African Classics: Things Fall Apart

“No man can understand another whose language he does not speak (and language here does not mean simply words, but a man’s entire world view).” I found this quote by Chinua Achebe while reading about the author of Things Fall Apart. Although it was in response to critics of his work, I liked the quote in relation to his most well-known novel, because in some ways it is the central idea of Things Fall Apart. While reading the book, I was immersed in the worldview of Okonkwo – a strong, but flawed Igbo man who strives to earn respect in his village. Achebe’s use of language makes this a powerful book by portraying an intimate look at Igbo (or Ibo) culture and an unflinching portrait of a man whose contempt for all things feminine leads to his downfall.

I enjoyed learning about Chinua Achebe after reading Things Fall Apart. Finding out about his background made the book feel even more personal. Achebe grew up in Nigeria with both Christianity and traditional Igbo religion. He did well in school and won a scholarship to study medicine at university. However once there, Achebe was so disturbed by literary portrayals of Nigerian characters as either savages or buffoons that he left his studies of medicine to instead become a writer. Achebe was active in politics and in teaching and was also an Igbo High Chief. Although he spent his later years living in the United States, he always held his home culture in love and pride. Achebe’s background and his love for his home is evident throughout the novel.

Things Fall Apart is divided into 3 parts: the first introduces the strong man Okonkwo. By depicting his life in the village of Umuofia “feared by all its neighbors[…]powerful in war and magic”, Achebe creates a portrait of Igbo culture before the arrival of Europeans. The second part surrounds Okonkwo’s life in exile and the third part deals with the fundamental change of their culture with the arrival of white missionaries.

Igbo words, phrases, stories, and traditions are woven throughout the story to relate the reality of village life. Achebe does not try to explain or justify Igbo culture for a Western audience – he just shows how things are in such a straightforward manner – it simply is. The sights and sounds of the village, festivals, religious rites, and daily rituals begin to feel almost familiar, despite being so very different from my own daily life. I appreciated the book’s ability to make me feel “at home” in a place I have never been. This is important because when Christian missionaries start to appear, they immediately felt strange and out of place to me, as they might to someone who had never seen a white man riding a bicycle before. Although because I know how missionary work often hurt despite “good intentions,” I also felt a sense of foreboding.

It would be erroneous to say that the book is only about colonialism, though – the center of the book is Okonkwo, his rise and fall. Okonkwo’s father was lazy and unsuccessful; although he owed debts to nearly everyone, he was loved by most for his loving attitude and his skill with music. However, Okonkwo is ashamed of his father, and in all things strives to be his opposite. Whereas his father never earned a title, Okonkwo is determined to earn as many titles as he can to become a respected leader. There are rigid gender divisions in Umuofia – social and religious roles are limited by sex, certain crimes are described as being of “male nature” or “female nature”, and even crops are divided – Okonkwo will only grow yams “a man’s crop,” not cassava which is for women to grow. Okonkwo is prideful, detests the feminine, insults other men who he does not deem manly enough, and beats his wives at times. Sometimes his neighbors chastise him for being too harsh on others, but they continue to recognize his skill at wrestling and his hard work as a farmer. However, Okonkwo’s fear of being perceived as weak leads him first to participate in the execution of a boy he loved as a son and then to forbid himself from mourning the boy’s death or dealing with his own guilt. Although Okonkwo is highly respected, it is clear his hatred of anything feminine leads to his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. Although Achebe could have portrayed Okonkwo as “bad” due to his violence and refusal to deal with attachment or emotions, he simply shows how Okonkwo’s sexism (and what we would now call toxic masculinity) are part of him – he is a whole person and his flaws exist as part of the whole. Achebe examines Okonkwo without piling judgement on him for his issues with masculinity, yet still demonstrates how destructive those tendencies are. I appreciated the completeness of his characterization – because we know Okonkwo and his worldview intimately, we can see his poor actions without casting him as a villain.

When Okonkwo accidentally kills a man in celebration at a wedding, the inadvertent killing is judged to be a “female crime” – a violation against the earth goddess. For this he and his family are banished for seven years and his home is burned down. He goes to live in the village where his mother was born and although he is well-received there, Okonkwo resents this. He spends his time planning how he can regain renown and return with a flourish to the more war-like Umuofia. This includes telling his daughters not to marry so that he can use their marriages more favorably when they return. By the time he returns, the Umuofia has changed because of the influx of missionaries, and Okonkwo is angry to find out that the other men do not intend to fight them.

The missionaries do not understand the Igbo culture, but they try to change it. Because the first two parts of the book made the Igbo culture feel like a natural way of life to the reader, the attempt to mold it into something else feels like a violation. “Does the white man understand our customs about land?” asks one Igbo man. “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?” his friend responds. As with Okonkwo himself and his way of life, Achebe does not pile heavy judgement on the missionaries – he continues to simply show things as they are, and the reader is able to feel the tension between the desires of both groups. Although Achebe does not foster hatred toward the missionaries, he does show the catastrophe in Umuofia that results in part from colonialism.

