Never have I ever read any Chinua Achebe before, and I know I know I know I know I know I know that’s a huge and probably inherently racist oversight. I used to try to redress my lack of reading of the canon when unread writers died, but I missed the boat with Achebe and tbh the death of every other major writer since has been accompanied by articles detailing said writer’s jaw-dropping arrogance slash self importance and – whenever it’s a man – a litany of sexual misdemeanours ranging from (at best) the inappropriate to (at worst) the exploitative and violent. I don’t remember any bad sexual revelations appearing on Achebe’s death in 2013 (though that doesn’t mean there weren’t any), but I do remember feeling guilt that I hadn’t read Things Fall Apart. However, I also had an awareness that given my (at that point) ever-spiralling suicidal depression, it didn’t really sound like the kinda title that would be helpful for sad, mad, bad little me to read.
I didn’t really hear much more about Achebe after that flurry of reinterest in his books faded like we all do post-death. I got older and less fucked-up and then, way out in the spring of 2018, I was wearing my gold latex glittersuit and reading some of my poems in a South London indie bookstore when I saw a charming selection of Penguin’s latest line of cute little books, this time simply called Penguin Modern. I picked up a few, moderately tipsy on the combination of complimentary wine, poetry and the successful social introduction of a lover to one of my closest friends. This, Africa’s Tarnished Name, was one of them, a collection of four non-fiction pieces, most of them originally written as speeches, by the acclaimed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.
I don’t know why I turned to it today, though I do understand why I bought it. As non-fiction pieces, these force a reader – particularly a white reader – to confront not just some pretty horrific assumptions, but the crass and highly motivated reasons for structural and inherent racism. Achebe writes here about African history that I – as a whingy, whiney, winey liberal who reads widely – had never encountered any mention of before, for example the long, peaceful and unpatronising(ish) interactions that occurred between European and African nations until colonialism went wild. I read about how initial European forays into trade with Africa treated the kings and empires and princes as if they were equal to our own European states, until all of a sudden the Spanish and the English and the Portuguese and the French had these massive land masses under their military control on the other side of the Atlantic, and needed to pillage the populous of Africa to farm it and its crops in the way their economies demanded. It was only then that the constant insidious othering of Africa and Africans began, once there was a clear profit motive. Once the super rich depended on dehumanising millions of people to feed their spice habits (or whatever), suddenly it became expedient to make the average dickhead in the street see Africa as “lesser” than Europe. Making Africans – the inhabitants of an entire continent peopled by diverse and varied cultures – an “inferior” type of human to Europeans allowed slavery to continue for centuries and then, once that was done, it allowed colonialism and the massive “Scramble for Africa” landgrabs of the 19th century to occur. Then it also justified the huge amount of corrupt governments installed as puppet Cold War players in the second half of the 20th century, it justified the sweeping up and acquisition of African wealth into offshore bank accounts and the poverty and famine and disease that followed on its heels. Racism, manufactured intentionally, gave Europeans the distancing required for centuries of crimes that still continue.
Achebe’s language is articulate but also direct, it is uncompromising but also almost forgiving. It is intentionally geared towards the people who are able to affect change (one of the pieces was specifically written for the board of the OECD, which is about as elite as you can get). There is hurt here, but there isn’t much anger – regardless of the wrongs done to Africa by Europeans and Achebe’s own fear for his life due to the factionalism of Nigeria’s civil war of the late 1960s – Achebe was a writer on the world stage, lauded by international organisations and world famous universities. His words here explore the racism within Heart of Darkness with a piercing relentlessness, but the tightest most moving sentence in the entire selection of writing is a quotation from latest TriumphoftheNow.com hero, James Baldwin.
Maybe the writing from earlier in Achebe’s life was more urgent, more personally meaningful, but these later essays read like what they are – the musings of a very successful man writing for his very successful friends. Then again, perhaps this detached self-confidence is the Nigerian literary character, as this criticism reminds me of what those course-mates said who didn’t like the Teju Cole book we read on my MA. Maybe I’m also being unknowingly racist here, because I know that criticising Chinua Achebe makes me sound like a prick. As the other oh-so-Goldsmiths students on my course objected re Cole, “How are we supposed to feel sympathy towards the discussion of prejudice from a voice that is calm and confident?” This, then, is the arrogance that I and my fellow white liberals are often guilty of: we demand the underprivileged do not express through rage and disgust the lived reality of the prejudice we and our antecedents have treated them and their antecedents with, yet we instinctively lose sympathy when they talk about their pain in a disaffected manner. “Be less angry, but no, not like that”.
Colonialism and slavery were both fucking abhorrent, and we in the West DESERVE to be ashamed of ourselves, as individuals, because of them. We need to understand – as I wrote on here a few weeks ago – if you go around asserting that you’re better than other people it almost always means you’re an absolute piece of shit. We white people are and we have been the bad guys, and it needs more than symbolic apologies from Bill Clinton and David Cameron and invites from the OECD to elite “private liberal arts college” professors who happen to be Nigerian to change that. If we accept – as I think most of us do (at least in theory) – that every black person in the world has a right to anger due to the wrongs committed against their ancestors, as well as the structural inequalities that remain, then with that knowledge comes a need to truly accept a collective responsibility. No, maybe we don’t all “individually” have the blood of slaveowners in our veins, but we have the healthcare, the education, the social security and the relative material wealth that comes off the back of centuries of racist exploitation.
There is enough food in the world for nobody to be starving. The fact that people are shows us what a sorry fucking bunch of dickheads humanity truly is. I am typing this blog on a smartphone, travelling back to the centre of a beautiful, internationally-renowned city after having earned more in two hours than millions of people earn in a month. By the standards of the society I live in, I am not rich, I am not “successful”. But I won’t go hungry, I won’t end up on the streets. Yes, there are cracks to slip through, but the cracks are a lot fucking smaller if you’re white and middle class.
Achebe’s writing offers some uncomfortable truths, and some important, overlooked, historical fact. It’s worth a read, but more than that, these are issues that are worth a thought. Think about structural inequality and – if you’re white – believe it exists. There’s a great, short, documentary on Netflix atm about “the wealth divide”, here’s a link. Watch it, you might learn something.
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