What is Africa to Me? When Chinua Achebe is Wrong!
In my current research for a book chapter, I’m investigating Chinua Achebe’s interpretation of African traditional humanism and African traditional religion (s). In reading his important work, “The Education of a British-Protected Child,” Achebe articulates an important statement about African pre-colonial past and achievement, and Black Existence and Dignity:
“I do not see that it is necessary for any people to prove to another that they build cathedrals or pyramids before they can be entitled to peace and safety. Flowing from that, it is not necessary for black people to invent a great fictitious pas in order to justify their human existence and dignity today. What they must do is recover what belongs to them–their story– and tell it themselves.”–Chinua Achebe, “The Education of a British-Protected Child”
Generally, I agree with the general intent of Chinua’s powerful statement above. Accordingly, I do not have to tell a racist that my ancestors had built great civilizations in precolonial Africa to prove my humanity as a black person. To put this simply, “I created therefore I am.” Chinua would reject this premise in the Cartesian logic.
Hence, we must separate black personhood and black achievement. They belong to two different categories or spheres. In the same line of thought, black dignity should not be dependent on racial achievement or heritage. In other words, Black lives matter regardless of the education, social standing, and wealth of black people. Black personhood is linked categorically and naturally to black existence, and that black dignity is premised on black existence. Black existence Is!
On the other hand, Chinua’s declaration has compelled me to reconsider a few more things. There are many problems with his articulated position. First, what if the process of recovering what rightfully belongs to them (the African people or the black Diaspora) involves the telling of their historical (pre-colonial) past–Isn’t that a belonging?–and the defense or vindication of their past achievements. Secondly, what if the process of recovering what rightfully belongs to them also entails their claim of entitlement of their historical accomplishments in global history?
Telling the collective story of a people could be construed as an attempt to teach and reteach others about what has been forgotten or intentionally ignored by others–such as the contributions of the people in question to universal civilizations and modernity.
For example, why should any black person be ashamed to affirm that W.E. B. Du Bois was the first African American of Haitian descent to receive a PhD from Harvard University? And the same Du Bois is a founding father of modern sociology? If our past is great and awesome, why not celebrating and making it known to the world?