Does the white man understand our custom about land? How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.
From Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe, published in 1958.
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, born on November 16, 1930, is one of Africa’s most renowned writers of classical literature. His name – Chinualumogu – means God will fight on my behalf.
Achebe’s first published work, Things Fall Apart, is considered a literary masterpiece and required reading for many high school and university English literature courses, including the General Certificate of Education.
Achebe was the founding editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series (established in 1962) which provided a forum for many African writers who came of age after their countries’ independence from European colonizers. He is a member of the Igbo people of Nigeria and supported Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), serving as an ambassador for the regime. His collection of poems, Beware Soul Brother, which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, was published in 1972 and written during the period of the civil war.
With the publication of Things Fall Apart in 1958, Achebe revolutionized the telling of African stories and set the standard for successive generations of African authors/writers, including Buchi Emecheta and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe describes in vivid language through various characters the damaging and ruinous effects of European culture imposed on African culture, civilization and society, which continued in the 1960 sequel, No Longer at Ease.
Arrow of God, published in 1964, is also about traditional Igbo culture clashing with European Christian missionaries and colonial government policies as the British Empire prevailed in Africa. A Man of the People, published in 1966, and Anthills of the Savannah, published in 1987, are also powerful stories told by an African about Africans and African culture.
Before Achebe rose to prominence, stories of and from Africa had been written by White colonizers, infamous among them Joseph Conrad and his book, Heart of Darkness. Published in 1902, Heart of Darkness is brutally disparaging of Africans, especially those who lived along the banks of the Congo River.
Conrad reduced the Africans to a group of sub-humans with no language or culture where, according to him:
“They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces.”
Describing the thoughts of the Europeans travelling in a steamer (boat) on the Congo River when they first saw Africans, Conrad wrote:
“But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.”
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad includes descriptions of Africans that can only be described as rabid racism:
“While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone.”
Achebe challenged conventional Western perceptions of Africans and provided alternatives to the negative stereotypical images of Africa constructed by European authors.
He explained this in one of his essays published in Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975):
“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 Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”
He included folktales and proverbs in his books to highlight the vibrancy and wisdom of traditional African culture.
Achebe is an academic who has taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst as Professor of English. He was the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York a position he held for more than 15 years. In 2009, he joined the Brown University faculty as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of Africana Studies.
On February 18, 1975, while he was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Achebe presented a Chancellor’s Lecture at Amherst entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” where he deconstructed the racism in Conrad’s novel and described Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist” (http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html). That lecture has been described as “one of the most important and influential treatises in post-colonial literary discourse”.
Achebe ran afoul of the White establishment when he criticized Heart of Darkness and many of his legions of admirers feel that is the reason he has not received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He is unrepentant. When asked by Onuora Udenwa of Quality Weekly how he felt about never winning a Nobel Prize, he reportedly replied:
“My position is that the Nobel Prize is important. But it is a European prize. It’s not an African prize. It’s not a Nigerian prize. Those who give it, Europeans who give it are not responsible to us. They have their reasons for setting it up. They have their rules for determining who should get it. Literature is not a heavyweight championship.”
Achebe’s most recent book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra,” was published on October, 11 2012, the same year he celebrates his 82nd birthday. He continues to do groundbreaking work.