He is clearly patrician in the way he acquires and disseminates knowledge but his general lifestyles are very simple and cool. BJ, as he is fondly called by many people, loves words— Yoruba and English—which he uses inexhaustibly. He also loves big ideas which he invests in and wrestles with endlessly.
Born and bred in Ibadan 70 years ago, Jeyifo’s childhood was tempestuous because he made many considerable efforts in resistance to the codes of conduct imposed on him by his immediate society. His rebellion could have damaged him irreparably but for his sharp brain anchored in intense and wide-ranging readings. He is one good example of a man saved by literature.
Today, he is an eminent, highly gifted and respected scholar teaching Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Jeyifo was one of the pioneers of radical, Marxist Literary tradition in African universities. He was also the first National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities in Nigeria. With incredible courage, commitment and intellectual panache he led a winning team of unionists—among who were Festus Iyayi, Mahmud Tukur, Dipo Fasina and T.U.Nwala. He has taught at the universities of Ibadan, Ife and Cornell.
Between January 21 and 22, 2016 at the Conference Centre of the Obafemi Awolowo University—formerly University of Ife—, Ile-Ife, ideological soul-mates, academics, journalists, students and friends of Professor Jeyifo gathered to celebrate his 70th birthday. It was an impressive turnout.
The conveners, led by Dr Wumi Raji, chose “Complexity of Freedom’’ as the conference theme. Speaker after speaker engaged Jeyifo’s scholarship, pedagogy and radical politics of the Marxian variety. Some were unfairly but respectfully critical, many were deeply appreciative. He would have taken issues with his unfair critics but the moral burden of being the rallying point prevented that. He listened to some misinterpretations of his ideas in silence. The energetic defender of noble causes and people simply refrained from speaking to defend himself.
When the conference, dance, play, dinner and banters were all over on the night of January 22, KUNLE AJIBADE, Executive Editor of TheNEWS magazine and PM NEWS had a conversation with BIODUN JEYIFO which stretched till the wee hours of the morning of January 23. While Idowu Ogunleye snapped the photos, Gbenro Adesina transcribed the interview. Below are excerpts of the reflections of this radical literary critic, theorist, unionist and columnist:
Q: The celebration of your 70th birthday started on January 5 at the University of Ibadan. We just had a stimulating conference in Ile-Ife on your life and work. In April, the African Literature Association (ALA) will do a special session on you at its annual conference for 2016 in Atlanta. How do you feel about all this?
A: I am very appreciative. Normally, I am not really cut out for observing anniversaries. It is a sentiment that I am not used to. I celebrated my 60th birthday anniversary ten years ago only because some friends and former students organised it – you were one of the conspirators! But I do feel very appreciative and deeply humbled by the outpouring of genuine affection, respect, and acknowledgment of the nature and quality of my work. I am overwhelmed. No professor, no intellectual, and even non-intellectual can say that he or she would not, on any day, respond positively and movingly to genuine expressions of admiration and respect for his or her work and life. The other dimension of my response to the honour and the recognition is that it makes me reflect on the nature of my work and its reception – the kind of expectations that, apparently, my work has stirred in my former students and readership in all parts of the world; that aspect is a little more complex than the simple joy, the simple appreciation, and the simple sense of gratification.
Q: Can you share with me your thoughts on this dimension of the reception of your work and the expectations it has generated in readers?
A: Let me give you an example. For instance, in the combined panel on my work as a theorist and critic and as a public intellectual, there were at least four or five presentations that, were I not the object of discussion, I would have interrogated strongly and robustly. I won’t mention the panelists now because doing so will make it seem as if I do not appreciate them and that I have begun to pick holes in their presentations. Simply on intellectual grounds, on ideological grounds, there were about four or five in that panel of eight or nine that I would have engaged very rigorously. There they were making critical assessments of my work and as the person honoured I had to take it all in. Although on the whole there was not a single person on the panel who didn’t express admiration and respect, but the respect was also critically articulated and this generated in me an impulse to engage critically with them! But you will agree with me that it would have been an act of a lack of grace on my part to have said to any of the panelists: “what are you saying”? That is what I mean.
Q: After Professor Attahiru Jega’s moving lecture, you said that the celebration meant to you a re-dedication to all the great values that you have always held very dear. Could you expatiate on this?
A: Actually that is the subject of my column in The Nation this coming Sunday (January 24, 2016). I wrote it last night. Of course, I had meant to write on a different subject before I came to Ife for the celebrations because I knew that once I got to Ife, I wouldn’t have the time, the space and I have never failed for a single week to send my column on time, not once. I started writing the column in 2007 and I have never failed to send my column on schedule and I wasn’t going to fail this time. So in order not to fail to write the column this week, I decided to write about the Ibadan and Ife celebrations. In the piece that I wrote and sent off to my editor at The Nation earlier today, I spoke on this subject of celebration as rededication.
