Refflections with Olu Obafemi
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STEPPING into the mid-Winter Season of the octogenarians is certainly a tough hill to climb in this troublous times in our country, when life expectancy is put, inaccurately, at between 45 and 50. Professor Francis Abiola Irele, one of the proponents and patriarchs of critical scholarship in Africa is not one to ‘sneak’, unsung, into such ripe times in our rough climes—not only among the literati, but in the national, international and global communities. So, when last Monday, May 30, 2016, Professor AbdulRasheed Na’Allah, the dynamo, with combustible energy and frightening versatility, at the hems of one of the emerging most internationalized State Universities of our country, hosted the Valedictory Lecture by the Valedictorian, Abiola Irele, it was an unwitting double bill-to also celebrate his entry into the age of the Octogenarians.
It is apposite to recall that, in a way characteristic of him, Professor Abiola Irele left the comfort and prestige of Harvard, to take up appointment as pioneer Provost of the Humanities College in the year 2010, at the new Kwara State University, foundation was yet to be laid and over which university he had recorded monumental influence in its building as an emerging centre of intellectual excellence and scholarly ferment within a bewilderingly short duration of half a decade. Professor Abiola Irele, has been like a metaphorical pull of the moth to a lamp, as no intellectual called to work in that institution since Irele had put his stamp by his assured presence and participation had had any excuse for not coming—and they came in droves, literally, to help fulfill Na’Allah’s dream of building ‘a world class university.’ By the time of his leaving (hopefully without really leaving having firmly establish his memory indelibly, with a School (of Theory and Criticism) named after him and a huge section of the library devoted to his work and collections donated, most generously, by him to the young University.
Yet, It is, to say the least, a matter for great pity, that this important occasion of Irele’s 80th birthday, almost went without a loud notice in our country, where Professor Abiola has paid more than his dues in the crafting and nurturing of the essential Nigerian literary tradition—its canon, philosophy, theory, aesthetics and ideology. He had to, at the beginning of his Lecture, on “What is Negritude?” quietly announce that he turned eighty last Saturday, Thursday, May 28, 2016. No audience, and one representing in a micro fashion, some of the most qualitative in the academia—Humanities and the Natural Sciences—could be more shocked, more embarrassed, by our collective memory-less-ness (or is it just forgetfulness that the man aptly described across the world, variously, as ‘the most authoritative voice in African Literature” (by his first Graduate student, the renowned dramatist, Femi Osofisan), the “doyen of African literary scholarship and scholars globally “, a “fundamental figure in Francophone African and Caribbean Studies” and among his peers and close associates, led by Africa’s first Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, as Olohuniyo—variously captured as one with the velvet voce of salt, with regard to his legendary verbal eloquence, the redolence and fragrance of his speech pitch, what the French would describe as ‘aromatique or/and deodoran’. These translation of Olohuniyo captures more the depth and quality of his thoughts, in advance of the drinkability of his voice delivery; thoughts and articulation of the essential African philosophy, ideology and theory, with its ramifying impact on the entire African, Caribbean, Diaspora and world consciousness. The drums still must be rolled out in celebration of Abiola Irele at 80.
A member of the first generation of African critical tradition, establishing the evaluative criteria for the evolving African literature and philosophy of both Anglophone and Francophone expressions from the sixties, Professor Irele’s bio-data is commonplace on the internet and on the pages of the media the world over and need not provide obvious boredom here if recounted. Born May 28, 1936, Professor Irele studied French in the University College, Ibadan, graduating in 1960. He took his PhD in French at the University of Paris, Sobourne in 1960 writing his dissertation on the work of the Martiniqan coiner of the concept of Negritude, Aime Cesaire. Negritude is a literary and ideological phenomenon which Irele has given, unarguably, the most comprehensive attention in his numerous works. We shall briefly return to the concept a little later. Professor Irele, a global teacher, scholar and inimitable intellectual, has taught in the universities of Ife, Ghana, Ohio State University, and the University of Harvard as Visiting Professor of African and African American Studies, berthing almost finally on the virgin land of Malete, Kwara State as Provost and Director of the Press of the Kwara State University through which he has churned out a number of seminal publications including the highly rated Savannah. By the way, besides full length studies, Professor Irele is one the most sought after scholar as editor of journals, books and reviews and critical anthologies on African, African-American, Caribbean literature among them are Transition Magazine, Africa in the World and the World in Africa, African Literature: An Overview and Bibliography, The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel, Economic History of Africa (with Biodun Jeyifo), Research in African Literatures, and so on…
In establishing and affirming the truism of Irele’s stature in African literature as a critical and distinctive celebrated and cerebral African and Africanist scholar and as doyen and undisputable authority, it is important to contextualize his essential contribution to literary theory, literary ideology and literary philosophy in which Negritude is only a landmark contribution, the study and dissemination of which he stands out like a colossus. Of his numerous and diversified publications, the following selected works have become the signposts of his scholarly gifts to the Humanities: The African Experience in Literature and Ideology: Studies in African Literature (1981, 1990), The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Diaspora (2001), Dimensions of African Discourse ( 1992), Order, Pedagogy and the ‘Postcolonial’ (1995), Negritude, Literature and Ideology in the African Philosophy Reader, The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature? (With Simon Gikandi, 2004), What is Africa to Me? Africa in the Diaspora Imagination, Negritude et Condition Africaine (2009), Negritude—Postcolonial and Post-Imperial Literature, European Language Writing: Sub-Saharan Africa (1986), The Negritude Moment: Expectations in Francophone and Caribbean Literature and Thought (2010, and numerous others!
- To be concluded next week