08 October 2011

Old gem

I'm working my way through Laurie R. King's latest book very slowly. So, I'm posting a 2002 entry from the old ReadingOnTheWeb site. It's about a book full of important ideas that's still one of my favorites.

To keep my sanity and to keep my brain cells functioning I must read something besides mysteries and depressing things like Michael Moore's commentary.

Chinua Achebe, like Stephen Jay Gould, is one of my heroes. A wise and perceptive man, he's written several beautiful novels about Nigeria. They may have been works of fiction, but they were true stories.

I picked up his most recent publication, Home and Exile at the Carleton bookstore. It's based on a series of lectures he gave at Harvard a few years ago.

Achebe gave me hope and made me doubt that hope in the span of these few pages (105 to be exact).

He makes the case for the power of story telling. His thesis reminds me of George Orwell's.
In the end I began to understand. There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative.

Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like. Just as in corrupt, totalitarian regimes, those who exercise power over others can do anything..."
He then cites an epiphanal experience he had in a university classroom as the central metaphor for a discussion of how the "civilized" world captured the African narrative for over 400 years. At first it was done out of wonder, then to justify slavery. Later, the civilized world wrote to rationalize colonialism and then to defend its reputation.

He and his generation of African students, scholars, and writers began recognizing their loss and began inventing their own narratives.

Even today, as "the empire writes back," Westerners fight a rear guard action to maintain possession of the Third World's narrative.

V.S. Naipaul wins plaudits and is discussed in suburban book groups for describing the depravity and deprivaton of the Third World and deploring the childish resistance of Third Worlders to assimilation into Western civilization. And conservative scholars react to multiculturalism as if recognizing validity in something other than Judeo-Christian civilization threatens the importance (not to mention the superiority) of Greek, Roman, and Anglo Saxon values.

Achebe offers hope that more peoples will reclaim their own narratives, but one bit of pessimism startled me. It's possible, he says, that the damage done by "civilization's" control of the description of Africa and Africans for so many centuries and the propaganda sown by those narratives has made it impossible for us and them to see each other as equally human.

My idealism was challenged directly in a humanistic way. The shock was a danger to my naivete. At my age I shouldn't be vulnerable to such shocks. It does mean I'm still learning, but has my idealism been that superficial? Perhaps so. When confronted by Achebe's words, I knew I shared his fear.

Dehumanization of Africans by Europeans began before slavery. It grew more powerful and even scientific later. In the USA, slavery and the accompanying racism has shaped our culture in powerful ways. Can we, the purveyors of the toxic myth, overcome it? I sure don't know. We've made some progress in our civic behavior during my lifetime, but internalizing common humanity may be beyond us. Furthermore, can the victims of such description overcome the lies, the insults and the dehumanizing treatment? I can only accept Achebe's doubts.

This is an important book. If we're going to survive as a world, as a civilization, as a culture, and as a nation, we need to learn the lesson taught by this wise man. Read the book. If your library doesn't have it, ask them to find it. If you can afford the $10 it costs, buy it. It's Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe, published by Anchor Books A Division of Random House, Inc. The ISBN is 0-385-72133-1.

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