What I mean by re-dedication is that when people express admiration, acknowledgement or respect for certain qualities in you, certain aspects of your achievements, certain things in your person that they find admirable, they are also expressing the hope that you will retain the qualities, the values they admire and respect in you and your work – a sort of “ma feyi sopin”! In other words, they’re saying these things that we admire and respect in you, we hope that time and old age will not change you from what we know you to be. Also – and this is important — those who ask this rededication of you are also, although more implicitly, rededicating themselves to the same values. I call it a mutual pact of re-dedication: “We expect these attributes and values to continue to be manifested in you. This is what we like in you; on our own part, because we have found these things in you inspiring, we ourselves also hereby rededicate ourselves to the values, the attributes”.
Let me put this idea in concrete political and moral terms: “we are re-dedicating our lives to struggle for a country – our country – that will be free of oppression, of “ireje”, of looting, of poverty and insecurity of life. Here, I will allude to a term from cultural anthropology to say, in this respect, that celebration as an act of re-dedication is a kind of ritual process, in the sense that in social and cultural rituals, all the participants, all the communicants who go through the ritual process are not the same people who come out of it by the end of the ritual because they are transformed, they are renewed, they re-dedicate themselves to the values they have celebrated during the ritual process itself.
Q: How do you manage to combine the rigour of your academic exertions with all the demands and responsibilities of your participation in the public space as an intellectual?
A: Actually, I think that perhaps too much is made of the rigour. Look, you have a passion for doing something, and you get paid for doing it, and also you get public recognition for doing it – that is an added bonus! These are all things that I would do anyway. This is part of who I am. I know what people say – Osofisan often says to me, “I don’t know how you are able to write this column every week”. But I do it because I want to do it. Nobody is forcing me to do it. I feel obliged to do it. Initially, it took a lot of discipline. When I was with The Guardian, the deadline for submitting my column was Thursday; that was a little bit tougher because I teach only on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Harvard. So meeting The Guardian’s deadline of Thursday evening was a little tough for me so that when I migrated to The Nation, I arranged to have my deadline changed to Fridays.
Anywhere I am in the world, except it is an emergency that takes me to hospital either for myself or someone else, I know that on Friday morning, I must spend X hours writing my column and I don’t compromise on it. It has become a habit. It only seems to be a rigorous demand. It is, in a way, but it is something you have to discipline yourself to do. At any rate, I will do it because I have a passion for it. Maybe also, in simple, straightforward terms — this may seem like self-advertisement, self-aggrandizement — I am a workaholic. My domestic partner — she is an anthropologist — complains endlessly about my workaholic lifestyle but she knows that she has a powerful enemy in my workaholic lifestyle! It is like an addiction but in a positive sense. In high school, I was not that serious. I was more of an “ipata”, a rascal. I was satisfied to be among the first eight in the class, not the first, second or third pupil in the class, from primary school to high school. I was never first, second or third.
Q: Was it a deliberate act?
A: It wasn’t deliberate. It was just that I read mostly for pleasure. I didn’t read in order to pass exams. I passed so easily that I wasn’t bothered about who was going to be first in the class and this attitude persisted up to my high school years. It was in UI, even more so in graduate school, that I became a very studious student, a very diligent student and the workaholic ethic grabbed me and it has never left me. So it has become a kind of habit. And it has become pleasurable.
Q: At that point, what was the motivation?
A: Though, I didn’t become a dedicated and self-motivated student in high school, I attended all the famous public debates and lectures in Ibadan – USIS, British Council, Obisesan Hall. When I was in primary school, the great Zik of Africa came to speak and I went to hear him speak. All the firebrand nationalists and trade union leaders came to speak at these lecture halls and I went to hear them speak. I started from all of that. But it was in graduate school that I began to read with seriousness. Before then, I read voraciously, I read everything I could lay my hands on, but not with an intention to do extra well in class. I didn’t care as long as I didn’t slip pass the tenth position in the class of about 25 pupils. My father and mother hated this because they knew I could do much better if I put my mind to it, but I myself didn’t have that inclination.
Q: I am raising this question because in your tribute to Professor Dapo Adelugba, you actually spoke about that great impact he had on you in terms of looking up to him as someone who motivated you at that point when you were in Ibadan Boys High School. How did he motivate you?
A: I differentiate that from what happened later when I was in graduate school. People called Professor Dapo Adelugba “Uncle D” but I called him “Brother Dapo” because he was an area or neighbourhood elder brother at Oke-Bola. He and Mr. Nelson Olawaiye both discovered that I was well known for getting into trouble. For instance, it was a taboo to go and swim at Alalubosa Lake because many kids drowned there. That was where I learnt how to swim. But apart from knowing about my notoriety for getting into trouble, Uncle D and Mr. Olawaiye also discovered that I had a passion for reading and they encouraged me a lot in this habit. And I also looked up to them. Uncle D was at Government College and he spoke English with a kind of diction, a kind of accent we considered superb. So, he was a role model in the sense of spotting in me a love of reading and encouraging it a lot. In contrast, take someone like Mr. Modupe Oduyoye who was my teacher at Ibadan Boys High School. He clocked 80 last year. I wrote a tribute to him. He tried to get me to become a serious student in a more structured way because he knew I could do much better than being sixth or seventh in the class. In that sense, my tutelage under Mr.Oduyoye was like a foreshadowing of what I was later to meet in my mentors at New York University, NYU. Mr. Oduyoye said to me,”you are cutting yourself short; you can do much better than this. You can be more structured in your work”. That is what makes a difference.
