This selection of essays by one of Africa's foremost writers is taken from various lectures, addresses and prefaces, and covers a wide range over a 23-year period.
The topics vary from the significance of art in the life of a people to a moving memorial to James Baldwin, but the theme throughout is the racism inherent in the Eurocentric view of Africa and the damaging effect it has had on the African psyche.
As a writer, Chinua Achebe has taken on the formidable task of dismantling, brick by tedious brick, some of the carefully constructed myths erected by the colonialists during their occupation.
In a Chancellor's Lecture delivered at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in February, 1975, Achebe offered a biting analysis of "Heart of Darkness" that to this day continues to enrage some scholars of Conrad.
This book, "taught and read and constantly evaluated, . . . projects the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization. . . ."
Achebe focuses on Conrad's description of European and African character, setting and dialogue. England's Thames River is serene and tranquil as measured against the "frenzy" of the Congo River. African characters speak in unintelligible grunts (when they are allowed any voice at all), while Europeans "murmur" their concerns.
The problem with "Heart of Darkness," Achebe states, is that "Africa is employed as a metaphorical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity. (It is) reduced to the role of a prop for the breakup of one pretty European mind.
"In effect, the African has been eliminated as a human factor. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans that this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art.
"My answer is no, it cannot."
In "The Novelist as Teacher," an essay published in The New Statesman in 1965, Achebe speaks of the result of "the disaster brought upon the African psyche in the period of subjection to alien races . . . (and) acceptance--for whatever reason--of racial inferiority. 'What we need to do is look back and try to find where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us. . . .' "
He speaks of the schoolchildren who preferred to write about winter, a climatological circumstance they have never experienced, rather than describe their encounters with the Harmattan, the parching land-wind charged with dust that regularly sweeps over the land, causing untold damage to crops and cattle and villages. They avoid this the way their elders avoided using water pots of clay and other indigenous materials, preferring instead to draw water with discarded kerosene cans.
Of one schoolboy, Achebe states, "(He said) the other boys would call him a bushman if he (wrote about the Harmattan). Now, you wouldn't have thought, would you, that there was something shameful in your weather? But apparently we do . . . I think it is part of my business as a writer to teach that boy that there is nothing disgraceful about the African weather, that the palm tree is a fit subject for poetry. Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse--to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement."
Achebe goes on to say that "the writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. . . . I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past--with all its imperfections--was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans, acting on God's behalf, delivered them."
He examines such impediments as the inability of Europeans to enter into partnership or even a dialogue with Africans as equals, and cites such attitudes as those of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who, having given up a comfortable life in Europe to become a medical missionary in Africa, and who devoted himself to the alleviation of human suffering, still referred to the African as "my brother, but my junior brother." "And so," writes Achebe, "he proceeded to build a hospital appropriate to the needs of junior brothers with standards of hygiene reminiscent of medical practice in the days before the germ theory of disease came into being."
The West, Achebe observes, has become a victim of its own success, has sacrificed its soul on the altar of materialism. As a result, there is "a deep anxiety about the precariousness of its civilization and (there is) a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa. If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at an Africa trapped in primordial barbarity, it could say with faith and feeling: 'There go I but for the grace of God.' "