Truly, the best accounts of African societies are the ones written by Africans themselves. Its the reason I’ve tried my best as an adult to choose what I read very carefully. This isn’t limited to African texts, but texts of all racial and ethnic groups. I don’t want anyone who isn’t in, telling the story of my people either, am I right?
When I took a graduate course on Indigenous Rhetorics, I quickly had my hand slapped by my professor, Amanda Morris after responding to the question, “Write everything you know about contemporary Indigenous people.” If you knew anything about me prior, you’d know that I was obsessed with Native American literature (albeit literature that was mostly written by white people). My response (looking back now) was absolutely cringe-worthy. But at the time I really thought I was honoring the customs, traditions, and identities of these people that I have literally been obsessed with since the Native American pop culture craze of the 1990s.
The rationality of my obsession was rooted in the notion of the noble savage (so embarrassed).
This week I re-read a story I hadn’t touched since my undergraduate years: Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Given everything that I’ve learned between my undergraduate years and now, I didn’t want to make the mistake of passing judgment on one of the most honest accounts of Nigerian culture that exists in literature today.
I remembered what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said about her experience coming to the United States—our culture expressing an understanding of Africa as a place of want, rather than prosperity. And I realized then that both she, and Achebe, in regarding their own cultures through their fiction, really seek to do one thing, which is question the monolithic assumptions the world makes about Africa and its societies, contesting the savage/civilized binary.
Through “Things Fall Apart” Achebe sought to highlight the West’s usage of the collective Africa as a means to establish its own superiority over the “uncivilized” world (think about the word ‘darkness’ that Joseph Conrad references all the time in “Heart of Darkness” and then you’ll get it). Besides shattering Conrad’s utilization of the whiteness versus blackness dichotomy, Achebe also sought to shatter the worldview of negritude by conveying a full, rich understanding of African culture— giving a voice to a people who are exploited by the West and rarely (if ever) accurately represented in widely read literature.
Interestingly, Achebe does not choose to write exclusively about the abomination that is the colonizer. In chapter twenty, Achebe writes on his own people who have taken to the customs of the white as being one of the most detrimental forces to his culture: “‘It is already too late,’ said Obierika sadly. ‘Our own men and our sons have joined the ranks of the stranger. They have joined his religion and they help to uphold his government'” (100). On page 104 Achebe continues, touching on the affect colonization has had on Okonkwo, the strongest of Umuofia: “He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.” The people of Umuofia who were converting inadvertently lead to the destruction of not only the force of Umuofia, but the morale, and willingness to oppose colonization. One-by-one the culture of the colonizer led to the collapse of various tribes through their ethnocentric and racist interactions and policies.
It is mentioned in chapter twenty-two that the successor of Mr. Brown’s (a pacifist preacher), Reverend James Smith “saw things as black and white. And black was evil” (104). He not only approved of the disrespectful unmasking of the egwugwu, but also fueled the clash between colonial and indigenous systems.
In this novel, Reverend Smith, coupled with The District Commissioner very well represent racist colonial white authority over Nigeria. Suitably, Achebe ends the novel with The District Commisioner’s story. He writes about The District Commissioner’s fear of going native when he states on page 117 that “a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting down a hanged man from a tree.” Given that The District Commissioner may be the first to write such a thing as The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, Achebe satirizes the concept of racist colonizers writing and thinking they know all that is to be known about societies in which they are not of— highlighting the ways in which they dehumanize and reduce whole societies to what they deem fitting.
“Things Fall Apart” is drawn to an end with The Commissioner deciding that perhaps he’ll include Okonkwo’s story in his book—maybe a chapter, no a page, actually a paragraph would do just fine. He says you have to be firm about leaving out details, otherwise you’ll never find your way to an ending.