by Eric M. Washington
Upon arriving on campus yesterday and sitting in front of my computer, I noticed something eye-catching for the Google Doodle. I rarely click on them, but this one featured the late Nigerian novelist, writer, and professor Chinua Achebe, who would have been 87 yesterday. A number of online stories underscored the significance of the Achebe Google Doodle, including one by The Independent. The article by San Francisco-based Jeremy B. White, describes Achebe’s work as “telling distinctly African stories from the perspective of African characters, helping to forge a literature that — like newly created countries — was independent from Europe.” I wholeheartedly agree.
In the Spring of 1990, I took my first African history class, Africa: 1880-Present. In it, my professor assigned Things Fall Apart. This was my introduction to African fiction. Things Fall Apart tells the story of a man, Okonkwo, who lived in the village of Umuofia in Igbo land, which is now the eastern area of Nigeria. Achebe set the story sometime during the late 19th century as the Igbo began to encounter Anglican missionaries from England, and Igbo-speaking evangelists. This was also the period of the Scramble for Africa, where European powers colonized African people and African land. Okonkwo is the person through whom the reader witnesses this time of tremendous change in Igbo land.
What I appreciated then about the novel is that Achebe told an African story. No apologies. As a student in an African history course but as an American-born person of African descent, the descriptions of the intricacies of Igbo life and culture interested me. Because of this novel, I have a fondness for West African yams! Reading Igbo voices and coming to understand an Igbo worldview created within me a deep empathy for each character, even the majorly flawed Okonkwo. The novel engendered so much empathy within me that I found myself rooting against the European missionaries in the story. How could I, who identified as a Christian, side with non-Christian Igbo men and women as they ridiculed the halting attempt of an English missionary to explain Christianity to them?
I can honestly testify that reading Things Fall Apart moved me to love African history; thereby, it placed me on a track to choose African history as my major field in graduate school. Though I would specialize in southern African history, I have remained devoted to Things Fall Apart. When I began teaching World History here at Calvin, I chose to assign Things Fall Apart. So for the past ten years, I have taught this novel to students in World History and African History. Though I do teach other historical fiction by African writers, I cannot let Things Fall Apart go. It is a deep love affair that endures.
As I read Things Fall Apart for the first time in 1990, the story captivated me much like the singing of Christian missionaries had captivated the character Nwoye. Most of the times I teach the book, I read this passage out loud:
But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo’s first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about the brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul—the question of twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt relief within as the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry panting earth. Nwoye’s callow min was greatly puzzled.
This passage encapsulates the beauty of the novel. First, it is wonderfully composed by Achebe, just chock-full of sharp imagery. Second, it brings to light the complexity of Igbo-Christian encounters serving to counter a popular notion that European missionaries “forced” Christianity upon Africans. Achebe presented Nwoye as thinking through what Christianity had to offer as an alternative solution to deep, troubling, and nagging problems he had with Igbo culture and practices. What Achebe did was act as a good historian. He complicated the narrative.
It is difficult for me to measure the amount of impact Things Fall Apart has had on me personally and spiritually. It has been immense. I read the novel at a time in which I began to think deeply about my own African heritage and identity. What did it mean to be Black? What did it mean to be an African American? Things Fall Apart served as a bridge for me in understanding the base from which I emerged. It has had existential relevance for me. I have no idea if any person in my lineage was Igbo. That is unimportant. What is significant is that Things Fall Apart gave me a reference point to claim what was mine already, an African heritage. Achebe served as a teacher. In his 1965 essay, “The Novelist as Teacher,” Achebe wrote these words, which can readily apply to the situation of Africans in the Diaspora:
Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse—to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of that word. Here, I think, my aims and the deepest aspirations of my society meet. For no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound in our soul… The writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done.
For this, I am forever indebted.
Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.