The Education Of A British-Protected Child, by Chinua Achebe
As someone who had to read the author’s perennially overrated book Things Fall Apart in high school, and who apparently still somewhat resents the time wasted reading and talking about this book, I felt it worthwhile to read this relatively short collection of the late author’s essays. That is not to say that I found this book to be uniformly pleasurable or that I agreed with everything that the author had to say, but I did agree with more than I thought I would, and even that which I did not agree with I found to at least be worthwhile in showing the author’s perspective and in wrestling with topics in which i have no direct personal interest but some scholarly interest . As someone who is neither African nor African-American, I view this book and its subjects as an outsider, but although I am a fairly fierce reader of books, I do not think I am lacking in sympathy (even if empathy is beyond me), and so I consider a book like this worth reading even if one is not an insider to the author’s concerns or identity.
In a bit more than 150 pages the author provides a variety of essays. The author begins in a discussion of British imperialism in Nigeria, and what it meant to be a British-protected child whose country did not come into existence until later on in his life. The author reflects on what it means to deal with (other) legendary writers, spends a couple of essays pondering on his father as well as on his daughters, and looks at what it means to be recognized. He offers some tips on how to teach Things Fall Apart so that people who are not African or African-American would be able to relate to the stubbornness and intended nobility of its protagonist Okonkwo. The author muses on what it was like to travel white in Southern Africa and deal with the ambiguities of race and identity in other places. He tries to defend Africa from the hostile view many have of its lack of civilization, praises Martin Luther King, makes some trenchant conversations on the politics of language and the failure of Africa’s leaders, and closes with a “Captain Obvious” moment that Africa is people in showing hostility to demands for austerity by the World Bank and related creditors of Africa’s governments.
Where the author is at his most moving is when he talks about his own family and his relationship to other writers and thinkers who have influenced him and who have wrestled with divided identities. Unfortunately, while the author has a lot of worthwhile things to say about the divisions within Nigeria, and while I certainly favor the Igbo of the author over the Muslim Hausa who have long oppressed them within Nigeria, it seems as if much of the author’s worldview has a rather fatal logical flaw that really bothers me. On the one hand, the author is an observant viewer of the failures of Africa’s leadership to bring the blessings of Africa’s resources to its people, but on the other hand, the author’s commitment to Marxism and identity politics does not offer a way forward out of the corruption and poverty that the author decries. The author is wise to want a better life for his children and future generations, and is right to criticize the corrupt leadership of Nigeria and other countries, but he does not have anything better to offer other than criticism of others. Of course, the reader of the book is in the same position as the author, only able to offer criticism and likely few answers to the seemingly intractable problems Africa faces.
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