Professor of African Literatures and Chair,
Chinua Achebe Symposium Committee
September 26, 2002, 4:00-5:30 p.m.
Vice-Chancellors and Deans
Faculty, Staff and Students of the University of Massachusetts at Boston
Members of the Chinua Achebe Symposium Committee
Members of the Inauguration Committee
Ladies and Gentlemen:
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this event, a rare face-to-face encounter with Africa's most outstanding verbal artist and cultural philosopher, Chinulumogu Achebe -- a formidable champion of diversity in the ever-shrinking global community, a tireless critic of the abuse of power at all levels of human relations, Africa's voice in a world divided by Eurocentric bigotry, Stevenson Distinguished Professor of Literature at Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, widely recognized as one of the first 100 men who shaped the tone and spirit of the twentieth-Century and who stand to chart the movement of ideas in the twenty-first century and the third millennium.
Chancellor Gora, you must be congratulated for this magic moment. Celebrations such as your inauguration are occasions for the appearance of masks -- those denizens from the spirit world representing all aspects of the facts of experience. But it is not all celebrations that are graced by the appearance of the king of masks--Ijele--that magnificent embodiment of the history, culture, environment, and social life of a people over a whole generation. In the realm of modern African literature and culture, Achebe is Ijele. And here we are, Madam Chancellor, at your inauguration beholden to the most magnificent of Ijele, whose two traditional titles -- Ugonaabo (he-that-is-crowned-with-a-double-accolade-of-eagle-plumes) and Ikejimba (power-that-holds-the-community-together)-- sum up the artistic excellence and social commitments for which the enlightened global community is beholden to him, from New Zealand to Alaska, In Igbo culture, to wear an eagle plume is a mark of extraordinary achievement; a double accolade of eagle plumes is a mark of genius.
Since the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which has sold over 8 million copies in English and has been translated into well over 50 languages across the world, Achebe has embodied in his writings and social activism the main stream of Afrocentric discourse in its many battles against eurocentric absolutism and hegemony. Eurocentricism claims that Europe is the center of the world and the paragon of civilization while the rest of us inhabit the shadows of the periphery. Steeled with social Darwinist ideas of humankind arbitrarily categorized into a civilized world and the worlds of savagery and primitivism, Eurocentricism presents Europe and its diaspora as the first world while the rest of us, in terms of this absolutism, constitute the second, third and even fourth worlds. Achebe's Afrocentric challenge is not the romantic wishful thinking of those who would move the center, replacing one absolutism with another. Interrogating eurocentric writings like the novels of Joseph Conrad, Joyce Cary, Rider Haggard, and the like, he casts the light of reason on the fallacy that Africa, before the coming of Europeans in the form of explorers, adventurers, missionaries, traders, slavers, and colonizers, was a terrain of absences--the absence of language, absence of philosophy, absence of religion, absence of the rule of law, absence of social organization, and absence of even the human mind or soul itself. In Things Fall Apart through No Longer At Ease, through Arrow of God, through A Man of the People, through Girls at War, through Beware Soul Brother, through Morning Yet on Creation Day, through Hopes and Impediments, through Anthills of the Savannah, and through Home and Exile, Achebe has battled indefatigably to restore the presences denied in malignant eurocentric fiction. This is what he calls "celebration"--representing people in themselves as they really are, not as the flat, detractive stereotypes embodying the prejudices of the outsider.
Because of his overwhelming commitment to realism, Achebe's celebration of the human presence in Africa never lapses into self-pity or the idealization of the African world. "Our past," he says in one of his early essays, "is not one technicolor idyll." Thus, in his pursuit of realism, Achebe is a much an avid re-creator of the values of indigenous African culture as an unapologetic critic of the weaknesses of that same culture and the failure of African leadership in the postcolonial order.
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