History and the people who make it: Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Francis Bebey

Leading African-American author James Baldwin [JB] and African authors Chinua Achebe [A] and Francis Bebey [FB] spoke at the University of Florida’s African Literature Association conference in April 1980, introduced by Mildred Hill-Lubin [H] and questioned by various anonymous audience members [U]. This is the 64th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler. [Trigger warning for the N-word!

H: I am very happy to introduce our three honored guests. Francis Bebey, a Francophone African writer from the Cameroons, who is also a recording artist musician who plays the guitar. In the center is the outstanding black American writer, Mr. James Baldwin, who has written quite a number of works. His most recent is Just Above My Head, but many of us know him for earlier books, particularly Go Tell It On The Mountain, and several other books of essays. On the other end is Mr. Chinua Achebe, a foremost Anglophone African writer, who has written several novels: his first, Things Fall Apart, and several others—A Man of the People; No Longer At Ease; and Arrow of God.

U: What are the similarities between African writers and Black American writers?

A: What is literature about? Literature is about people. It is a work of people about themselves. People who are attempting to create themselves anew. If you accept that definition, it stands to reason that Black America — which is really Africa in diaspora — should have the same fundamental concerns as Africans. We are both engaged in the process of creating ourselves again, after we had been shaped by others. We are in the same enterprise.

JB: I can hardly add to that, except to say that when I read Things Fall Apart — which takes place in another continent under conditions hard for a Black boy from Harlem, to imagine — I recognized everybody in that novel. 

The novel was for me, in one way, about my father. When Chinua talks about the diaspora, something very important has to be suggested. We have been divided. We have been dispersed. Have been under the control of others for hundreds of years. Economically, and for the most part politically, we still are. 

But, one is engaged in an endeavor nothing less than excavation of a buried and denied history. A history never written down. He and I are from different tribes, for example, let us say when we got here, we got here together, chained together. 

I couldn’t talk to him and he couldn’t talk to me. If we could have talked to each other, slavery might not have lasted so long, and it was forbidden to teach us how to read or write. This was a western conspiracy called white supremacy. And it has seen its day. It is over.

FB: What we usually call “diaspora,” is not a mere physical thing. You, my brothers in America, are considered the diaspora. But we have different kinds of diaspora. The physical one, you have had in your lives, since you left Africa, four to five hundred years ago, is one thing.

But we in Africa have had another kind of diaspora, a mental and spiritual diaspora. We have been taken out of ourselves while being in Africa. We have been colonized, which means that our minds have been changed by foreigners. Our minds have been in a diaspora for centuries, too. 

This, in my opinion, is what relates African writers and black American writers, much more than anything else. We have been given the same bad treatment, in the past, and we have suffered from similar treatment — you, here, and we at home. We’ve been staying at home, but taken away from ourselves while at home, which is even sometimes more dangerous.

JB: I wouldn’t disagree with that for a moment. I’m always very cautious when I try to talk about Africa, which is an enormous continent, and a tremendous — I don’t know what the word would be, but let’s say for the moment, “mystery.” That is why we’re here. 

You had to come through the missionary schools. I had to survive an elementary school in Harlem. I was born, in effect, in a fantasy created by white people — by which I mean, I was told that I was a nigger. And that black people never contributed anything to civilization. I had absolutely no way of proving otherwise, and I believed it. The terrible thing which you’re talking about, if I understand you — and I think I do — is that, first of all, the judgment is outside.

The world calls you a nigger. Then later, the judgment is inside. You call yourself a nigger. And, to move beyond that —

FB: And become a man. Yeah.

JB: — and become a man. Thank you. You know, that’s the journey. But we made that journey. So our children, or even our younger brothers, are not born with the necessity of overcoming an image of Tarzan, or Africa, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production. My younger brothers and sisters and my children do not believe, and haven’t got to go through, what I had to go through to try to become a man. That’s what unites us, no?

FB: Sure. We have same problems. And we felt that in same way.

JB: And found each other again. [Laughter]

LN [Lee Nichols, Voice of America]: Could I ask a question of you — all you gentlemen, whoever cares to answer? 

You’ve spoken very eloquently about the coming together of Africa and America in Blacks in literature after four hundred years — which I presume you were speaking of a metaphor for all Black writers and not just yourselves. Is there an aspect of universality to this? 

Is this a racial exclusionary thing or is it blending with the universal in some fashion?

A: Well, I’m not afraid of “anti-racist racism,” you know, that phrase, whoever coined it.