Q: At the University of Ibadan, you were not just a serious student in terms of being structured in the attention you paid to your studies but you also played hard. Do you want to reflect on your years at UI?
A: Yes,I played very hard in my undergraduate days at U.I. But in my first year, I got the English departmental prize. It was a prestigious prize. At that time in U.I. the prize was offered twice in the course of going through the English department as a student. There was a prize in the first and last years and I got it on both occasions in my set. So you would have thought that having won the departmental prize in the first year, I was going to start thinking that I would make a first class. No, that didn’t occur to me at all. You see, from primary school to high school, I always came first in English Language and Literature, and History. Quite frankly, after winning the departmental prize in the first year, I knew that I would make 2.1 (Upper Second) but honestly, I did not have my mind fixated on getting a First. By the way, I was the third to get First Class in the history of the department. It was so rare to get First Class in the Department of English in UI. I learnt that no one got it after me for about 30 years. Getting the departmental prize in my first year did not spur me to say that I would focus exclusively on my studies in order to get First Class at all cost. So instead of sitting down and studying hard, I got involved in all kinds of extra-curricular activities, so to say. I was in student politics and became Public Relations Officer of the Students Union. I was in the Student Dramatic Society and acted in many plays on the stage and on television. I was in The Pyrates Confraternity. I even played soccer and was a member of the Kuti Hall football team that won the Inter-Hall competition for 1968. Indeed, I won the Kuti Hall Masters Prize for 1970 for being the best “all-rounder” in the hall. The way I see it now is that getting the English departmental prize in the first year should have inspired me to think of becoming a lecturer. But that is not what happened. I didn’t think of what I would do after graduation.
I had also got admission into UNILAG to read Law. From the time I was in primary school, people would tell me that I would be a lawyer; it got to my head. But that never happened. It was in graduate school that it occurred to me that I would be a lecturer, and that I would be an intellectual. That was when I became more disciplined, and more structured but throughout UI, it wasn’t the case. For instance, I wrote a tribute to Professor Ayo Banjo in which I reflected on this particular aspect of my experience as a student of English at U.I. Professor Banjo was my teacher in English Language, not English Literature. Well, Banjo sort of put the fear of rigorous intellectualism in me because he taught us structural linguistics and transformational grammar. The thing was a complete mystery to me because it is very scientific. It is the most scientific aspect of the study of language. I tried everything I could to get a grasp of it but until I left U.I. even with a First Class, the finer points, the intricacies of transformational grammar eluded me. It was when I got to graduate school that I said “this thing that Banjo tried to teach us and I didn’t fully understand, let me now finally come to grips with it’’. Only about four of us understood what Banjo was teaching us and it wasn’t because he was a bad teacher; it was simply that the material was tough going. Before Banjo’s classes in structural linguistics and transformational grammar, for me grammar had just been how to put sentences together syntactically in order to write correct English. That was what I understood grammar to be but transformational grammar insists on the conditions under which you produce a sentence that is “right” in terms of the structure of the language even if, semantically, the sentence is wrong or even meaningless. This baffled me at that time. I just said, this is not for me. Until Ibadan gave me a scholarship after getting a First Class, I didn’t really think of what I would do post-graduation. Because, then, in any way, you got a job at NBC and you got a car immediately, and you got a house. I also participated in lots of quiz competitions and won lots of prizes. In short, I had no real intention to be a teacher but in graduate school before I finished my PhD, I got married and became determined to be an academic. The year before I finished my PhD, I had a son, Okunola, in 1974 and then I had to go and teach in order to augment the bursary that I was getting from the U.I. scholarship so as to support my new family. It was then I thought that teaching might be a life vocation. I taught at Queens College of the City University of New York; I taught at Hunter College and Pace University, which was a private college. That was when I knew that I was very good at teaching. I loved teaching and the students liked my classes immensely.
Q: Even at the point of choosing UI over UNILAG, it never occurred to you what you were going to become?
A: No, not at all. Let me give you one interesting aside here, I don’t know if I have ever told you about this. In my final year at Ibadan Boys High School, every school in the Western Region sent two students — two for science, and two for arts — to do the entrance exam for higher school in GCI and I passed. But before the letter of admission came, I had been expelled from Ibadan Boys High School. They didn’t let me see the letter. But someone in the principal’s office surreptitiously made a copy of the letter of admission and gave it to me. So, I went to D. J. Bullock, the legendary Principal of GCI, to present myself and to pay the ten pounds deposit for the two-year HSC course at GCI. As I was dressed in school uniform, Bullock asked, “Where are you coming from?” I replied, from school. He said no, you are not coming from school and he fished out a letter from a file on his desk from Mr. Laseinde, my principal, who had written Bullock to inform him that I had been expelled and that the offer of admission to me should be withdrawn. Bullock told me that I wrote the best essay among all the applicants in the Western Region for admission to HSC at Government College that year. With such a disclosure, I thought that if they had adjudged me to have written the best essay among the applicants, I should eventually go and read English. Government College then was an enormously prestigious institution. So, for Bullock to have said to me, “You are welcome to GCI and you can forget what your principal has said as long as you don’t come to GCI to do the kind of thing for which you got expelled from your school”.
