Remembering Chinua Achebe
(November 15, 1930 - March 21, 2013)
As I celebrate and mourn Professor Chinua Achebe, an outstanding writer and principled activist, it is not his writings that I will focus on, for which much has already been said. Indeed, what more can I add to what has already been spoken of his exceptional literary skills? Of what use, however, would such talent serve without integrity and action? Achebe could have carved out a comfort zone for himself and done what many so-called intellectuals do (especially in the arts and social sciences), which is constantly dole out lofty, self-seeking speeches, essays and books that achieve little more than bring vain attention to the speaker and/or writer. Sometimes tenure and promotion may be the rewards, but at the expense of authentic education that ought to constantly impact students, other scholars and society in general. Achebe can hardly be accused of such counterfeit scholarship that barely informs and that ends up being little more than academic incest (or masturbation) as it typically begins and ends with a closeted circle of conceited “intellectuals” who are primarily concerned with ejecting (ejaculating?) colorful, high-flown words that mean nothing or that at best distort what could be meaningful.
Achebe, first of all, told stories; stories that virtually anyone could connect with and learn from regardless of nationality, race, religion, gender or ethnicity. This is why the world embraced him. But, more importantly, he didn’t just write and talk. He acted. During the Nigeria-Biafra War, he was already quite well known globally. He could have sought and received sanctuary in a number of countries with educational institutions that would have gladly engaged him. But he chose to stay with and support his people as they confronted a ruthless enemy. He played a key role in Biafra, serving in various capacities as ambassador and journalist, thus bringing worldwide attention to endemic starvation, destruction and other human rights abuse. His decision was similar to that of Christopher Okigbo, a renowned poet who could have also taken the easy way out, but chose to fight for Biafra and, sadly, died in the process. Achebe’s craving for justice and contempt for social and political depravity was partly exemplified in his refusal to accept Nigerian national awards in 2004 and 2011. His message was clear. He wouldn’t accept such awards that are typically bestowed on VIP thieves, crooked politicians and former military dictators, some of whom have bloodstained hands, and all of whom have ravaged and continue to ravage the country.
When I remember and commemorate Achebe, I think of him alongside the likes of Dennis Brutus, the South African poet who just didn’t expose the evils of apartheid, but who also took action and participated in protests that eventually landed him in Robben Island, the same prison in which Nelson Mandela spent 27 years. I compare him to our great Wole Soyinka, another phenomenal writer who has done more than just talk. His stand against despotism forced him to flee Nigeria when the late General Sani Abacha went after him. Earlier, General Gowon threw him in jail for denouncing the massacre of easterners in northern Nigeria. When I think of Achebe, I remember the likes of African American writers and intellectuals like Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Claude Mackay, James W. Johnson, Paul Robeson, W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Amiri Baraka and many others. These activists span a long period in American history: the latter part of slavery (1800s), Jim Crow (1876-1960s), Harlem Renaissance (1920s), protest tradition (1930s-40s), Civil Rights (1950s-60s) and post-Civil Rights (1970s-present). They didn’t just write and speak; they acted, pushing for the right to vote and desegregation. In the process, they were vilified, thrown in jail and suffered various forms of harassment. Yes, Achebe, I put you in the category of the above scholar-activists. And, like them, there are many who continue to attack you because you have consistently resisted injustice and advocated the truth, both historical and current.
In your wisdom you never wasted time on your petty critics and detractors, simply advising them to go write their own stories if they didn’t like yours. You couldn’t have given a better and more effective response, even if in so few words. If you wasted more words on them, you would actually have given them some power over you. But you didn’t. You know what they say about empty vessels making the most noise. Many years from now we will still be remembering and eulogizing you while these self-absorbed, paltry and largely insecure critics would have all but been forgotten – that is, in the absence of seeking cheap attention by looking for who else to denigrate.
You gave us so many years of entertainment, instruction and enlightenment. Thank you, dear Chinualumogu Achebe. I wish you Perfect Peace and Rest!