JB: Ronald Reagan. [Laughter]

A: Yeah. [Laughter] Seriously, it’s not racism. It’s not exclusivism. It is precisely what we said before — we are trying to recreate the world to the advantage of humanity. The world that has been corrupted. We did not introduce these problems into the world, and we have a chance. We have a responsibility, an obligation, to recreate ourselves. If we do that, we will not be guilty of racism. We will be guilty of restoring mankind to his original condition.

JB: May I add to that? Let me make the shocking contention. The human race is one thing, and we are all, by definition, connected. What happens to one, happens to the other. 

I want to suggest that one of the disasters of this century, one of the disasters of European history, is the creation of white people. Because there are no white people. It’s not possible to be white. You were [whatever you were] before you got here — Italian, or Dutch, or German, or Greek, whatever. 

White became a metaphor for safety and for power. A whole civilization destroyed a real morality in order to preserve its power, and the proof of this is those people who think of themselves as white — bear in mind that Malcolm said, “White is a state of mind.” 

That means that you’re as white as you choose to be. That means that white is a moral choice. I know some Black men and women paler than anyone in this room who are legally Black. Now, if that is so — and that is so — we’re talking about a moral dilemma which has very grave consequences. 

So, when Achebe says what he just said, it is not “racism in reverse.” It is not racism at all. White people may not know, but I know. Not all my grandfathers were black men. White people know very well. They’ve done this to their own children, knowing perfectly well this boy, this girl, was the issue of their loins; have slaughtered them, castrated them, burned them, knowing perfectly well what they were doing. Now that is something for any civilization to get beyond. I’m talking about that. Chinua says we are trying to restore the world; I’m talking about that.

A: Twenty-three years ago, I first encountered Jimmy Baldwin, and I’ve known him intimately and well since then — although I only met him yesterday. [Laughter] When I read Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1958, I knew: here was a brother. And so, I immediately proceeded to the American Information Service in the city where I lived, in Enugu, to borrow some more books by Baldwin. 

Unfortunately, there was no book by Baldwin or by anybody like him in that library. So, I asked a few questions: how come there is no book by Baldwin in this library? And I must say in the defense of the people concerned, they moved, and that situation was changed. Well, this was 1958; a lot has happened in that time.

When I hear “dialogue,” my mind goes to conversation, not to two speeches. I had hoped that this would, in fact, be a conversation. But we’ll become victims of our technology, and I’m told that somehow this thing which is rigged up here will not permit that kind of discussion. So, I’m asked to make an opening statement, and Jimmy will make another opening statement, and we will take it on from there. 

Now, the topic of African aesthetic is one of which I am very diffident—about this. If, by aesthetic, we mean those qualities of excellence which a culture discerns from its works of art, then I would accept it. We do have an aesthetic. We had it, and we have it. [Applause]

Our art is based on our morality. Perhaps it sounds old-fashioned to you. But, it is not to us. The earth goddess among the Igbo people — Ani or Ala — she is the goddess of creativity. Of art. She is the one who orders that festival that I told you about. Art is in her portfolio. She is also the goddess of morality. An abomination is called an abomination against the earth. So you see, in my aesthetic, you cannot run away from morality. Morality is basic to the nature of art.

JB: I don’t quite know how to follow my friend, but I’ll try, since we are here trying to do something of a certain seriousness. One would say that my buddy whom I met yesterday, my brother whom I met yesterday, who I have not seen for four hundred years, it was never intended that we meet. [Applause] 

After all, this is a dialogue not simply between Achebe and Baldwin, but between all of us, and him, and me. I think when Chinua talks about the aesthetic, beneath that word sleeps fatally the word “morality”; and beneath that word, we are confronted with the way we treat each other.

[A voice, sounding as if on a radio, comes in through Baldwin’s microphone; most of the words are indecipherable. The audience laughs — presumably in part from Baldwin’s startled expression.]

Radio voice: You cannot be up there to tell us that; don’t let him try to get away here. We’ve kind of got to look to take it back.

A: The thing has come alive! [Laughter]

JB: I don’t quite know what that interference is. [Laughter]

Radio voice: Now cut it out, Mr. Baldwin. We can’t stand all this kind of talk.

JB: Mr. Baldwin is nevertheless going to finish his opening statement. And I will tell you now, whoever you are — and if you assassinate me in the next two minutes, I am telling you this: it no longer matters what you think. The doctrine of white supremacy on which the Western world is based has had its hour, has had its day. It’s over!

A full transcript of this talk can be found by entering “Defining the African Aesthetic” at https://ufdc.ufl.edu/oral.

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