I think that sort of prepared me for the choice of English as the subject I would read at U.I. Interestingly, this was all rather comparable to the time when I received the letter of admission into UI which coincided exactly with the time that Soyinka resigned from UNILAG to come to UI. That also played a role in my choice of going to U.I. to read English. Soyinka then was not the towering Nobel Prize figure he is now; and I had actually not read anything by him with the exception of one or two newspaper articles. And he was then a young man. All I was interested in was a rascally figure that was super articulate.
Q: In short, your own rascality attracted you to Soyinka’s rascality. Is that right?
A: Non-conformism, I would call it.
Q: I was just leading you to talk more of why you didn’t choose law, in spite of all the pressure mounted by your immediate family members?
A: One other factor, to be frank, was that at that period, even If I had wanted to read law, it was very rare to turn down an offer from the great UI to go to the University of Lagos. You had to have had a Rotimi Williams as a father who wanted you by all means to succeed him as a lawyer in the family law business.
Q: Why didn’t you eventually go to Government College for your HSC?
A: Two things happened. One, that very year, the set of lower six admitted in 1965 to GCI which would have been my set (I don’t remember the exact reason now) were transferred to Comprehensive School, Aiyetoro, but I didn’t want to go to Aiyetoro; I wanted to go to Government College. Second, which is more complicated, I had not told my father that I had been dismissed from Ibadan Boys High School. Mr Laseinde, the Principal, who was also the organist at St. James Cathedral saw my father and apologised to him for expelling me from school and explained what I did that called for the expulsion. At that time, it was the height of disgrace to be expelled from school. It is like you have no future. “Ipatae yiti take e over patapata”, meaning “this rascality of yours has taken you over completely”. For that reason, my father said that he would not send me to the school for the HSC even if I passed the school leaving exams – which I did. I had a sister in the UK who was a nurse, who sent me the ten pounds for deposit and promised to sponsor my HSC education. But once they then transferred that set in 1965 from GCI to Aiyetoro (Arts not Science), I said, forget it, I am going to spend the next two years studying, do the A levels as a private student and enter UI the same year as my set. So, I did GCE A ‘Level on my own and entered UI as an undergraduate the same time that the students in my set who went to Aiyetoro also entered university.
Q: When did you finally meet Wole Soyinka? And what kind of a teacher was he?
A: Soyinka didn’t come to UI when we all eagerly awaited his coming. They sent him to prison in 1967, the year I was admitted to U.I. The civil war broke out that same year, and Soyinka went to Biafra in a last ditch effort to avert the war, as we all know now. He was arrested upon his return from Biafra so he couldn’t come to resume his position until my last year, 1969. Soyinka was a great and inspiring teacher but in a very special kind of a way. He was a hugely charismatic teacher, but he wasn’t always present in class. Adelugba and Adedeji covered up for him most of the time. But the times when he came to class, he was incredibly stimulating. The class he taught me was Dramatic Criticism and he was great. I think in a whole semester, maybe he came two or three times. That was all. He rarely came to class and other people were doing his teaching obligations for him. But you must remember that that was his time of intense and prodigious creativity. He came to class two or three times and that was all I had of him as a teacher.
Q: You were also very busy as a teacher but you never missed your classes. Why are you making excuses for Soyinka?
A: I didn’t miss my classes and I don’t mean to make any excuse for Soyinka, but you see, the only one full length play I ever wrote was Haba, Director!, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Herr Puntilla and his Man Matti. I wasn’t busy writing the best plays of my writing career, which was what was happening to Soyinka. I place great value on that. Of course my classmates hated it because they wanted to have the great man teach them himself and not have other teachers stand in for him. Moreover, perhaps without doing so deliberately, Soyinka tended to “segregate” the best students from the rest and he had a tendency of addressing himself to the “select” group. He could be very dismissive, though I don’t think he did it deliberately. The students that weren’t self-confident, that didn’t think they were “smart” enough, they were terrified of speaking in Soyinka’s classes and they would be saying that he was speaking only to Sawyer, BJ, Somoye; he would be looking mostly at us. I was never cut out to be that kind of teacher whose work as a creative writer of the highest order was, when all is said and done, his main tools for teaching. It was in my last year at U.I. that Soyinka became my official supervisor before I went to NYU. Frankly, he was not your regular kind of teacher, but he gave a lot if you knew how to make room for his special way of teaching.
Q: You also acted in his play?
