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(Keynote Lecture, University Press Plc Authors Forum, Kakanfo Inn,

Wed. June 22, 2011)


Niyi Osundare


Part 2

…Most of Africa’s battle has been a struggle with the book. Until about the 20th century when ‘African responses’ began to appear, we were a people on whom so much was said and written, but who said and wrote very little on their own, about themselves. Thus having no mirror of our own, we saw our distorted images in the mirror of others. And what’s more, we began to regard those images as the authentic and only possible images of ourselves.

It was this kind of denigration (not to be missed, the sad irony of that word especially when used by a Black person) and self-abasement that fired the anger and imagination of the early nationalists (WEB du Bois, George Padmore, J.K Aggrey, CLR James, Aime Cesaire, Kwameh Nkrumah, and many others appalled by the half-ape, half-man representation of the Black person in some white-authored books and in the general European mind. It was what led to the ‘negative inspiration’ that produced Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart Camara Laye’s The African Child, dozens of race-affirming poems, and, to a large extent, Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman.

Long before these political and literary activists, earlier Black writers had realized the tremendous power of the written word and the African’s losing streak in the battle of the book. The Essaka-born Olaudah Equiano was captured and sold into slavery at the tender age of eleven years, survived the unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage and passed through the hands of several masters. He upbraided the bestial cruelty of his white slavers, but was literally entranced by their technological prowess, a prowess, no doubt, enabled and enhanced by the white man’s mastery of the written word. The book had an enthralling fascination for him and he was eternally curious about its capacity to ‘talk’ and teach. Let us hear him in his own voice:

I have often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning: for that purpose I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent (The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, p. 212)


The bamboozled but inquisitive Equiano made up his mind to demystify the book, decode its silence, and get it to yield some of the power it had so generously bestowed upon the white man. He acquired literacy and with it the secret language of the ‘talking book’. Thus liberated from ‘mental darkness’ (as another slave narrator, the incomparable Frederick Douglass, later put it), he put his new acquisition to work by writing his own autobiography with this highly elaborate title: The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself.        

Evident in this deliberately long and discursive title is Equiano’s recognition of the book as a vital instrument of self definition and racial retrieval. First, the title as indeed the book, confronts the politics of naming and the responsibility of the named, as syntactically realized in the sequencing of his two names. By placing ‘Olaudah Equiano’ before ‘Gaustavus Vassa’, he privileges his African name over his slave name by thematizing it; the use of the alternative coordinator ‘or’ further relegates the slave name to a negligible, dispensable second place in his grid of options. Personal name is followed by geographical, racial designation: ‘the African’ is both an announcement of place of origin and stubborn claim to it in spite of all its negative baggage in the Europe of the 18th century. And then, the assertive, almost triumphal tone and tenor of the last three words, ‘written by himself’, no doubt the most political, most self-celebratory phrase in the title. For, these ostensibly innocuous words announced to a cynical and astonished Europe the auspicious arrival of the African as author. The agential denotation of the prepositional phrase ‘by Himself’ forcibly harks back to the designation ‘the African’, with the ideo-syntactic implication that it is indeed possible to be an African and an author; that, indeed, the African has a writing Self, and is capable of being the Subject in his own narrative.

Equiano’s narrative was not the first by an African slave, but it was indeed the first comprehensive narrative to be written by an African, not dictated to a white amanuensis and shadow author. This very title is an assertion and celebration of agency, a virtue of possibility totally stripped off the Black person by slavery. It is a symbol of mental independence and discursive potency, the arrival of the silenced, the coming-to-voice of the disarticulated. Yes, indeed, the ‘talking book’ has aided the un-silencing of the African segment of humanity. Equiano’s pioneering work challenged the long-held myth of the Black person as the dumb junior brother of the white, very much in the vein of Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems published in incredulous America five years earlier, whose authorship was aggressively doubted before it was investigated and finally confirmed as, indeed, the work of a slave girl lately brought from savage Africa. Within a few years of its publication, Equiano’s book was translated into French and German, and he became a much-sought author. But beyond this personal triumph (important though it is), the book became a valuable tool for the Abolitionist Movement: its first-hand account of African culture by an author who lived his first eleven years in it, as compared with the barbarism of slavery, its passionate appeal to the Christian conscience, its tactful prayer to the political elite; its clear, literate prose enhanced by the stylistic and rhetorical highlights of 18th century English, combined to make Equiano’s Narrative a book for its time and all times.

