'The Education of a British-Protected Child'
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Chinua Achebe's powerful first novel, "Things Fall Apart," the story of a strong but angry Nigerian man and the terrible impact of white European encroachment on his native African culture and himself. This groundbreaking, heartbreaking book opened the way for a flourishing, rich literature about Africa written from an African point of view.
In the half century since, Achebe has published 18 books, including the 1987 Booker Prize finalist, "Anthills of the Savannah." He came to the United States after the Biafran civil war in 1972, and now lives in Annandale-on-Hudson.
"The Education of a British-Protected Child," his first new book in more than 20 years, is a compilation of 16 autobiographical and political essays, most of which were written - and many of which were delivered as talks - in the 1980s and '90s.
In both the title essay, delivered at Cambridge University in 1993, and "My Dad and Me," written in 1996, Achebe describes his childhood in colonial Nigeria. Born there in 1930, he was able to reap the fruits of both an Anglican education and his region's traditional Igbo culture. The son of an early convert to Christianity who became an Anglican evangelist, Achebe counts himself "particularly fortunate in having parents who believed passionately in education." A secondary school principal who encouraged the reading of novels also set him up well for his career as a writer.
But Achebe's classification as a "British-Protected Child" - and later, as a "British-Protected Person" on his first passport in 1957, three years before Nigerian independence - underscores one of the harsh facts of colonial rule. Achebe asserts unequivocally, "In my view, it is a gross crime for anyone to impose himself on another, to seize his land and his history, and then to compound this by making out that the victim is some kind of ward or minor requiring protection."
In measured but firm tones, Achebe attacks colonialism as an affront to human values, "essentially a denial of human worth and dignity." In "Spelling Our Proper Name" (1988), he discusses the African-American connection, "the current appellation for that person created out of mankind's greatest crime against humanity - the slave trade," and notes how "Oppression renames its victims, brands them as a farmer brands his cattle with a common signature. It always aims to subvert the individual spirit and the humanity of the victim."
He repeatedly cites blood-chilling passages from such classic colonial literature as Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and John Buchan's "Prester John" to demonstrate this poisonous characterizing of Africans as either slaves or savages.
Although this collection has not been edited for continuity and therefore contains numerous repetitions, Achebe's deeply humane intelligence reverberates as he reminds us that "Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people."