By the end of the book, Okonkwo has spent his life aggressively pursuing status and molding himself to a hyper-masculine version of the ideals of his society, but when his village is changed unrecognizably by colonialism, he is unable to survive. “Okonkwo is paying the penalty for his treatment of women, that all his problems, all the things he did wrong can be seen as offenses against the feminine,” said Achebe. His anger leads him to fight even when it is unwise and ultimately this anger turns inward on himself causing his own destruction and the destruction of everything he worked for.

It would be easy to say Things Fall Apart is about how missionaries caused the collapse of a village’s culture, or about issues of masculinity, but really it is an intimate study of the worldview of two main characters: Okonkwo and his village, Umuofia. Both are flawed, but both are beautiful in their own way. This book is one that continues to unfold with more and more meaning as I continue to think about it, even well after I have finished reading – a trait that is common to all my favorite novels.  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking and character driven works.

No One Is Free Until We Are All Free

BLM

I have tried multiple times over the last 5 years to write something regarding race for this blog, and I always failed to write something that I thought was worth publishing. My goal was to write a sort of open letter to family members or old friends who opposed or did not understand the Black Lives Matter movement and help them to see that yes, racism still exists, and it is still a major problem, and we have to do something about it. The thing is though, I’m not an expert. I’m not a full-time activist. The world does not really need my personal opinion added to the noise. Although I may want to write an essay, here (because that I what I enjoy doing) there are other, more important ways I can actually be helping.

First, by staying informed on current events. For a while, this meant anxiously checking every couple hours to see if anything new had happened at the protests and reading thorough accounts from trustworthy news sources (rather than taking official statements of the cops at their word). But it also means understanding what is really being asked for when we chant “defund the police.” I appreciated this clip from Angela Davis regarding the movement to defund the police. https://www.democracynow.org/2020/6/12/angela_davis_historic_moment?fbclid=IwAR2vuwGVmk6LG2EpgMybEooSapQnCVVB02hkhNLpAAiDaMSEe-VAbc4vHV0

Second, by continuing the educate myself on the history of oppression and white supremacy in the US. I am not an expert, (and most of us would be deluding ourselves to think that we are), so continued learning is always needed. I have shared this list with some of my friends and family so we can continue to grow: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BRlF2_zhNe86SGgHa6-VlBO-QgirITwCTugSfKie5Fs/mobilebasic?fbclid=IwAR1yfz9Y1x81vw1ZbLOjYRfdR-2I9fxzK4LKU51_orFZNcrjXIY37Nde3h4

Third, by listening to and amplifying black voices. In part this means sharing The NAACP’s demands https://www.naacp.org/latest/update-naacp-demands/ to decrease the use of force by law enforcement, the ACLU’s demands to end the 1033 program which funnels military equipment to law enforcement agencies, and end the COPS grants that puts excessive numbers of enforcement officers in the community, and to divest from the police and instead reinvest in the black and brown communities which are disproportionately affected. It also means listening to black people when they share their experiences. This video by Kimberly Jones is passionate and heart-breaking: https://youtu.be/llci8MVh8J4

Fourth, by speaking up when hearing racist comments. This means having individual conversations with those family members and acquaintances, slowly, over time. 1, 2, and 3 come into play here, as well, in order to actually reach people and have a discussion, rather than simply cutting off people or yelling at them. I think it is important to remember that, as someone with white privilege, it is my job to confront white supremacy in all it’s forms.

Fifth, by signing petitions; contacting my mayor, senators, and representatives by mail, phone and email; donating water, food and other necessities to the protests, or money to freedom funds and other organizations such as the ACLU; and by attending protests (wearing a mask, of course.)

Sixth, by supporting black-owned businesses and black artists. For me, this has meant checking out black restaurants (Joe and I have been getting take-out once a week anyway since COVID-19 shutdowns started, and there are some fabulous food joints out there that we have not yet tried); actually buying that rap album I’ve been listening to on spotify; and getting my little self-care items like candles and candies from local black businesses. This list has been a starting point for me in Milwaukee: https://milwaukeemom.com/around-milwaukee/guides-to-milwaukee/milwaukee-black-owned-businesses/

Seventh, by remembering that I can always do better, and if I am ever called out on my privilege or blind spots as it relates to race, to apologize, grow, and keep working for change.

hx
image credit from Ben and Jerry’s

I used an instagram post by @made_by_maddd to help structure this post

The Black Body in America: Reflections on “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Since I drive around for work all day, I occasionally find myself somewhere around the city with an awkward amount of time to pass before my next appointment. I often spend this by finding the nearest park or coffee shop to take a quick walk or have half a cup of coffee. Recently, I was downtown with under an hour to spend and decided to stop in the library. Shamefully, I haven’t been to the library in years. Mostly due to a bad habit of buying more books than I can read, I have never been without a book ready at hand to pick up whenever I need something new. Libraries are so much more than just a place to read books for free, though. When I walked into the atrium, there was a temporary art collection on display. Children’s story time was going on among brightly colored cushions. People were doing research on the computers and in the reference section, using the available editing software, or working with the drop-in tutoring that is offered for adults. I even discovered that my library lends out “book club bags” with multiple copies of the same book and a few optional materials for discussion. The last time I went to a library was three and a half years ago to get help writing a resume when moving back to the city from a tiny town up north. However, one of my best friends is a library clerk and, for a while now, I felt that in order to be able to face her guilt-free I needed to patronize my library again.

