Biodun Jeyifo: A Life of the Mind, and Service To Humanity

Professor Biodun Jeyifo
Professor Biodun Jeyifo

BJ, as he is fondly and simply called, is Professor Emeritus of English at Cornell University and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He was the foundational National President of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Apart from protesting the anti-people policies of General Ibrahim Babangida, the Union under him was not only better organised but was able to serve the interest of its members more effectively, largely because of the democratic nature of its decision making and the honesty and total commitment of its leaders.

BJ was a high-energy president of ASUU, driving all over Nigeria mostly in the dead of night for strategy meetings, yet he never missed any of his classes or rescheduled those classes at the Department of Literature-in-English, University of Ife. For close to 50 years, he has had a distinguished teaching career at the universities of Ibadan, Ife, Oberlin College in Ohio and, as we have noted, Cornell and Harvard. BJ is an immensely gifted teacher. He was always at home with many subjects. For him, every idea was open to negotiation. There were often intense debates in his classes, which he deliberately provoked. He made his students think critically and deeply about literature and society, and a lot of other things in between.

As a Marxist literary critic and theorist, Professor Biodun Jeyifo has made huge contributions to post-colonial studies with ground breaking articles like “In the Wake of Colonialism and Modernity,” “The Nature of Things: Arrested Decolonisation and Critical Theory,” “Chinua Achebe: The Resilience and Predicament of Obierika,” “On Eurocentric Critical Theory: Some Paradigms from Texts and Subtexts of Post-colonial Writing,” and “Determinations of Remembering: Post-colonial Fictional Genealogies of Colonialism in Africa.”

One of his former students, our friend, the late Professor Tejumola Olaniyan, once argued persuasively when BJ turned 70 four years ago, that “No other scholar, apart from Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, is more attentive to the radically dispensed accents or strands of thinking the post-colonial the way BJ has done.” How true! Professor Jeyifo’s arguments, based on evidence, logic and reason, are powerful and exacting. His magisterial book, Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics and Post-colonialism, offers an in-depth reading of Soyinka’s plays, novels and poetry. One of the most interesting things for me about the book is that as BJ clarifies Soyinka’s complexity, his renderings, in some parts of the book, also become complex. His prose in this book is seductive, gripping and lyrical. His voice is calm and authoritative. The book, with its firm grounding, is a stupendous achievement. Published by Cambridge University Press, it was the winner of the American Library Association’s Outstanding Academic Texts.

Curious, ruminative, irreverent, broadminded and respectful in his opinions, BJ historicises when he writes about people who were, or are still, in the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of our country. He does this partly to conscientise the younger ones who are willing to learn but who don’t inhabit this history.

BJ’s other books include Wole Soyinka: A Voice of Africa; Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity; Conversations with Wole Soyinka; and Modern African Drama: Norton Critical Editions. His essays on Chinua Achebe, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Emmanuel Obiechina, Charles Nnolim, Dan Izevbaye and Abiola Irele are very outstanding. In literary criticism and theory, there are some theorists whose reputations are based on never to be understood widely. BJ is not one of those theorists. True, he has written some complex essays, but, generally, this author of The Truthful Lie: Essays in a Radical Sociology of African Drama; The Yoruba Popular Travelling Theatre of Nigeria; and Contemporary Nigerian Literature: A Retrospective and Prospective Exploration, writes lucidly and illuminatingly.

As a columnist, he wrote diligently for The Guardian, The African Guardian. He now writes every Sunday for The Nation. He brings to his journalism the same kind of tireless passion and deep sense of responsibility which we normally associate with his academic exertions. In column after column, he reaffirms his commitment to robust, informed, uninhibited deliberations and debates on the economy, politics, religion and other issues. Time and experience have taught him to vigilantly anticipate his adversaries and antagonists in his interventions.

In a collection of his journalistic essays titled Against the Predators Republic: Political and Cultural Journalism, BJ endlessly interrogates Nigeria as an idea and a space, linking the predatory nature of many of its leaders to their counterparts in the rest of the world. His empathy for the poor, the dispossessed and the excluded is plainly explained, even as he remains critical of them. The new collection of his journalism titled Apostrophes to Friendship, Socialism and Democracy will be published in July by Bankole Olayebi’s Bookcraft.

Curious, ruminative, irreverent, broadminded and respectful in his opinions, BJ historicises when he writes about people who were, or are still, in the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of our country. He does this partly to conscientise the younger ones who are willing to learn but who don’t inhabit this history. He wants them to know that they could stand on the shoulders of these heroes and inspiring ancestors in their quest for a dignified society.

Other stories of his life such as the revolution that he tried to plan with the Arigbedes, the Madunagus and other comrades will definitely make an interesting read when he finally completes and publishes his long-awaited memoirs.

Let me conclude with a story. In 1964, when BJ was barely 18 years old, he and his classmates in form five at Ibadan Boys High School organised a successful protest that crippled the running of the school for a whole day. On the second day the principal convoked a special assembly over those young rebels’ Charter of Demands. BJ was chosen by his classmates to present their grievances. As he spoke out so forcefully and eloquently, his classmates burst out chanting: BJ, fire on! BJ, fire on!! BJ, who was then a voracious reader, a prize-winning debater in that school, a great footballer (he was a skillful midfielder) and a leader of the Christian Students Movement, simply fired on. When he was done, the principal dismissed the gathering with a promise to look into their demands.

However, three weeks later the principal, who was the organist at the St. James Cathedral in Ibadan, where the Jeyifo family worshipped, expelled the audacious speaker. He had to write his school certificate examinations from home, which he passed with flying colours. He also wrote his A/Level examinations as an external candidate. His results were among the best that year. He was then admitted to the Department of English, University of Ibadan, where he made a first class in 1970. Since the founding of U.I. in 1948, only two students had attained the distinction: Molara Ogundipe and Dan Izevbaye.

In his autobiography, Morning by Morning, published last year by African Books Collective, Professor Ayo Banjo, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, who was one of BJ’s teachers in U.I., writes that the decision to reward BJ’s hard work with a first class was unanimous. U.I. then gave him a full scholarship to do his doctorate at New York University (NYU), which he completed in 1975. Other stories of his life such as the revolution that he tried to plan with the Arigbedes, the Madunagus and other comrades will definitely make an interesting read when he finally completes and publishes his long-awaited memoirs.

Kunle Ajibade is executive editor/director of TheNEWS/P.M.NEWS.

This is the introduction of Professor Biodun Jeyifo rendered at the Julius Berger Hall, University of Lagos, Akoka, Yaba, Lagos on Monday March 16 at a conference in honour of Mr. Odia Ofeimun who turned 70 on that day.


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