My enforced sojourn in the United States over the past four, five years, where the majority of our descendants in the Black Diaspora will be found, has persuaded me that some deliberate, structured quality of attention needs be paid to the apprehension of the mother continent by our scattered kinfolk, one that may assist their leadership in defining what should be their relationship with black leaders of our own world across the oceans. There is, after all, a sound epochal excuse, though I hasten to add that a centennial or millennial ending is a purely symbolic, and not even universal, notation. Nonetheless, the sense of a passing era, no matter in what culture, rightly nudges us towards a ritual of stocktaking. We draw a line across the last page, but always — I like to believe — with an implicit or explicit intent that a qualitative leap forward will thereby result from an objective assessment of that closed page. It is perhaps useful to note that the first global effort to bring together representatives of the black peoples of the world — the Conference of African and New World Intellectuals — took place in 1900, in Manchester, a meeting that united, for the first time, thinkers and artists from the continent, from the Caribbean and the United States, one that is sometimes even counted as the pioneer pan-African conference.
At that conference, as at subsequent ones, attempts were made to map the future of the Black world, to make an inventory of its resources, determine its place in an uncertain universe, and examine such issues as the consequences of slavery, Western imperialism and colonialism, the possible repatriation of Africans to their homeland etc., etc. One theme that began to surface with increasing frequency during these encounters was, of course, the nature of the relationship between the children of the Diaspora and the African continent. It is a pity that this theme has not been pursued in any pragmatic way, in a manner that would leave a massive impact on the current products of the slave experience, especially its leadership.
The frequent interventions by some vocal African American leadership in the fortunes of the African continent have not always been informed by Memory in their attention to issues of power and liberty within independent African nations. Let two quick examples illustrate: one, the obsessed advocacy of a former Civil Rights leader on behalf of the mass murderer Field Marshal Idi Amin, a career that was lucratively carried forward into service on behalf of the late deceased dictator of Nigeria, Sanni Abacha. And the second: in 1990, when Abacha’s predecessor, Ibrahim Babangida, showed signs of digging his heels in office, the Nigerian people were bewildered to hear the voice of yet another Civil Rights leader berating President Clinton for failing to invite that dictator on a state visit to the United States. The Civil Rights leader heaped the most extravagant encomiums on Babangida – “the most visionary leader of the greatest nation the continent had produced,” etc., etc. He went to battle on behalf of the black race: “it was a disgraceful omission and an insult to the African continent,” he declared, “a humiliation also to the African American peoples in the United States, that this giant of a leader had been shunned by the U.S. government” — all this at a time when the Nigerian people were locked in a deadly struggle with a thoroughly discredited dictator, demanding that he fulfill his pledge to quit office, and turn over the reins of government to the people’s elected representatives. (And by the way, is the American media – mainstream or alternative – educating its people through a transmission of the ongoing public post-mortem on Sanni Abacha’s reign of terror?)
These memories are not evoked in any spirit of recrimination; they are in any case balanced by the staunch dedication of yet other African American leaders to the cause of their oppressed brothers and sisters on the African continent. It is clear however, that oceans of ignorance still separate the general black population from the mother continent, generating confusion and/or easy manipulation by opportunistic but influential leadership, especially among an impressionable generation, even within citadels of learning. I have therefore grown increasingly convinced that a percussive impact is required, a mammoth-scale, extended event that celebrates and contextualizes both the African past and contemporary reality. Hopefully, such a feast of encounters will enable the followership to evaluate and respond to the positions of their own leaders on this side of the Atlantic wherever there is a contest between the forces of repression and those of freedom.
There is a need for a dramatic assault on the assumptions of the African American – and I speak beyond politics now but also of culture – an exposure to alternative life styles and values, community models that exist elsewhere and make a visitor to the United States shudder with horror at the debasement of humanity in American society. Only a minority of our descendants here are equipped with an alternative cultural reality that can make them withstand the depredations of a soulless, consumerist society that begins by consuming its children and warps their humanity for life. And so my mind envisages a huge concourse here – not now on the African continent, like the former Black Arts Festivals – but right on the soil of the United States, the combination of an Expo and Indaba that would last six months, even a year, one that involves symposia, exhibitions, dioramas, the performance arts, cinema, etc., and of course, would serve as a marketplace of information and ideas. Such an Expo must of course also have its own Chamber of Horrors – Ancient and Contemporary – side by side with its Halls of Heroes.
This has been, for us, a near half-century of, in the main, a blundering relationship – that is, the half-century since the commencement of independence for many new nations – blunders of perception and blunders of acts, pronouncements and interaction. It is time that an enriched awareness, a truthful, palpable knowledge of the distanced other and kin, be promoted both graphically and intellectually, within a dynamic arena where the authentic voices of our peoples, and their principled interpreters, the manifestations of their creative existence and world view are projected in a celebratory yet reflective context. I can think of worse ways of closing the chapter on a new millennium – or indeed any phase of collective epochal consciousness – or of ushering in a new one. Even if such an encounter does not reach into the formative interior of the majority, it will be an eye-opener and a mind-expander for several, including even the receptive exceptions among a blundering white community. At the very least, it would have provided a good party, a feast of the mind – for those who seek it – and of the senses for others, hopefully both, the granddaddy of all Indaba, ikore and Kwanzaa.
In 1986 Wole Soyinka was the first African writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the recipient of numerous other prestigious awards, including several honorary doctorates from universities all over the world. Apart from his stature as a pioneer in African drama written in English, Soyinka has produced a vast body of work as poet, dramatist, theater director, novelist, essayist, autobiographer, political commentator, critic, and theorist of art and culture. In addition to his Yoruba-Christian upbringing, Soyinka received a Western academic education. Born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka in Abeokuta, Nigeria, he studied at the University College in Ibadan, Nigeria and earned a B.A. degree from the University of Leeds in Great Britain.
Soyinka’s column, Olumo Eyrie, takes its name from the rock hill in Abeokuta, his hometown, which served both as a refuge in times of war, and as an observation post for the township’s sentinel.