As a youth, reading Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” triggered a keen sense of awareness in me about African identity and literature. In other classes, I’d studied colonization and imperialism in a very distant and generic way, which is honestly generous considering typical U.S. curriculum standards. But there was something so intimate about imagining Okonkwo’s (the book’s protagonist) fate; once fueled by power and tradition, eventually his world was destroyed by English intrusion. With that book, Achebe introduced us to so many beautiful and ugly parts of Igbo culture that are distinctively African and in some ways universal: You see the value in family and community, how torturous toxic masculinity can be on a soul and how subtly one can put a knife to things that at one point held us all together.
This month the Center for African Studies (CAS) is celebrating a critical moment in time when the metaphorical knife of destruction was bested by a tightly woven connection between two distinguished writers: the historic meeting between Achebe and Black American literary giant James Baldwin. During their first and only meeting 40 years ago, they affectionately bonded like true kinsmen over shared cultural memory and historical trauma. They talked about art and how the African aesthetic permeates both of their literary works. And though it was the first time they’d met in person, transcripts from that discussion revealed their knowledge of each other’s writings made them feel friendly and familiar.
As UF’s CAS prepares to interrogate and commemorate the significance of their meeting, we do so with a series of poignant recent events as the cultural backdrop. Three years ago, President Donald Trump enacted travel restrictions to the U.S. for several predominately Muslim countries. In February of this year, Trump expanded the ban to include four more African countries, one of them being Achebe’s mother country: Nigeria. The ban and previous disparaging comments from the president about certain types of immigrant groups sparked an ongoing conversation about the value and presence of African nationals in the U.S., in spite of Nigerians representing one of the most educated immigrant groups in the country.
And just when we thought things couldn’t be worse, the year has been thick with other troubling race-related incidents. This summer, many of us witnessed Black American George Floyd struggle for nearly nine minutes before he died, pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Though it was one among several other high-profile tragedies, his death represented a breaking point over the historical and present-day institutional defilement of Black bodies. Alongside his death, we watched the ubiquity of white women having aggressive meltdowns in viral videos. We celebrated the solemnity of peaceful protests and were stunned by the rage in cities around the country overrun by days of rioting. And we are still waiting to see how justice serves another Black life taken too soon: Breonna Taylor.
Like roots from the same insidious tree, the legacy of anti-Blackness and anti-African attitudes still persists, even though it’s been 40 years since the momentous Achebe-Baldwin meeting. However, it does so in the presence of other auspicious moments, like Senator Kamala Harris officially becoming the first Black woman to be a major party's vice presidential nominee and with the debut of Beyonce’s “Black is King” visual album, an African Diasporic collaboration and cultural phenomenon that is deeply imbued with the Black, African aesthetic.
And so this month, we will remember Achebe and Baldwin's first and only chance meeting at UF's African Literature Association Conference, 40 years ago. We will do so in honor of the art they bequeathed to us to make progress toward the work that still remains undone. Like Baldwin said, both men understood that “the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced” them. This conference is an ode to their cultural origins and artistic identities as Black men. And it will be an opportunity to observe Achebe’s clarion call to come together simply “because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”
Yewande O. Addie is a fourth-year doctoral student in UF’s College of Journalism and Communication.
On October 22-23rd, CAS will be hosting the "Achebe | Baldwin @ 40: Interrogate & Commemorate" virtual conference