In early April 1980, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe met the Harlem-raised James Baldwin “for the first, and sadly last, time,” at the annual meeting of the African Literature Association, held that year in Gainesville, Fla. Both men happened to arrive to the conference a day late, pushing back their much anticipated keynote address, a dialogue titled “Defining the African Aesthetic,” from Wednesday to Friday evening.
Reporting on the occasion for The Black Scholar, Dorothy Randall Tsuruta, now chair of Africana Studies at San Francisco State, recalled the slow, early exit from the auditorium of scores of “crestfallen enthusiasts who’d come out, presumably, only to hear Achebe and Baldwin.” The slave trade had kept Africans and African-Americans apart for some 400 years, time and distance enough to allow misunderstandings and animosities between the two groups to become entrenched. Indeed, as Achebe the African and Baldwin the African-American saw it, they themselves had been kept apart for those 400 years. A single day together in private offered the opportunity to patch up some old wounds.
Readers today might assume a simple and easy friendship between Baldwin and Achebe, the so-called father of African literature and author of the 1959 novel Things Fall Apart. Still, time and again in Achebe’s new collection of essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child , we see that nothing about the relationship between Africa and the West, with its overlapping histories of missionaries, colonizers and slave traders, has ever been simple or easy. Achebe says that Baldwin, as a young man, “lamented the ‘fact’ that his African ancestors did nothing but sit around waiting for white slavers to arrive!”
Baldwin’s “terrible comment,” the result of what Achebe calls “historical alienation,” was undoubtedly less obvious or harmful than the paternalism common among Christian missionaries or the slave trade’s utter brutality. But in a book concerned ultimately with the complexities of colonization, Baldwin gets just as much play as Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, a writer “at once a prisoner” of a Western literary tradition that dehumanized Africans “and its most influential promoter.” Mentioned in no less than three of the book’s 16 essays, the meeting of Achebe and Baldwin becomes a kind of refrain. Their reconciliation, which represents, it seems, Baldwin’s reconciliation with the complexity of Africa itself, is as profound as any other in the book.
Recalling personal history, from an episodic look back at British colonial rule—hence the title of the book, which recalls the designation he is given on his 1957 passport: “British Protected Person”—to bittersweet remembrances of family life, Achebe reveals an endless string of complications and, very often, reconciliations. Born to Christian parents in the Nigerian village of Ogidi, the setting of Things Fall Apart, he fondly recalls watching, “from a reasonable distance,” the traditional masquerades of the Nwafo Festival; even so, he writes, the boundary between “the people of the church and the people of the world…had very many crossings.” And the sturdiest bridge between the church (a k a the West) and the world (a k a Africa) was language—“in song and speech”—which just happens to be the source and yield of Achebe’s genius.
The essays, Achebe admits, ramble, especially those that were originally presented as lectures. A sharper editor might have smoothed out a few of the rough edges. But roughness, one might argue, could be what the national—and in this case international—conversation about race could use. The man does not pull punches. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness contains “poisonous writing,” and Achebe relentlessly assails Conrad. In an essay titled “Traveling White,” Achebe describes journeying through Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1960s, where, he claims at the outset, “the chief problem was racism.” And on several occasions—again, in what becomes a refrain—he reports a conversation he had during that same tour, seated in the front of a segregated bus:
TICKET COLLECTOR: What are you doing here?
CHINUA ACHEBE: I am traveling to Victoria Falls.
T.C.: Why are you sitting here?
C.A.: Why not?
T.C.: Where do you come from?
C.A.: I don’t see what it has to do with it. But if you must know, I come from Nigeria, and there we sit where we like in the bus.
The problems Africa faces are the problems we all face—hunger, violence, oppression, colonialism and racism—whether blatant or, worse, subconscious. Struggling against these evils following the example of Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and the great West African nationalist Azikiwe, three of Achebe’s heroes, is the best we can do. And we must.
“Africa is people,” writes Achebe in his concluding essay (this would have been a better title for the book as a whole). And his final words only echo what he has been saying from the start: “The great thing about being human is our ability to face adversity down by refusing to be defined by it, refusing to be no more than its agent or its victim.” Achebe calls this finding the middle ground, living on those bridges that connect us, that span the 400 years that kept Achebe and Baldwin apart, and that account not only for the education of the British-protected child, but more important, perhaps, the education Achebe has been offering us for the past 60 years.