Inside, I walked around the shelves, feeling a little rush of happiness every time I saw a familiar title that I loved: Paladin of Souls, Middlesex, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, they were all there, but I often fall into the trap of spending time thinking about books wistfully at the expense of actually reading them. I decided to pick up a non-fiction book. I pulled up a LitHub article of “Best Works of Nonfiction of the Decade,” rapidly picked a book from the list, looked up the dewy decimal number in the library catalogue, found it on the shelf, and went to check it out. This is when I had the embarrassing experience of being told my library card had been expired for many years and I still had fines from 2012.

“I’m curious,” I said, “what were the fines for?”

Lolita and The Diary of Anaïs Nin,” said the young man behind the counter.

I never did read that diary, but I remember the beautiful language of Lolita and how it took a very long time for me to finish reading because it made me so sad I had to repeatedly put it down for a pause. They waived the fines, updated my card, and I walked out of the library with a copy of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (I was happy to find that the book was very short – hopefully I would not end up with more late fees.)

I had heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates before, but knew very little about him. Between the World and Me is Coates’s letter to his son about growing up black in America and what that meant for him when navigating family, self-image, education, romance, and – underlying everything – the safety of his physical self at home, on the streets, and in the wider community. We are all permitted to read this, but in writing a letter to his son, Coates is dealing with the perennial issue of parenthood – how do I make sure my kid grows up okay? How can I teach them to stay safe? To respect themselves and others? Which of my values do I try to instill in them? There is an awareness that it is impossible for our children to learn the same lessons in the same ways that we did. Some of the lessons we learned were hard and we want them to be better than that, but how do they learn these important lessons without going through the same trials? Eventually, they will grow to have different views and values, but we hope that they still understand some of the things that are so deeply important to us.

As he tracks his personal growth through childhood, college, early adulthood, and parenthood, the language of his story is poetic. It is this poetic voice that lays Coates’s world open for his son and the rest of us reading to understand his life on a more fundamental level than facts and figures could ever convey. “Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts,” Coates says, and he displays this to great effect throughout the book. He is precise, yet emotive and this is what makes Between the World and Me a brilliant read as well as an important one. Continue reading “The Black Body in America: Reflections on “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates”

The Creation of an American Undercaste: Reading The New Jim Crow

New-Jim-Crow

This is a book I have been meaning to read for a while. Several of my friends and acquaintances who I consider intelligent and well-read have recommended it as a very important work. The author, Michelle Alexander, admits that the book is not for everyone: it is written for those who are concerned about race relations in the US and about the marginalization of the black population here. It is, at times, a gut-wrenching read – the sort of thing that makes you feel angry and helpless at the same time. Luckily, Alexander’s writing is clear and moves quickly along, which makes this book easier to read without getting too fatigued.

The New Jim Crow was written back when Barack Obama was still president, before Black Lives Matter became a movement. Perhaps at that time it could have been easy to think that, as a country, we were moving swiftly upward on a steadily improving trend for race relations. Alexander knows differently. It is no secret that our prisons are filled with black men, that black neighborhoods are impoverished, and black families are often fractured. With a quick glance, some are tempted to blame African Americans as individuals or as a culture for their own marginalization in society. Without looking deeper at what brought us to the present day, however, we would come away from our musings tragically misled. Alexander shows throughout the book how mass incarceration is the tool used in America to continue oppression of African Americans after Jim Crow was ended, just as Jim Crow laws were used to maintain an underclass of black people after slavery was abolished.

Prior to reading this book, I assumed that discrepancies in arrests or conviction rates were due entirely to unconscious bias – the “intuitive” assumption that a black man is a “thug” skewing the perception of cops, juries, prosecutors, and judges. For example, I know a number of black people who all have admitted to being stopped for “driving while black” – that is, doing nothing wrong other than looking too suspicious due to the color of their skin. While that certainly plays a big role and contributes to the continued problems of mass incarceration, I was unaware of much of the intentional racism bred into many laws at their inception, and how those laws continue to affect communities today. No matter whether we actively promote these racist systems or simply ignore them in the vain hope that racism can disappear if we are only “colorblind,” by neglecting to fight these systems, we are perpetuating them. The problem is, colorblindness in the face of racial discrimination is just plain blindness. Continue reading “The Creation of an American Undercaste: Reading The New Jim Crow”