The Cycle of Doom: Selected Essays in Discourse & Society
by Dubem Okafor (Brooklyn, NY: Shakespeare’s Sister & Lulu, 2005)
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The African diaspora: What is its impact on literature and on society, both in Africa and in the new homes of displaced Africans? In his book of essays and reviews collected from past work, Dubem Okafor tries to answer this question. A poet, a native of Nigeria who has studied in Nigeria, England, Canada and the United States — and who now makes his home in Pennsylvania — Dr. Okafor is particularly well-suited for this exploration. His conclusions, though, are not particularly pleasant: As he says in the first page of his preface, “The joyous spirit bade adieu a long time ago.”
With chapters on eight African or (in the broadest sense) African-American writers — Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Rudy Wiebe, Ishmael Reed, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ayi Kwei Armah and Ngugu wa Thiong’o — The Cycle of Doom provides an extensive introduction to the literature of West Africa, of the Caribbean, and of African-Americans in the United States. With the exception of Dunbar, who is several generations older, all of these writers come from the same generation, all born in the 1930s. Again aside from Dunbar, these are writers who, in young adulthood, faced dramatic cultural and political change across the world, from the disintegration of colonialism to the civil-rights movement of the United States. Those times shaped their writings and have influenced heavily the writings that have come since. Their importance is hard to overstate: Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka remains one of the most influential writers in the world today, and Chinua Achebe is certainly one of the most consistently popular. The others, though perhaps not quite so well-known, are scarcely farther behind in talent and intellect. In dealing with the political context faced by contemporary Africans and African writers, Okafor pulls no punches. An Igbo, Okafor well recalls the Biafra-Nigerian war of 1967–1970 that left millions of his ethnic group dead. In a final chapter, called “Nigeria: The Bird That Devours Its Young,” Okafor says this:
Blood, which is the shedding of blood of our people, has … remained a permanent feature of Nigerian political history. This shedding of blood, far from acting as a sacrifice to appease the gods of disunity and usher in a reign of solidarity in Nigeria, has never inculcated in the Nigerian citizenry a national consciousness and sanity …. Instead, blood has always called for more blood.
According to Okafor, until that changes, until the blood stops to flow, no real progress — in Africa or for Africa’s children elsewhere — can be made.
One of the great tragedies for Africa, and one that — while it may have begun with the slave trade — continues to this day, is that its best and brightest end up leaving, providing their talents and abilities to cultures distant from their own. Major media show the attempts of desperate Africans to get into the European Union, but these are generally the poor and uneducated. Many others — doctors, accountants, college professors and artists — also end up leaving, finding it impossible to continue their careers in lands torn not just by poverty but by ethnic strife and corruption. Unlike the poor, they are welcomed to their new homes, their knowledge and skill, born in Africa, now benefiting new lands. Today, fortunately, expatriate Africans are able to keep in close contact with their homes — but they feel a frustration concerning their native lands that is clearly a part of this book.
Just as Africa has suffered their loss, the cultures absorbing the people of the African diaspora have gained. The positive impact of Africa on Europe and the Americas defies measurement: Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, was descended from an African; the United States would have no distinct, contemporary American culture without its African component.
In many ways the writers covered in this book are emblematic of the cross-pollination between African and European cultures. They write in English, the language of one of the great colonial powers, but have made that language their own — a part of both the African experience and that of the Diaspora. If Dunbar “articulates the bleeding groans of a gelded people,” the others all demonstrate a renewed virility on the part of Africa’s children.
This is a carefully written, well-documented work. Because the book comprises distinct units, each of which can be read independent of the others, there is no generalized bibliography at the end but a smaller, more specific one following each chapter. Though initially disconcerting, this proves to be a useful feature, making it much easier for the student or scholar to mine the information available. The index, on the other hand, does cover the entire work.
Professor Okafor, a colleague of mine at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, assembled this book to facilitate his own teaching. The work, however, is much greater than any simple role as an auxiliary textbook. By crossing boundaries of time, space and race, it demonstrates that the world of literature — and its role in society — is far greater than many of us can even imagine.
Most of us think of “globalization” simply in terms of economics. The Cycle of Doom puts it squarely where it belongs: in culture.
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