African literature, despite its generations of griots, praise songs, tributes and what was handed down via the oral tradition, arrived at a crossroads in the 20th century. Literacy increased in many African communities during colonization, but when Africans picked up European-created literature about their land and heritage, its outsider view risked the loss of the traditions they hoped to preserve.
After reading Joseph Conrad's harrowing "Heart of Darkness," African writers decided that the written word would be the best way to tell their story around the world.
Born in Nigeria in 1930, Chinua Achebe was raised in the Igbo village of Ogidi. His parents were church leaders that had recently converted to Christianity. His father stopped practicing the native religion of Igbo but continued the traditions as he could.
Their house was devoted to literacy; Chinua's favorite stories were Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and an Igbo translation of "The Pilgrim's Progress." It was difficult finding a school where the Igbo religious customs were no longer taught. However, Chinua's intelligence paved the way for him to move ahead several grades.
Chinua also helped his father, carrying his bag for him when he went to Sunday school every week. One day, the elder Achebe faced a heated challenge from several traditionalists who did not see his religion through the same lens. The incident stayed with Chinua for years and finally appeared in his groundbreaking 1958 novel.
"Things Fall Apart" is written like a play. Told in three parts, it gives you a vision of pre-colonial life in Africa and how it is changed dramatically as religion brings new people to the village.
What is most important to take into account about Achebe's book is that he, as the narrator, remains neutral. By carefully drawing characters as human, each having reason and even civility toward each other, Africa is shown as far less primitive than in other works. However, within the structures indicated (government, a judicial system and even money), Achebe carefully illuminates the most tenuous points to the reader.
The character Okonkwo is a champion wrestler that is strong and industrious. However, he continues to try to escape the shadow of his father, who left behind debts and acrimony from those he dealt with. This weakness makes Okonkwo violent to his own family but fuels his rise in power to the community. Okonkwo is exiled and later returns to find his village has been colonized. Through his eyes, we see the changes that have been made. What others did not notice, or even tolerate, becomes clear to us as the reader, and what follows is a classic "clash of civilizations."
That phrase, coined by Albert Camus in 1946 to describe the upcoming cultural problems in Algeria and not formally used until 1996 by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, is best captured by the third act of "Things Fall Apart."
As dark and grim as the story remains today, there is a lesson within its pages. Achebe's book opened the floodgates for African literature. Poems, plays, songs and stories were now permitted to portray life as native Africans knew it. Modern African writers still cite Achebe's brave words as a primary influence to write from within. Moreover, "Things Fall Apart" still scales lists of the greatest and most influential novels of all time. It has become required reading all over the world, selling some 20 million copies.
In 1972, Achebe and his family moved to the United States, where he was a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His time in the U.S. led him to research why our history, especially literary history, was so brief and calculated.
In 1975, Achebe wrote an essay decrying the portrayal of Africans in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."
While it aroused controversy, the discussion led to the formation of the African Literature Association, which held its first meeting in Austin, Texas, during that same year.
In 2007, Achebe was awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for his life and works.
In 2013, after a short illness, we lost the man who would be dubbed "the father of African literature." Achebe was buried in his homeland in the village where he was born, Ogidi.
Mik Davis is record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe.