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Opinion: Farewell to the Last Prophet of Negritude

Francis Abiola Irele, who died in Boston on 2 July at the age of 81, was undoubtedly the foremost prophet of the concept of Negritude to which he devoted his entire intellectual career for over five decades. I first met him as an undergraduate while studying German at the University of Ibadan in 1985 when he was head of the Department of Modern Languages and a professor of French – writes Professor Adekeye Adebajo.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in South Africa.

Prof Adebajo continues: At the time, with the social distance typical of such relationships, he struck me as aloof, absent-minded, and remote. Later in my academic career, I would meet “Prof” in diverse American cities during annual African Studies Association (ASA) conferences. Seeing him wandering around on his own, we would sit down to a coffee and talk about various issues relating to Nigeria, Africa, and the world. I still remember his magisterial M.K.O. Abiola lecture on “African Studies as Discipline and Vocation” during the ASA meeting in Indianapolis in November 2014.

After Irele’s death, tributes flooded in from around the world. Harvard-based Nigerian scholar, Biodun Jeyifo, described him as “indisputably the world’s greatest scholar of Negritude”; Kenya’s Princeton-based Simon Gikandi called him “a walking archive,” before noting that “More than any other scholar of his generation, Irele brought a forceful intellect, a cosmopolitan outlook, and authoritative voice to the study of African literature;” eminent Nigerian poet, Niyi Osundare, described Irele as “a man and scholar constantly re-inventing himself and his ideas, an ageless humanist with an astounding combination of youthful energy and the seasoned wisdom that comes with age;” Nigerian academic, Remi Raji, praised Irele as “the original olohum iyo (salt-tongued artiste), and teacher of teachers”; while American academic, Kenneth Harrow, eulogised him as “a major voice for African studies, a generous humanist, an insightful scholar…an iroko tree in our forest of scholars.”

Abiola Irele was born on 22 May 1936 into a colonial Nigeria still under British rule for the first 24 years of his life: an experience that shaped his writing in its fierce Pan-Africanism. Though born in Ora in Edo state, he moved to Enugu at the age of six (after his father, who worked as a civil servant in the Post and Telegraph Department, was transferred there) where he learned to speak Igbo. He would return to Lagos to live with his father, attending Catholic schools St. Patrick’s, St. Mathias, and St. Gregory’s in accordance with the family faith. He was exposed to folk tales and oral poetry even before entering the University of Ibadan in 1957, where he was a contemporary of J.P. Clark, Florence Nwapa, and Christopher Okigbo. Irele was not just a scholar in Ibadan, his appearance in the opera, “The Magic Flute” and his singing of librettos with a golden voice in the university’s Trenchard Hall, are fondly remembered by his contemporaries.

He went to Paris for two years to learn French in 1960 – the annus mirabilis of Nigeria’s independence – and obtained a doctorate in French literature from the prestigious Sorbonne University. Irele lived in Paris’s Latin quarter near the offices of Présence Africaine – the leading literary journal on African and Caribbean literature in the francophone world – for which he wrote, immersing himself in Pan-African circles. Returning home with the proverbial golden fleece, he put his Pan-Africanism into practice, teaching at Ghana’s Legon University as well as the universities of Ife, Lagos, and Ibadan in the 1970s and 1980s. He edited the journal, Black Orpheus, between 1968 and 1975. Irele’s inaugural lecture at Ibadan in November 1982 “In Praise of Alienation,” became the stuff of legend.

A deep thinker and fluent writer, his body of work focused obsessively on Negritude, with a particular prioritising of its two leading figures: Senegal’s Léopold Senghor and Martinique’s Aimé Césaire. Irele traced the antecedents of the “African personality” to West Indian, Edward Blyden, and credited the birth of Negritude to the poetry of Césaire – whom he termed the “arch-poet of Negritude.” He, however, regarded Senghor as the concept’s greatest theoretician and philosopher, with the Senegalese poet-president’s definition of Negritude as a “cultural and spiritual endowment of the Black man” based on African mysticism. Irele often recognised radical French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre’s – the only individual to have rejected a Nobel literature prize, in 1964 – role in expounding on the concept of Negritude, while noting Sartre’s cultural limitations in not belonging to the black cultural world. Interpreting Senghor, Irele noted that “Negritude functions as a synonym of the ‘collective soul’ of all the Black peoples.” This movement glorified black culture, looking back nostalgically at a rich African past, and affirmed the worth and dignity of black people across the globe.

