When Chinua Achebe passed away, my thoughts immediately took me to the fifth grade book fair. There, I found the cover of a book I found interesting. Knowing nothing about the actual book, reading level, or histories behind it, I decided to buy it for what was probably five bucks from my school’s library.
Shortly after the book sale, we had African dance classes for the semester. The volunteer dance teacher, a curly-haired Black woman, took one look at my book and yelled, “Can I borrow that?!” Not knowing the value of the book (or the rarity of its cover), I said, “OK …” She promised that, after her travels, she’d bring it right back.
I got back a version of the book with an abstract of a rooster on it. I was so disappointed because I expected the actual book I purchased back in my hands. So, instead of reading it like I wanted to, I left it on my bookshelf for the better part of six years.
When I finally re-opened it, I did so to discuss a historical perspective about Blacks in America, and my new-found understanding of my African roots. I didn’t have the language for the nudges of covert prejudice I felt on the street and in school, but I knew Chinua spoke to it in this book.
Shortly after turning in that book report, my social studies teacher, a brawny white man who pretended not to care whether graduating seniors would remember him fondly, pulled me aside after class and admonished me for my racism (!) and asked me to renounce what I wrote in the paper. Of course, I obliged on the outside.
Inside, however, I knew I touched something deeper. I finally had the pieces of a language no one could possibly teach me. The fire I felt ever since I read To Kill A Mockingbird, watched The Eyes on the Prize documentary, or witnessed cousin after misguided cousin go to jail finally had an air source and a way to spark. Through college, I learned more about the people who eventually became my heroes: Cesar Chavez, Sonia Sanchez, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., bell hooks, and a whole host of local and international leaders who through their works shaped my vision through the world.
But I owe Chinua everything. His passing only reminded me of the importance of putting one’s experience on paper, for these stories told through an oral history needed print, in case future generations seek to learn languages they can’t pick up as an elective.
Jose, who will find his way into newsstands tomorrow …