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Okonkwo's Curse

Rudy Lewis

We want the real deal and death is better than persecution.--Marvin X, Dirty South

Yesterday's march, however, was not about division. It was a generational moment – the kind of watershed event that could signal a turning point in our movements.—Jordan Flaherty, Jena Ignites a Movement

Beyond death there are no ideals and no humbug, only reality. The impatient idealist says: "Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth." But such a place does not exist. We have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.--No Longer at Ease

Recently, I read two Achebe novels: Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease. The first is about the warrior Okonkwo, living in a holistic yam economy and the second is about his grandson Obi, living in a fragmented money economy. Okonkwo's is a pre-black, pre-African world, before Christianity, before white government rule with its superior guns, its books and literacy, its values and justice. Obi's world occurs maybe four or five years before an independent Nigeria. Obi is a 2nd generation Christian, educated in England with a B.A. in English and returns home for a job in government service.

The two books left me rather depressed. Things Fall Apart ends with the death of the warrior Okonkwo. He hangs himself in despair. His clan made a decision not to go to war with the white man, his government and religion, and his justice. Okonkwo was not the perfect man, but he was the ideal man for his clan and his society in Umuofia, one of the nine villages that made up the clan's sovereignty in what became Eastern Nigeria. They were the most war-like of the villages and Okonkwo was one of its chief warriors and one of the judicious elders.

Okonkwo preferred "the real deal" and believed "death is better than persecution." His fellow clansman would not stand with him after he had struck the first blow for freedom. They cowered like women. This downward course began when his own son (Obi's father, who took the name Isaac) in rebellion defied his father and became a Christian and had an inordinate love for the white man's book and literacy. That is, he preferred the white man's world to that of his father’s. And his father cursed him.

No Longer at Ease is a continuation of that family/clan drama, in which Okonkwo's descendants are now a part of the white man's world, but not fully. They have not become fully "white." They are not allowed to become fully "white." They have at best become only half white, for the white man (the British) constantly remind them of their difference. They have a different morality than the "white" man, namely, they take bribes, and they discriminate among themselves. They are no longer holistic.

And though they have become Christians, they are not "white" Christians and so they fall continually back on their "heathen" culture for sustenance. There's the continual reciting of clan proverbs throughout No Longer at Ease. There're the cultural retentions from which they are unable to escape. But it provides no more comfort and surety than Okonkwo's machete and strong arm. At best they live a marginal life. They are trapped in a no man's land and however they try to prove their "whiteness," with education, life in England, intimacy and love of individual whites. They remain the Other even on their own soil, Africa.

It all reminded me so much of "black" reality here in America. For we long ago, ten or 20 generations ago, were lifted out of Okonkwo's world. We had enough retentions and we remained human enough to create a particular culture in our exclusion—stories, songs, proverbs, etc. But still we were under a white government and white Christianity that did not fully accept our brand of “whiteness.” And they set themselves apart from us, drew a line in the sand, while they spoke of the Rights of Man. They could not get beyond our Black Masks. Moreover, they found this separateness useful and rewarding politically and economically—personally satisfactory and elevating.

Whatever the reform—the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, the end of colonialism we always found ourselves, seemingly at the bottom of things, less than "white," and only worthy of a justice and treatment for those less than "white"—a people set aside for less than the rights of Man. Obi found this to be true; the black male teenagers of Jena found this to be true—both the hard way, in the practical realities of life, where idealism dies a sorry death. In both cases, in their oppression, they are trapped by their particular history and culture, which they retain because the road forward has been blocked.

For instance, with Obi there is his insistence to marry with Clara, who is a member of The Osu Caste. Technically, they are all Christians and that there is neither slave nor free in the religion. This problem of marriage with Osu raises all kinds of difficulties of clan loyalty. In some sense the clan is technically dead (died with the death of Okonkwo), and especially once the people became Christians. But these retentions still have their power on consciousness; for the people have one foot in the dead world of their ancestors and one foot (maybe a toe) in the white man's world. His mother threatens suicide; his father says no to the marriage. Obi does not have courage to ignore the proscriptions of family or clan. And his English principles begin to crumble.

And so he enters into criminal activity to absolve himself. Clara is pregnant and Obi fearing for his mother's life, he submits to an abortion, which costs money. He is in debt trying to live the new life of government agent, being a good son (sending money home), and paying for an abortion. His high English principles on the rejection of bribes fall by the wayside and he ends up in the dock, headed for prison.

The Jena 6 naively believed in the civil rights bills of the 60s and that those laws had made them fully “white,” and that everything was everything and that they were as good and equal as their “white” peers. There is sufficient evidence in that town that they were not "equal" and that justice for those who were not fully "white" did not exist, even before the nooses in the “white” tree. They defied that acceptance and understanding and challenged it. They also found themselves in prison.

Now there is another call for another reform movement to accomplish what the last reform movement did not, namely, a liberation of the black masses into full "whiteness." But clearly we are in a Sisyphean dilemma. The ball is pushed it up and it rolls down. And we are constantly pushing it up for it to roll down again. How then do we free ourselves from this dilemma?

Of course, this pushing up and falling down does not affect all of the half "white" members in the same fashion. For some the situation is more urgent, with others it is more livable, as they say, they are getting paid and they have kept their noses clean. They know better than others how to play or think they know how to play the "white" game in order to make this marginal life tolerable.

Maybe we are cursed and there is no exit. And when we defy we should expect the iron reality of our situation. Few of us are Okonkwos or Nat Turners. A half existence has been allotted for most of us, and will not change with another reform movement—and few of us have the courage to accept death to persecution.

We need a new kind of rhetoric, less idealistic, in which to teach our kids the realties of our failures and the realities of their oppression—we live in a money economy which we do not control, which operates by rules over which our welfare is less than considered. Parents in Jena know these realities. Of course, children are taught idealism in schools, that is, that they are just as good as their “white” peers. In reality we (they) are at the mercy of others as long as we need a job to survive in this “white” man's world. And that job world is becoming more and more fierce and fractured. And race plays no small part.

It is not just Jena; Jena is a global condition. Our children must adjust to the new racial guidelines or be willing to make war against institutions that place “white” property above “black” dignity. Another civil rights movement is another illusion.

Rudolph Lewis is founder and editor of ChickenBones: A Journal (




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