In different circumstances, in different places, at different times, writers of books have taken out time to talk about, even rhapsodize, the object of their labour. In Bernadine Evaristo’s dense and deliciously evocative novel-in-verse, the title heroine, Lara, a precocious but deeply confused daughter of a Nigerian father and British mother, finds herself falling between two existential tools. Considered too white to be black and too black to be white, knowing so little about her past and so unsure about her present, she decided to find out who she really was and who she was not. She found both source and succour in books:


THOR HEYERDAHL’S book sailed me to Fatu Hiva,

Bora Bora, Raroia, Tahiti, Stony, Easter Island


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Books enlarged my world. I ate, shat and fucked them.

Words seduced me: xenophobia, melancholia, oscillation


osmosis, metamorphosis, mulatto, etymology, fellatio.

I stored them in my piggy bank, sought reassurance


from my busy mother. . . . . . .   (p.125).

Young Lara flew on the wings of words, shuttled across space in a capsule of books, travelled strange and new places with the authors. Books stoked her hunger and assuaged it, intensified her curiosity, and placed her squarely on the path to self-discovery. After several journeys into the interior of herself/soul she transcended the boogey of that ‘repulsive. . . dark skin and wiry hair’. Her moment of cognition arrived: ‘I knew myself’ (p.125).

There is yet another author who extols the book as bulwark and balm. Refuge and sustainer. Here goes Mariama Ba in So Long a Letter:


The power of books, this marvelous invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea. Thought, History, Science, Life. Sole instrument of interrelationships and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. (p.32)


The book from which this quote emerges is itself a manifestation of the power of the written word as a repository and enabler of the spoken. For what is the epistolary mode if not in itself a solid demonstration of the power of literacy, that capacity of words to live beyond the effable and immediate, to travel, to touch, to admonish, to harness fleeting thoughts and give them a root and a roost. The reading of books does not only provide us with mental and spiritual nurture; the writing of it also offers an indescribable relief and release as is the case with Ramatoulaye, the major character in this novel, for whom writing is ‘my prop in my distress’ (p.1).

The book is archive and museum, staple document and work-in-progress, settled discourse and mercurial text, meeting point and locus of departure. It provides that forum in which the present argues with the past, a genesis of known epochs and revelation of distant futures. It pulses to the beat of the human heart and resonates with the music of the human spirit. As John Milton, that towering literary giant of Jabobean England, has so inimitably put it, Areopagitica,


A good book is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life’ Areopagitica, p.6


In its vivid anatomical detail, Milton’s metaphor here carries unmistakable echoes of Pharaonic mummies and the apogee of ancient Egyptian civilization. Like these mummies, a good book defies death by its precious indispensability and the immortality of its gravitas. Both entities are silent orators and non-active activists; both fire humanity into ceaseless elocution by their very silence. Both entities are endowed with ‘life beyond life’. Thus, having transcended the wages of the original sin by conquering death and decay, they have assured their way to the territory of the future and ensured humanity’s place in it. But this immortality, this interminable relevance, can only come from the work of a ‘master spirit’. Milton’s statement carries a discriminating, even belletrist hint: the coveted ‘life after life’ can only be achieved through genius and originality. In other words, while truly remarkable books are destined to be ‘treasur’d’ forever, the not-so-good are bound for death after life.

Milton is not yet done with his elaborate analogy:


‘who kills a Man, kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God as it were in the eye (p.6)

In this staunchly Elizabethan/Jacobean worldview (with its striking foreshadowing of the Enlightenment less than a century later), Milton privileges Reason over all other human faculties and elevates the Booke to its high pedestal. He then goes further to present the Booke not just as a sacred object but as the ‘Image of God’. So whoever kills the Booke ends up killing both Reason and God. We need to remember 17th century England’s view of religion and idea of God in order to grasp fully the gravity of the spiritual blackmail so cleverly secreted in Milton’s analogy.  

This was John Milton in Areopagitica, published in 1644, directed at the English Parliament (the Lords and Commons of England), imploring them to shelve the censorship law which, in Milton’s reasoned opinion, was bound to stifle liberty and destroy the labours of the human mind. Areopagitica is one of the strongest, most concentrated, and most learned treatises in defence of press freedom in the English language. Rising to the height of intellectual and oratorical excellence, the inspired Milton beseeched the Lord and Commons of England:


Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties (p.50).


In a relentlessly logical, superbly interrogative vein, he probes the nature of truth, the character of virtue, the dimensions of freedom, the proclivities of power, the complexion of patriotism. In many ways, by its profound erudition, compelling conscientiousness, and visionary thrust, Areopagitica is itself an eloquent testament to the imperishability of a ‘good Booke’, the type that has roundly justified its claim to a ‘life beyond life’. Most of Milton’s ideas about liberty are as relevant today as they were in 1644. Such an astounding combination of passion and prescience, voice and vision predated and hastened the ideals of the European Enlightenment and the spread of the democratic order. The best of humanity’s ideas are not only enshrined in books; the catalyst for human civilization and progress resides therein…

To be continued