Irele shared both Senghor and Césaire’s love of French language and culture, but – unlike them – was also deeply immersed in his own traditional African cultures. He was, for decades, the most articulate, and one of the few, prophets of Negritude left after many had abandoned the creed in the post-independence era. He often proselytised in the wilderness, sometimes discovering an oasis through which he could quench the thirst of the few faithful devotees of a dying religion. Irele became the very personification of the Negritude he had mastered in all of its complexities. He firmly believed that both Negritude and Pan-Africanism would be essential foundations for the reconstruction of a new African identity in the modern world. He thus sought to keep updating the doctrine for new generations to understand and relate to their own particular circumstances. The ultimate cultural bridge-builder, Irele constantly interpreted the francophone world of black poetry and prose for an anglophone audience, leading Biodun Jeyifo to describe him as “the greatest border crosser of [his] generation.”

Irele was the ultimate Renaissance Man: a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, a bon vivant, and connoisseur of opera, wine, and good food. He was as comfortable with the Greek and Roman classics as he was with African art and music. He discussed Yoruba and Zulu linguistics and poetry as easily as he sang Mozart and recited Dante. One of the most commented upon qualities of Irele was his deep humility despite all of his undoubted accomplishments. He always disagreed with the multitude of critics of Negritude such as Wole Soyinka, Martinique’s Frantz Fanon, and Benin’s Stanislas Adotévi, who saw it as essentialist, apololitical, glorifying European culture, and/or demeaning black culture; with decorum and civility, often showing great respect for their scholarship. Irele was self-effacing to a fault, often reluctant to put himself in the limelight, but instead maintaining the role of the detached literary critic mediating fierce intellectual disputes as an “honest broker.”

One of the most important and often unheralded aspects of Irele’s career was his tireless mentoring of two generations of younger scholars. As Wisconsin-based Nigerian academic, Tejumola Olaniyan, noted: “his biggest accomplishment was a careful cultivation of junior scholars.” During his early career in Nigeria, he published younger scholars in the student journal, The Horn. Irele’s New Horn Press later introduced to the literary world younger poets such as Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Harry Garuba, Mabel Segun, and Jean-Baptiste Tati Loutard. Simon Gikandi recalled how, when as a young Kenyan struggling to establish himself in the American academe, Irele took him under his wing, getting him to write a monograph on Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o for the Cambridge African Writers series that he edited, before asking Gikandi to co-edit a two-volume Cambridge history of African and Caribbean literature with him. Niyi Osundare dedicated his recent book of poetry, Only the Road Could Talk, to Irele shortly before his death. Osundare further recalled how Irele had published his first collection of poetry and coined its title “Songs of the Marketplace.”

In 1989, Irele joined the “brain drain” from the continent to teach African, French, and Comparative Literature at America’s Ohio State University. He left Ohio in 2003 to join Harvard as a Professor of Africa and African American Studies. His publications include: The African Experience in Literature and Ideology; The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora; and The Negritude Moment: Explorations in Francophone African and Caribbean Literature and Thought. Irele was also general editor of the Cambridge Studies in African and Caribbean Literature series, and edited the prestigious Transition journal for five years. He generously coordinated new editions – with critical essays – of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal. In 2011, Irele’s colleagues published – under the editorship of Biodun Jeyifo – The World in Africa and Africa in The World: Essays In Honour of Abiola Irele.

A year earlier, he had returned to Nigeria to become the founding Provost of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kwara State University, and generously donated his library to the new institution, also editing a start-up journal, The Savannah Review. Irele, however, returned to Harvard shortly after. Kwara State, nevertheless, established an annual Abiola Irele Seminar in Theory and Criticism in his honour.

The last time I saw “Prof” was two weeks before his death. He presented a paper on Léopold Senghor and chaired a panel on African philosophers at a three-day conference on “The Pan-African Pantheon” hosted by my Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Even after missing his connecting flight in New York, he still made this 16-hour odyssey, determined to keep his commitment to a younger admirer. Many of our participants commented on Irele’s intelligence, charm, and humility. Discussing with him before a dinner hosted by the Vice-Chancellor of UJ, Ihron Rensburg, he was in great spirits, looking forward to writing a series of essays for Harvard’s prestigious W.E.B. Du Bois Institute on “The African Renaissance: From Léopold Senghor to Thabo Mbeki.” He generously noted that my mini-biography on Mbeki that I had gifted him at last year’s ASA in Washington D.C. had been useful to him in this regard, and I promised to send him more literature on Mbeki.

Unfortunately, this innovative book will now never be written: a great loss to the field of Pan-African Thought. During this last conference that Irele attended in Johannesburg, he also gave me a copy of his 2011 collection of essays on The Negritude Moment – dedicated to the memory of what he described as an “exemplary father”. His inscription in the book simply read: “To Adekeye with admiration!” It is a book I shall forever treasure. Ironically, Irele’s last conference was on the topic of the Pan-African pantheon. He has himself now joined the ranks of the ancestors, and will take his rightful place among “After Africa’s” literary deities such as fellow prophets, Césaire and Senghor. The Black Orpheus and last prophet of Negritude has finally entered the “Dead Poet’s Society.” Farewell, “Prof.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was originally published in The Guardian (Nigeria) on 25 July 2017.

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