In order to identify and explicate common elements among the essays of Achebe, Chinweizu and Ngugi, I believe it would be relevant to mention the historical context of colonization and decolonization processes in Africa. Besides reflecting on the outcomes of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the three essays in a certain way represent a response to each other. In other words, I believe that when comparing the three essays, Achebe sort of sets the ground for discussing territorial, mental and intellectual colonization, while Chinweizu and Ngugi develop and deepen Achebe’s thoughts.
The African colonization process when analyzed through the perspective of exploitation can certainly be characterized as cruel and unfair. Allan Lester, in his article “ Settlers, the State and the Colonial Power: The Colonization of Queen Adelaide Province, 1834-37”, considers that the nineteenth century is featured as a period of dramatic changes in the African political scenario in which African kingdoms and empires suffered deep modifications in their political structure. In the long run, political instability aligned to lack of competitive technological warfare, results in the Africans’ inability to organize and maintain effective resistance force against the European invaders. The so-called humanitarian aspect of colonialism hid despotic policies, which resulted in mental and intellectual colonization (1998, p. 237). Later on, in the age of decolonization, William Zartman in his article, “Europe and Africa: decolonization or dependency?” questions to what extent Africa is truly being decolonized. The author further elucidates that while sovereign and military control was removed from the African territory, Europe still kept exerting political and economic control. Last but not least, the European cultural conditioning remained affecting Africa and Africans in several areas such as the construction of knowledge in the “African literature” (1976, p. 326).
The concept of African literature has been intensively debated among African writers. Among the most popular topics are the imposed influence of European elements on Africans writers and the usage of English and other national languages when writing about African culture and literature. Gikandi (2008) delimits the occurrence of what is now known as modern African literature in the crucible of colonialism. He also clarifies that although oral literature and Arabic writing were thriving practices in the pre-colonial period, the current literary scholarship could not have happened if Africa and Europe had not faced an impactful encounter (p. 54). That said, much has been discussed about the state of African literature and its definition. For instance, during the Makerere University conference in 1962, the final verdict about African literature and its definition is, “creative writing in which an African setting is authentically handled or to which experiences originating in Africa are integral” (Ten, 2011). Nonetheless, Achebe (1975) discords with that small and neat definition; the author complements highlighting that African literature should not be seen as one single unit but as a group of connected units (246).
Assuming Achebe and Gikandi’s principles that African literature is a complex interaction between national and international cultural elements, one can clearly notice that in “Things Fall Apart”, Achebe responds to Conrad’s novel “The Heart of Darkness”, showing the clash between colonialism and traditional culture using the Africans’ point of view. Achebe provides Africans and the rest of the world with a different perspective about his country and culture. As a consequence, the author opens doors for other African authors to write about themselves and their culture as autonomous individuals. Old paradigms such as the classification of Africans as “rudimentary souls” presented by Conrad were fiercely questioned by Achebe (p.41). Later on, in “Decolonizing the African Mind”, Chinweizu (1987) urges the reader to start the “re-Africanization” process, in which consists of the restoration of the African cultural personality. Chinweizu believes that Africans were culturally conditioned by two different factors: the Europeans using industrial civilization as means of control and the Arabs using religion and the promises of the celestial kingdom. At this point, one can attribute the “dismantling of white supremacist beliefs” practice, suggested by Chinweizu as an element that is also present in Achebe and Ngugi’s works. For instance, Achebe in “ An image of Africa”, makes it clear through the statement, “ […] quite simply is the desire- one might say the need- in Western psychology to set Africa as a foil to Europe, as a place of negation, at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will manifest […](p.108). In other words, the British point of view expressed by Conrad in his novel corresponds to an image of Africa as the antithesis of Europe and as a consequence, an antithesis of civilization. Thus, Achebe is angered by the Africans’ dehumanization presented by Conrad, which also resides in Chinweizu’s concept of “white supremacist beliefs”.
