Nigeria to Me?’ (the latest in date but the first published here) he shows that “the presence or absence of respect for the human person” applied equally to fellow Nigerians in the newly emergent African state of the 1960s, when the country erupted into bloody civil war. Achebe, from the Igbo people in the nascent but doomed state of Biafra, soon found his feelings of pride for Nigeria severely tested when around two million Africans from both sides lost their lives. “Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting,” he said in 2008, but the previously “hard words Nigeria and I have said to each other begin to look like words of anxious love, not hate.”
These four essays have proved enlightening and informative for me, showing Achebe to have been a complex, talented and thoughtful man, proud of the culture and history that shaped him, fearless in criticism but fair-minded when being fair-minded was called for. This selection has succeeded in doing what it set out to do — to introduce a writer and storyteller to a new audience using his own words, and offer us a man who showed respect to his fellow humans. I look forward to reading more by him.
No 9 of my 15 Books of Summer