Chinua Achebe's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf has just published a disappointing volume of Achebe's essays titled The Education of a British-Protected Child. They are old (well, mostly old) speeches sloppily stapled together. Almost all the ideas have been previously published multiple times, ages ago, with some freely available on the Internet. Achebe has said precious little here that offers fresh insights on the world's current condition.
Of 16 essays, only three were written in this century. The rest were written in the eighties and mid nineties. Those new to Achebe's works may be enthralled by the power of his words but they will be better served reading his prior works; Home and Exile, Hopes and Impediments, and The Trouble with Nigeria. The same issues are recycled ad nauseam: Racism, colonialism, Africa's humanity, Africans, African writers, James Baldwin, etc. Achebe's classic denunciation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness has already attained ubiquity in books and on the Internet. I suspect the machinations of an overly aggressive publisher here, building a cash cow out of Achebe's scrolls.
The essay, My Dad and Me, about Achebe's father was first published in 1996, in Larry King's book of the same title, but it is a tight-lipped reflection that is mostly devoted to Achebe's great-uncle. The volume Hopes and Impediments already covers that subject richly and warmly. Similarly, My Daughters, although written in 2009 provides anecdotes about parenting in the late sixties and early seventies. It is a cute essay but the daughters are grown now; surely, they and perhaps Achebe's grandchildren have given him enough to write about since then. The editing is sloppy. Several speeches from Achebe's lecture circuit were poorly edited to adapt them to essay format. And the errors are unacceptable, Knopf should be embarrassed. In one essay, Achebe talks of his only meeting with James Baldwin in 1983; in another, the same meeting is in 1980. Furthermore, the official name of the conference sponsor changes depending on the essay. Achebe is a master story-teller, but you soon get tired of reading the same anecdotes over and over again. There is a recurring anecdote about confronting racism in a bus. In one essay, a bus driver confronts Achebe about sitting in the Whites Only section of the bus; in another essay, it is the bus conductor.
Achebe's near-obsession with the West's prejudices turns into a relentless chant: "Africans are people in the same way that Americans, Europeans, Asians, etcetera are people. Africans are not some strange beings with unpronounceable names and impenetrable minds." (p126) It is a position that is sadly allergic to the reality: Our black leaders are compromising our humanity. As Achebe faces the West and insists on our humanity through clenched teeth, our people stand far away, trying very hard to look like the broken people that he insists we are not. Achebe's words drip angrily like ancient history, words gone rusty in the broken pipes of Nigeria's indifference. Missing is the Achebe who famously urged Nigerians to look inwards in The Trouble with Nigeria: "The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else." Missing is the question: Why are things the way they are? Why are we having trouble managing change? Achebe shies away from that analysis.
We are living in incredibly exciting times and technology is driving a shift in global cultural transformation. Today, the notion of the nation-state as an entity is under serious review. The individual is becoming increasingly a municipality of one. Economic theories that assumed finite physical boundaries have ruined today's global economy. African thinkers should be part of the conversation, and visioning a robust future for Africa. Even as we confront the West, we must also engage in honest conversations among ourselves about our contribution to this mess. Those that rubbish Africa's name today are not just white folks; black on black carnage is the rage of the day in Africa. Our leaders are openly savaging Africa; let us turn our rage on them.
This is not a review but a commentary on how Knopf conducts its business of publishing books. As technology continues to democratize and individualize creative expression traditional publishing houses will be tempted to employ gimmickry to rescue them from what they imagine is a looming irrelevance. It doesn't have to be so. There are challenges indeed but opportunities abound to use technology to showcase the talents and gifts of emerging and established writers. The unintended consequence of recycling the dated ideas of thinkers is to trivialize their legacy. That would be unfortunate and unforgivable. Professor Chinua Achebe deserves better than that. Finally, there is a lot spoken by Achebe's silence. These essays are merely words that clothe Achebe in the silence of the bereaved. We must respect it, but as a child that grew up at the Eagle's feet lapping up his every word, this silence hurts. Speak, speak to us great teacher.