A: Yes, I did. I was in both the stage play and the film version of Kongi’s Harvest. I appear for only 15 to 30 seconds in the film as a member of the Carpenter’s Brigade because Soyinka used the members of the Pyrates Confraternity for the Carpenters’ Brigade in the film. In the stage version, I was the Camp Superintendent, and at the celebrations at the Arts Theatre, U.I. two weeks ago, I narrated something that turned out to be nearly a disaster in my participation in the staging of the play when I was drunk and very nearly missed my cue for coming onstage to perform my role in the production. WS was scandalised by this, as he should have been! This happened in my last year. Soyinka came to UI in 1969. It was the beginning of my last term as an undergraduate. When I then went to Tafawa Balewa Hall as a postgraduate student and Soyinka became my supervisor, I wanted to play a part in his Madmen and Specialists. He had not forgotten or forgiven me for that near disaster of the staging of Kongi’s Harvest. When I showed up for the casting of the new play, Madmen and Specialists, Soyinka said to me, “you, out!” Except again, irony upon irony, after the last night of the production, I sat down, analysed both the play and stage production and showed my review to Soyinka. He apparently liked it very much. He said to me, “You should go and publish it”. But it was enough for me that I had written an analysis of the play and the production and that he liked what I had written; I didn’t send it anywhere for publication. Soyinka was sending for me asking if I had sent the review for publication and this went on until he finally grabbed a copy and had it published it in Daily Sketch. This is the man that had thrown me out of the casting rehearsal for the production! He liked my review so much that he sent it to Daily Sketch to be published. I was later told by Niyi Osundare that that review of Madmen and Specialists became one of the standard texts of the dramatic criticism class taught by Professor Joel Adedeji. Niyi Osundare was two years behind me and that review of Madmen and Specialists that I wrote was used as one of the required reading texts for his class when they were taught by the late Joel Adedeji. Up till today, Niyi still teases me by quoting some embarrassing lines of highfalutin English from that review.
Q: Talking of the complexity of renderings of your own interpretation of Wole Soyinka’s works, Odia Ofeimun in his presentation celebrated you as a denizen of the Fourth Stage but Professor Femi Osofisan said in jest,‘’One day I will have to translate your book on Soyinka into simple English’’. In other words, it appears that when you enter the forest of Wole Soyinka’s books you are taken over by the thick forest as you too become so complex. In contrast when you enter Chinua Achebe’s savannah, you are the most lucid. What do you say to that?
A: People conveniently choose the aspect of my work that pleases them and ignore others. I dare anybody to say that any single essay in The Truthful Lie is difficult, convoluted, and they are no less powerful essays for that reason. I must admit, if I were to rewrite the book onSoyinka, Politics, Poetics and Postcolonialism, if I were to write it again, I would be writing in a different kind of critical idiom. Since that book came out, I have generally striven to write, without compromising intellectual depth and rigour, in a more lucid style. It is a gift, the ability to write lucidly without sacrificing intellectual depth. It doesn’t come to you naturally to use language well and you use it with lucidity but also with depth – as Chinua Achebe consistently did. I strive for it, it doesn’t come easily. The Truthful Lie was my second book. I didn’t discover lucidity with Achebe, it was something that came with an attitude to language usage and the burden of language with regards to social activism depending on the occasion because all the essays without exception in The Truthful Lie derived from positions taken on an ideological terrain and I needed clarity to establish those grounds. They were driven by that and they were all polemical pieces. It was John La Rose, who came to Nigeria and said ‘oh my God, we must publish these essays’. I just wrote those essays in the book, delivered them as fighting, polemical pieces at different places including Ife, Zaria, Ibadan, Ilorin and Nsukka. To cut a long story short, I think people miss that. When Osofisan was saying jocularly that he is going to translate the book on Wole Soyinka from English to English, I could have shouted, well you can get some help in accomplishing that task by going back to read The Truthful Lie!
Q: Professor Tejumola Olaniyan, one of your former students, both at Ife and in Cornell University, in his tribute to you described you as Professor “O le gan ni o” (It is tough and challenging beyond measure!) And many people in the audience laughed to that. Why are you such a tough teacher, a task master, an “O le ganni o’’ teacher?
A: As I don’t want to be self-justifying or self-aggrandising about this, let me treat this question carefully. You see, for me, it doesn’t matter the surface complexity or on the other hand, the surface lucidity of a text, of any text, I take its interpretation and analysis very seriously. Let me illustrate what I have in mind here by using the example of classical Greek drama. Nothing could be simpler in form, language, and content than the plays in this tradition of dramatic writing. The plays are extraordinarily simple in content, form, style, and language but what about the consistency of intellectual depth that we encounter in them? A student approaches that and mistakes the lucidity for simplicity, or even simple mindedness. He or she can’t see the depth beneath the surface lucidity. In one form or the other, what I always tell my graduate students, which may explain this “o le gan ni” phenomenon is this: “In order for you not to be intellectually slack as you write your term paper or even your dissertation, pose to yourself the strongest possible objections that anyone who doesn’t take your position can make to your paper”. Quite often, the response that I get from most students, even those at a fairly advanced stage of writing is that they think and think and they can’t come up with what could be the strongest possible objection to their work. To this non-response to my challenge, I ask, “what about somebody who hates Marxism, the theoretical and ideological framework of your dissertation; what if somebody who is anti-feminist slyly uses that antagonism to feminism to undercut the analyses and claims that you make in your dissertation that draw their inspiration from feminism? What if somebody who is a poststructuralist says this glorification of realism in your dissertation is naïve and simplistic and dismisses everything that you say in the dissertation? If you have not anticipated that objection, you are cornered and probably finished in your defence of your dissertation or the talk that you give for consideration for a post in the job market.
