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  • Writer's pictureJude

Chinua Achebe’s Africa’s Tarnished Name

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

He needed to hear Africa speak for itself after a lifetime of hearing Africa spoken about by others”

So did I, always pondering on when my identity and the stories of my African peers started to appeal to me, as I lived through the 90s and the result of imperialism and the ontological damage colonialism had caused on the African Human. But you don’t recognise it in detail. This is not like the African-American story, where the dark space of identity stemming back to Africa and the cruel realities of their journey has mostly been accounted for, in books, movies, TV shows, articles, historical figures that sit on the tip of our tongues when we conceived of Blackness.

To an extent Black trauma has been denounced in recent years for being used as a cultural product, it is telling of forgotten experiences but spewed through a Capitalistic wheel of commodification, which allows people to engage with the content in a lighter way appealing to their artistic tastes. For me it is simple, if there is an issue in our times? Our past? Write about it, invent around it, draw the emotion, not from words of an article, or the thrill of it, but from the hearts of people accustomed to a solemn tone. They are accustomed to cinematography and the well worked detail of this comfortable vantage point where we suffer indirectly. It is somewhat nauseating but necessary. Though this Black Britishness, African and Caribbean, the story remains largely untold.

We don’t have the privilege, or resources at the moment, to produce a Netflix series like Now They See Us. Through books like this, I acknowledge the notions that infiltrate mentalities down to how we exist today. Especially for the untold interconnectivity of perceptions stemming from the first recorded meetings of Africans and Europeans to lingering ideas existing today.

Chinua Achebe’s essay Africa’s Tarnished Name in the form of a brilliant short book published in the Penguin Modern Classic series has reinvigorated my passion for understanding our tied past and the etymology of . It is my first piece of his I have read, so I cannot claim to know the entirety of his prose. Though this passionate essay speaks volumes for the same anger my heart reverberates, it is an insidious thought to wonder what if but clearer lines of inspiration show me how and why.

It infuriates me to see people so intelligent lack human decency. Achebe speaks on the first meetings of Europeans in Africa, the closeness of Portugal and North Africa yet the difference in worlds we acknowledge. He highlights the racial bias of aesthetics, the English literature laced with imperial taste, the compound of realities within African states during colonialism and whole concepts suppressed in time.

Achebe’s inquiry into the conception of Africa breaks down seminal moments for the impressionable minds welcoming an imperial outlook on the existence of the continent. It is a thing of being, being Human, and recognising the fragments of information, embedded in literature and other domineering cultural products, that dictated our responses and built an exotic conception of what it meant to be African. As the quote said, we need to hear about Africa dictated by Africans themselves – it took me a very long time to conceive that, and also recognise I am African in an entirely different setting.

I was born and grew up understanding Africa as exotic, unfulfilled, a place to wantaway from and not go back to. Hence, my family is here, the expression white people, and others sunken in the grandiose of Britishness, say that “you do not belong” – “go back to Africa” despite being born and bred with a mental framework accustomed to this. But that’s a boring interpretation now, we are over that and Blackness is appreciated to an extent with a lot of representation to unearth. I was African before I was Black, which for me oversteps an extensive history that if recognised could illuminate the evils of the past resulting in perceptions today.

After Africanness, Blackness, I was British, a South Londoner shut away from history and witnessing peers build a relatable culture. School trips to war museums pointed toward colonial troops, some, including myself, lied or pointed about our Grandparents fought in the World Wars in attempt to keep up with the patriotic feels of the imperial acknowledgment. The TV shows like Love Thy Neighbour, where racism was the basis of a lot of the show, made light of racial perceptions. The phone calls from family back home, hearing my missing mother tongue that felt like whispers even though family spoke in bellows of a distant passion, it always felt like doing people you’ve never seen or heard service opposed to stronger immediate ties of home in London.

In this essay Achebe pinpoints moments in which colonial literature and thought influenced patterns of behaviour and response to the African being. In whole it amounts the racial grievencances of today, and this explanation with the resources Achebe used is the most coherent tale I have read to date. From a Romanticism of the wilderness of Africa to the depiction of their bodies, thoughts, and assumptions that still lingers in stigma today, where to step foot on African soil is to embark on an Indiana Jones-like journey. Like Joseph Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness” and the countless colonial texts that were consumed by millions.

The deliberation in their descriptions and fanciful racist rhetoric was the culture of the time. The scientific racism, the lesser belief in the potential of African beings, the masterful degradation of the state and ideas of people. The essay in whole reads like a reflection of the entirety of Achebe’s experiences and it makes you think – what if and how, we alleviate and change the entirety of the traumas of the past to live in respect of them.

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