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Dominic Mhiripiri '12: Alums, foundation should rethink their naivety

This fall, Brown announced its success in hiring arguably the most celebrated African author of all time, 78-year-old Chinua Achebe from Nigeria. An intense social critic, thinker, teacher and award-winning writer, Achebe has for decades established himself as an authority in both Western and African literature — especially his analyses of the relations between these two different cultures throughout history. Among a myriad of achievements, Achebe is a recent recipient of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction, where he bettered such celebrated nominees as Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan.

To many, Brown's coup in hiring a talent of Achebe's stature is a great success, and given his experience and views, an immense addition to the University's pool of intellectual thought and diversity. I was able to see a lot of reactions to the news by friends and, especially, non-Brown students who expressed everything between great awe and envy at Achebe's imminent arrival to College Hill. You can imagine how many times I read the most popular cliché used by college students to express the latter feeling: "Oh my God, I am sooooo jealous!"

Yet beyond the mild pomp and fanfare that surrounded the news of Achebe's hiring, a group of Brown alums — members of the Foundation for Intellectual Diversity — led the debate on the wisdom of Brown's "focus" on Africa and Africana studies. Writing to The Herald last month, Stephen Beale '04, Christopher McAuliffe '05 and Travis Rowley '02 slammed Brown's decision to "expand" the already well-catered-for Africana Studies department ("U. should re-think Africa focus," Oct. 13). They cited the existence at Brown of such resources as the Third World Center, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Africa Group Colloquium as enough for Brown's "Africana" needs.

Central to their argument, however, was their particular concern for the decision to appoint Achebe as a Brown professor. The alums brought up an old debate on Achebe's controversial criticism of British author Joseph Conrad as a "bloody racist." Achebe attacked Conrad's work in "Heart of Darkness" as celebrating "the dehumanization" and "depersonalization" of Africans. A significant portion of the negative criticism that Conrad's book has received has largely hinged on Achebe's lead. "The University should consider more creative ways to teach its students about the classics of Western literature than calling them racist," the letter writers concluded.

Nkechi Eze '12 expressed the "naivety" of her assumption, before coming to College Hill, that Brunonians would hold more open-minded views on African issues. A member of the Nigerian Igbo tribe like Achebe, Eze emphasized the importance of bringing "great African minds" like Achebe to help Brown dispel the ignorance and myths held by some about Africa.

"Racism and stereotyping apparent in famous texts such as Conrad's ‘Heart Of Darkness' and D.W. Griffith's film ‘Birth of A Nation' should be exposed, as they help us understand why these works are so great or were able to resonate with their target audiences who held the same belief, thus ensuring the success of these texts," she added in an e-mail.

Hiring Achebe is a huge step towards establishing Brown's leadership on African scholarship and not a "needless expansion" of the Africana Studies Department. University resources like those cited by the alums are not focused on Africana studies per se — they are open to all members of the Brown community! The Third World Center, in particular, not only caters to the Arab, Asian, Black, Latino, multiracial and Native American communities, but also caters to the overall integration of all these groups into the broader Brown community.

Reducing Achebe's enormous and celebrated body of work to a single opinion raised in a hugely controversial debate is a narrow-minded claim that borders on the absurd. Not only is Achebe entitled to his opinions, but also some appreciation for his nerve to challenge convention and broaden our analysis of such important texts as Heart of Darkness.

Contrary to the alums' assertion, students ought to be taught not only how to "appreciate" classical Western literature on the surface, but also to criticize, think in different ways and stomach difficult viewpoints from other people. Certainly, excluding radical views such as Achebe's only muzzles students' understanding of the dominant view.

How can Brown, the same community that changed Columbus Day to Fall Weekend because of its association with an atrocious part of history, bring down an author who stood up to a debatable portrayal of his people? Surely, if Achebe is not welcome here because of his objection to Conrad's book, then Brown is not only a school where students are happy, but very hypocritical also!

Achebe's arrival at Brown is a giant step for intellectual diversity and literary scholarship. Welcoming him and respecting his work should mirror the words of Luis Rodriguez '12: "Brown is diversity... racial, religious, economic background, sexual/gender identity… great! How about some respect for diversity of opinion?"


Dominic Mhiripiri '12 wishes Brown Health Services had a treatment for the "sophomore slump." He can be reached
at dominic_mhiripiri@brown.edu.




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