If you anticipate the possible strongest objections, well, that puts you in a position to at least deal quite easily with weaker objections to the analyses, the claims that you make in what you write as a budding academic, critic or theorist. If you are focused exclusively on the things that you find fulfilling in what you write, the things that come to you easily and you have found pleasurable in writing your dissertation and you don’t anticipate the things that other scholars, for whatever reasons, may find objectionable in your writing, you may have a problem defending what you have written when the critiques, the reviews come. I suppose this method of training advanced graduate students and younger or junior colleagues is partly the product of the kind of training I myself went through in graduate school in advanced graduate seminars.
But more fundamentally, I think it is also a question of sensibility because I remember even back to my Ibadan Boys High School days, there was always a Friday afternoon session with the school principal at the end of the week, you know question and answer time between us, students and the school principal. From form three to my last year in form five, everybody in the school waited for my questions at these sessions because the principal always found my questions intriguing, perhaps even challenging. At any rate, the principal always waited for me to ask my question or questions and if on any occasion I was silent, he would call out, “Jeyifos, have you no questions this week?” I confess that even this far removed from that experience that happened more than five decades ago, I remember distinctly the pleasure that this weekly verbal dalliance with the principal gave me, especially since it was the same principal that eventually expelled me from the school in 1964! That’s why I think that this matter of “O le gan ni” must also be a matter of sensibility, a matter of a certain disposition to language, to critical intellection.
At any rate, all I know is that when I became a serious student, I cultivated this intellectual habit of not taking things for granted, of not thinking that maybe because your cause is just, politically or intellectually, then you must not pay attention to the intricacies of your arguments, to the underlying premises of your reasoning. If you do pay attention to these things, you are saving yourself from a fall or an intellectual embarrassment because people who hate your politics or your ideology or the things you are fighting for will find ways to pick holes in your argument and then they will use that to go after you, which is their real purpose in mounting arguments against your intellectual and ideological positions. They will fault you for sloppy reasoning, your inattention to the necessity of supporting your claims with sound reasoning. That is the background to the “O le gan ni” phenomenon. I must say that Teju wasn’t using it pejoratively.
Q: Not at all. Indeed, Teju proposed that our country will be a lot better if we use the“O le gan ni” idea, if we apprehend our realities, in an “O le gan ni o” way. Do you also see it that way?
A: I do. The theme of this two-day event in Ife, “The Complexity of Freedom”, which comes from the title of one of my collections of essays on Soyinka, is precisely that if you have a passion for justice, for human freedom and human emancipation, you must arm yourself with sound intellectual arguments to defend them. This is because the justness of your cause doesn’t mean that it will automatically prevail. You have to prepare the ground. Again, I learnt some of these lessons or truths from ASUU when I was its National President. I had to do thorough work to make sure that in our memos, our position papers, we trumped the federal government’s positions in our agitations, our activism for better conditions of funding and academic freedom on our campuses. During our many encounters with them, the Federal Government would bring the Committee of Vice Chancellors against us, but we floored them because we had done our homework thoroughly. We never lost a single contention with the Federal Government, never. We were so well prepared, we baffled them. It wasn’t magic; we just set out to do a very thorough job. That is the dimension of the complexity of freedom that I am interested in.
Q: What is your take on what Sam Omatseye described as the crisis and anxiety of a post-Marxist world reflected in your journalism?
A: Sam Omatseye is correct, but only in a very abstract and generalised sense; he is not correct in any kind of concrete, demonstrable sense that I find applicable to my work, especially my political and cultural journalism. The crisis for me is not that of being a Marxist in a post-Marxist world. Omatseye was for the most part speaking about what I write in my column in The Nation, the “Talakawa Liberation Herald” series. In that column, I write in a way that I hardly ever directly mention socialism, I hardly ever talk about capitalism, but only a fool would not know that that is what I am writing about. You see, for me there is no need to breast beat that I am a Marxist or that I am a socialist or to throw theoretical and ideological jargon around. So, I say loudly that I have no crisis or anxiety of being a Marxist in a putatively post-Marxist world. No, no, no. Once they label you as this or that, that is the end of the discussion, the end of the road. If they label you a communist, that is the worst. They will say, look at all the communist regimes, haven’t they failed, haven’t they done terrible things and haven’t they, in one way or another, turned away from communism? With that calculated tactic, my attempts to make my country, my society better will be delegitimised by the intellectual laziness and ideological fraudulence of saying that we want to bring North Korea here, we want to bring Stalinism here. Absolute rubbish.