Another interesting point is the longstanding debate about using English as a communication vehicle of African literature. Ten (2011) interestingly sheds light on how Ngugi is appreciative of Achebe’s complex novels and to a certain extent was inspired by him. Nonetheless, Ngugi radically accused Achebe of betrayal because of using English when writing African literature. Furthermore, Ten (2011) explains Achebe’s “preference” for writing in English since it would be challenging to reach out for readership on a large scale if he published in his mother language. For Achebe, the advantages of promoting African literature and preserving Africans’ history and customs using English, surpass the disadvantage of also promoting the “oppressors’ language”. On the opposite end of the spectrum in the debate, Ngugi fiercely attacks the usage of English when writing about African literature. Ngugi’s point of view is that besides being a communication vehicle, language also carries a nation’s culture, history, tradition and ideals (p.02). Indeed, to some extent, one might wonder if deep cultural aspects of a given nation would not be possibly lost in translation when switching from the mother tongue to a national language such as English. How authentically and effectively portrayed would the African culture be, if the writer is taking the risk to lose the intricacies of his mother tongue? In addition, Ngugi (1993) addresses what is almost a lack of respect to Africa and its culture; the so-called experts in African literature are not required to have a minimum knowledge or familiarity with any African language. It is almost unquestionable that a French literature expert would have to know how to speak the French language. While both Achebe and Ngugi are concerned about preserving disappearing cultures, Achebe seems to be more acquiescent to the reality of post-colonial Africa. Contrarily, Ngugi acts more radically and calls for resistance against ongoing oppression in a continent under the influence of neo-colonialism.
Another common element among the essays of Achebe, Chinweizu and Ngugi can be represented by an excerpt of a 2008 Transition interview in which Achebe affirms that, “I think that where we’re headed is the final realization that Africans are people: nothing more and nothing less.” Whether through Achebe’s common sense, Ngugi’s radical attitudes or Chinweizu’s exhortation to critical thinking, all of them urge the readers to notice Africans as people: “nothing more and nothing less”. Thus, the understanding of Africans as people also means the understanding of their full intellectual, cultural, political and economic capabilities. In “Creating Space for a Hundred Flowers to Bloom”, Ngugi (1993) brilliantly recalls how literary and intellectual movements are often a reaction to social and economic domination. For instance, one might cite the Negritude Movement in which the writer Senghor shifted the ideology of response to racism to a political movement exhorting Africa’s independence. Although there are several definitions of the Negritude Movement, it is quite complex to achieve a common denominator since it addressed many areas of thought. Examples are Sartre’s definition as “antiracism racism” and Irele’s as “the quest for identity in the heritage of African civilizations’ histories” (Lowder, 2003, p. 4). Another interesting aspect to point out is that the evolution of the Negritude Movement also reflects Senghor’s life. In other words, Senghor’s duel identity as an African and French man and his struggles to integration reflected on his writings. As consequence, the Negritude Movement was a product of colonialism, as was Senghor.
To conclude, one might infer that probably the most important common element among Achebe, Chinweizu and Ngugi’s essays is the fully realization of Africans as capable people. In order to acknowledge Africans as capable people, it is important to respect the African culture and their sovereignty as means of collaborative production with other nations, not submissiveness. The three authors recognize the need of interaction with European nations, however, the Europhone should have its proper place; as a “footnote in African literature” (Ngugi, 1993, p. 156). Also, the three authors believe in learning and enriching through diversity, provided that Africans apply their critical thinking and decide whether or not to use foreign elements to their benefit. The decolonization process is more than an external battle; it is a battle within each individual against ingrained cultural conditioning.
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Gikandi, Simmon. “African Literature and the Colonial Factor.” African and Caribbean Literature. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 379-397. Print.
Lester, Alan. “Settlers, the State and Colonial Power: The colonization of Queen Adelaide Province, 1834-37. The Journal of African History. 39 (2):221-245.Jstor. Cambridge University Press. Web. 28 Sept. 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/183597
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Ten, Kristina S. “Vehicles for Story: Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on Defining African Literature, Preserving Culture and Self.” Student Pulse 3(05) (2011). http://www.studentpulse.com/a?id=530>
Zartman, William. “Europe and Africa: Decolonization or dependency?” Foreign Affairs 18 Jan. 1976. Foreign Affairs. Web. 28 Sept. 2014. <http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/25081/i-william-zartman/europe-and-africa-decolonization-or-dependency>.