Chinua Achebe and Finding The Language For My Experience

Jose VilsonJose, Race7 Comments

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

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.

So gullible.

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 …

Comments 7

  1. You learned at an early age not to loan books. I loaned out two of my favorite books to “friends” and never got them back. I’m not about that life these days.

    Your social studies teacher sounds like my social studies teacher, Mr Newstead, who was a rumored racist.

    He had the nerve to tell a room filled with 30 or so sophomore negroes that slavery wasn’t that bad. I had a powerful disgust for him.

  2. Post
  3. I loved Things Fall Apart. My daughter was assigned to read it in school, but I stole her book and read it myself before she got a chance. I don’t know what, if anything, he wrote besides that, but that novel was just brilliant, one of the best I’ve ever read.

  4. I must say that i look forward to your articles whenever posted! Your intellect and deep understanding of our nature is profound. Teach on brotha and keep fighting the good fight, maybe one day we will win as a people.

  5. I read your post with anticipation in hopes that you would somehow relay how Chinua made an impact on your life. Sadly no such commentary was forthcoming. You made no mention about Chinua’s other books, how his book affected you, or any points from the book whatsoever, with that I’m hardpressed to see your point, true as you say you wrote an essay about him and was chastised by your Teacher for being outspoken, how would your teacher equate racism to your report and why would you recant your view…sad how African Americans are so disconnected from a true sense of culture and heritage…but I digress.
    Chinua Achebe was a true literary scholar speaking at Cambridge 50 years later after they rejected him…he loved Nigeria and Nigeria loved him he was a true literary heroe.
    Sorry I just didnt get your story, you merely glossed over Chinua and his accomplishments and did not offer how he moved you.

    1. Post

      I take issue with this. I’ve saved some of my actual feelings about Chinua for another piece I’m doing, but suffice it to say that his material mattered lots in my upbringing. Also, I’m not African-American, but I’m sure Black, and more than acknowledge my connection with the African diaspora. Your qualifications for what defines culture and heritage perhaps need a little refresher. Best.

Leave a Reply