Omatseye does not, of course, belong to this order of virulent anti-Marxism. But that order does exist and in reaction to it, it is a tactic on my part not to talk about socialism but everybody on the left knows that I am speaking for them. The second aspect of my response to this question of being Marxist in a post-Marxist world is the one that I tried to speak about during the Ibadan celebrations on January 5. I don’t think I was clear enough about this aspect when I spoke about it on that occasion when I said I wanted to tell a secret about the “Talakawa” series in The Nation. You see, the secret is this: part of the time, I am actually writing for self-clarification in the Talakawa Liberation series. In other words, I don’t write that series with the attitude, the perspective of one who knows and is providing the answers. I am very serious about this, to the extent that I do declare here and now that it is in the process of writing that I actually make some discoveries; that I think through some tough questions; think through on how best to present my positions. How do I break down complex ideas, complex issues and make them understandable? That is the general task that I set myself to in The Nation column. I think I have gotten better at doing this in The Nation than when I wrote the series in The Guardian. At any rate, that is my own general sense. Sometimes, I am frustrated by a feeling that I have not done enough work to clarify an issue that I set out to engage. But for the most part, I am content, though not in a self-satisfied, smug manner. In a very generalised sense, this profile of what I am trying to achieve in the “Talakawa Liberation” series in The Nation is applicable to the so-called post-Marxist conundrum. This is because nowadays in most parts of the world, leftists, socialists, radicals see it as a sort of liability to label themselves Marxists.
Let me illustrate what I am saying here by alluding to something that happened personally to me in connection with this thing about being Marxist in a so-called post-Marxist world. When I was going to Harvard from Cornell University, the President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, got the Dean of the Faculty of Arts to ask me to explain my Marxism. You know, “Isn’t this a contamination that this man is bringing to Harvard?” He didn’t literally say that but that was the implication: we must keep Marxism out of here or keep it policed, watched. I narrated this experience to some colleagues at Harvard as recently as about six months ago at a social gathering for the young scholars of the department. I told them that I was made to write something about my Marxism when I was coming to Harvard from Cornell. I told them that I wrote a tongue-in-cheek memo, which I titled, “Who is afraid of BJ’s Marxism?” And I sent it to the Dean at Harvard. Obviously, the demand for me to offer an explanation for my Marxism came from a feeling that Marxism is some kind of strange and foreign invasion from a past that has collapsed and vanished forever. In my tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic memo I said, wait a minute, Marxism has a long, more than 200-year history that is still evolving and there are many schools of Marxism – Western Marxism; Non-Western Marxism; other schools of thought or ideological orientation that are not Marxist but are in dialogue with Marxism. In my memo to the Dean of the Arts and Sciences Faculty at Harvard, I said that in my classes, I explore all of these traditions within and outside Marxism. Altogether then, Marxism influences ideas that power my conception, my tactics of how to go about the struggles that we wage as Nigerians and human beings for justice and opportunities for the dispossessed. But Marxism is not the only tradition of thought and inquiry that influences me. And I am not a dogmatic Marxist. And most important of all, I don’t think Marxism ever belonged exclusively or even predominantly to the Eastern bloc that collapsed after the end of the Cold War; neither does it belong exclusively to the past.
So in response to your question, Omatseye is wrong in projecting to me crises and anxieties that I do not in the least have. Marxism is an approach and a philosophical view of human society and history that has had a profound influence on me, but not in a dogmatic sense.
Q: At what point in your life did you discover Marxism? And what is your response to those who say, Socialism is dead. Long live Capitalism?
A: Interestingly, it was in America, when I was a graduate student in my early to mid-20s that I discovered Marxism and read very, very widely in both its Western and Non-Western schools or traditions and in all subjects and disciplines – philosophy; politics; social theory; psychoanalysis; art and criticism; revolutions and revolutionary movements. I read enough to last two lifetimes! At the same time, I read widely in other traditions of thought – comparative religion; structuralism and poststructuralism; Pan Africanism; Eastern philosophies and religion. That period was probably the most idyllic period of my whole life when I had the motivation, the drive and the opportunity to read as widely and as ecumenically as I wanted to or could. So with this sort of background, how could I ever be a dogmatic Marxist?
There probably was a period in my young adulthood when I absolutely insisted on being seen as a Marxist – perhaps the Ibadan and Ife years. But since then, I have shifted tactics: my absolute insistence now is that I be taken, I be judged on how consistent I am with my passion for redistributive justice in our country and our world. So don’t say to me, “Are you a Marxist?” Say to me, “Are you true to your professed belief in justice and dignity for the dispossessed of our country, our continent and our world?” On that basis, I must say that the question whether socialism is dead or not does not really interest me; what interests me is: what is the state of social justice in our country and our world? As for those who say, “long live capitalism”, I say, have you taken a recent look at the state, the ill-health, the severe crises in and of global, regional, national and local capitalisms recently?
Q: You have also been quite interested, even excited about the need for an inter-generational conversation between younger and older Nigerians in all areas of our public life, literature and the arts; politics; popular culture; and present conditions and future prospects for everybody, young and old. Do you want to speak to that?
A: Yes. You notice that one thing I do, one special category of articles I publish in my column, both when I was in The Guardian and now in The Nation, is that every time that a major intellectual, artistic or political figure dies, I write about him or her; and also, I write an appreciation when he or she celebrates a major birthday milestone. There is a reason for that and the reason speaks to this inter- generational conversation. You see, I am trying in such writings to re-introduce to our younger compatriots Nigerians of exceptional achievement in all areas among the older generation, especially those that came before my generation. I write to make them known to the new generation. One thing that progressive forces all over the world always face is the temptation to see the historic task before them as if they have to reinvent the wheel. They don’t know what has gone before they arrived on the scene. They don’t have intimate knowledge of the great people and inspiring things that happened in the past, even the recent past.
Indeed, Kunle, I see your own persistent plea to me: “Write your memoir, BJ, please write this memoir, BJ” in light of this same imperative of an intergenerational conversation. I will write the memoir, Kunle, but meanwhile, I am writing about figures and trends that went before my own generation arrived on the scene. I especially like the piece that I wrote on Professor Omafume Onoge when he died. It was a three-part series. And I very carefully wrote on trends and moments of transition in the evolution of the Left in Nigeria so that the younger people can become aware of that history. Because if any generation, especially present and future generations of young people, have no point of reference from the past, points of reference about those who came before them, problems which should not scare them will scare them; problems which are simple, they will blow out of proportion; and “problems” that are not really problems at all, they will say they are problems. That is one.
Number two, which is far more critical for me in this issue of an intergenerational dialogue, there is what I would call the coeval connection between all the generations that are alive at any particular historical moment. By the way, the intuition for this came from the bible not from Marx. (I was General Secretary of Students Christian Movement of all the secondary schools in Ibadan in the last two years of my secondary school days. Indeed, I have a long history with Christianity which I have since abandoned, or more appropriately, it abandoned me because it stopped making meaning and sense to me, in trying to understand my world, our world). But concerning this aspect of inter-generational challenge, Christ said that before the present generation shall have passed away, the son of man shall come again. By this Christ meant that the second coming was not in some distant future, it was liberation from Roman and local oppressors. Judea was a part of Roman Empire and the people were oppressed by Rome and also by the Pharisees and local landlords. This revolutionary, this historical figure, Christ, took a whip to the temple to chase out the money changers, the capitalists.
So what I want to extract, when he said, “Before this living generation shall have passed away”, is this: any living generation is composed of many intergenerational components who are in dialogue with one another or should be. In other words, a living generation is composed of many generational cohorts, about four or five at any one time, and we should all be in a dialogue with one another. It is not as if I am calling for something which is not part of the social fabric in human experience. What I am calling for should be made more conscious; it should be made more critical. I got irritated when people started talking about first generation, second generation, third generation in Nigerian literature, as if they are just discreet segments that are totally isolated from one another – which is completely false. When Christ said “before the present generation shall pass away”, he was talking of everybody alive and if you look at any society at any point in time, the living generation runs the whole gamut from the youngest to the oldest. It is usually about three to four normally segmented generations who are always involved in one form or another of inter-generational conversation among themselves.
At any rate, that for me is a critical factor in that it is not as if one generation has completely died and another one is alive; no, we are all still coeval, alive at the same time and responsible for what we leave to the future. Especially since we have just emerged, that is relatively speaking from orality. As rich and powerful as oral cultures can be in many acts of recording, chanting and performing memory and imagination, they are very fragile in one sense: they don’t keep records well. They only kept records among specialists, those who can memorise 2000 lines of poetry, the bards, and they were always jealous about maintaining control over this art, this function. It wasn’t something that was widely and culturally distributed. Now that we have written cultures, we ought to make the most of this intergenerational dimension. The last thing I will say – and this as a sort of auto-critique or self-criticism – is that I am not doing enough of reading and commentary on the younger writers. I hope to be doing a lot of that when I retire in a couple of years from now – very actively reading, sensitive and supportive, but also critical reading of the younger writers because it suddenly dawned on me not too long ago that most of my critical commentaries have been on the so called first and second generations writers, very little on the third. I teach many of these generational cohorts of the “third” wave in my classes. In fact, in one course I am currently teaching at Harvard, “Film, Fiction and Diaspora”, I teach a greater number of contemporary writers than the older writers. So I need to correct this. I need to put my money where my mouth is. I need to actually back up the demands and obligations I am making on others, on all of us with what I do in my own work in furtherance of this vital intergenerational conversation. Indeed, one of the best sessions at the Ife celebrations, in my opinion, was the one in which Eddie Madunagu and myself had that deep and wide-ranging conversation at the CORA roundtable with the two much younger intellectual compatriots that posed very sharp, searching questions to us.