By Obi NWAKANMA
Michael Joseph Chukwudalu Echeruo, poet, scholar, literary theorist and administrator is one of Africa’s leading men of ideas from the 20th century. His impact on the shaping of the ideas of the African world in modernity is vast and pointed.
This fact was brought to bear last week at Syracuse, New York, during the “Michael Echeruo Symposium” organized by the Syracuse University’s Humanities Center under the direction of Gregg Lambert, Echeruo’s protégé and Deans Professor of the Humanities at Syracuse, to mark Professor Echeruo’s formal retirement from the academy this October, and to commemorate his life and work and its achievement.
It was a touching tribute by the Syracuse University, where Echeruo has been the distinguished William Safire Professor of Modern Letters since 1990. The Echeruo symposium aimed at locating developments in modern African literature in the last fifty years in which Echeruo has played a pioneering and central part as both critic and poet.
Born in 1938, Michael J.C. Echeruo was educated at the Stella Maris College, Port-Harcourt, where his own father, a university of London graduate of English taught before he became a minister of government in the former Eastern region.
Echeruo was admitted to the University College Ibadan English class in 1956, in the same class as the poet J.P. Clark, the critic Abiola Irele and the linguist Ayo Bamgbose. Graduating top of his class in 1960, Echeruo was uncertain about a career path.
As he later said during the events, “I’ve never been career-minded…my entry into the academy was by accident.” But it was a heady time. Nigeria was on the threshold of a great new adventure as an independent nation. There were opportunities open to a young, brilliant, university-educated man.
While his friends and classmates, Abiola Irele went off to the Sorbonne to study for a doctoral in French, and Ayo Bamgbose to Edinburgh to study Linguistics, Echeruo was faced with a number of options. His professor at Ibadan had told him he’d do well in broadcasting, and so off he went to the Nigerian Broadcasting Service for an interview.
But in the course of the interview, a new option was suggested to him. He was interviewed and offered a job in the Customs with the goal of his taking over at some point from the English head of the Nigerian Customs Services. Thus did Echeruo serve very briefly as Nigeria’s first university-educated customs officer before he left later in 1960 to teach at the Nigerian College of Arts and Science at Enugu.
“It was a lovely time” recalls Echeruo, “I met this group of young poets who were excited by the moment and were writing vigorously. Chris Okigbo would come from Nsukka.” That group of young poets included Bona Onyejeli, Nduka Eya, Okogbule Wonodi and Paul Ndu.
There, at Enugu, Echeruo founded the students verse magazine, Fresh Buds as an outlet for these young writers who later moved to the University of Nigeria Nsukka when the Nigerian College of Arts was merged with the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Thus Echeruo also became a pioneer faculty of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he taught Drama. He left Nsukka in 1962 to Cornell University, Ithaca, New York to study under the famous M.H. Abrams, the Romanticist, and where he was also a Hoyt Scholar.
In 1963, he won the first All-Africa Prize for poetry, beating poets like Denis Brutus for the prize with his taut, devotional poems, Mortality later published by Longman in 1968, thus establishing Echeruo’s reputation, not only as a scholar but also as a poet.
Echeruo returned to Nsukka in 1965 and not long after, the national crisis that blossomed into a civil war in which he came to play an important part as the Director of War Information Bureau of the Republic of Biafra.
The war over, Echeruo resumed teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1970, and was appointed Professor and Head of Department of English in 1973.
A great highlight of Echeruo’s work at Nsukka was that he helped with a star studded retinue of brilliant scholars at Nsukka at the time, including the famous D.I. Nwoga, Emmanuel Obiechina, Juliet Okonkwo, the novelist Chinua Achebe, and many others, to re-establish and heighten the reputation of Nsukka’s English and humanities program in the immediate post war years.
He left Nsukka and joined the English department of the University of Ibadan in 1974, as Professor and Head of Department. He was the first Dean of the University of Ibadan Postgraduate school from 1978-80, and later the first Vice-Chancellor of the Imo State University, from 1981-1988, where he also established the reputation of the school for academic excellence.
Echeruo’s scholarly endeavour is multivalent and its scope is indeed too intimidating to press into this very short space. The more intriguing however is the quiet dignity of his output – that quality which the scholar Isidore Okpewho describes very succinctly as the “dignity of intellectual labour.”
This was precisely what the Syracuse University celebrated this past week. The two-day event was a tightly organized gathering of some of the most important scholars currently working in the field. It began with a keynote by the novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, whose visiting parents were in the audience, on the complex question of the African identity in a globalizing world.
She had been introduced by George Saunders, writer and 2006 McArthur Fellow. The next day saw a gathering of distinguished scholars – indeed what could be considered the aristocracy of contemporary black letters – Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, Emmanuel Obiechina, Silvio Torres-Saillant, Chukwuma Azuonye, Ernest Emeyonu, Micere Mugo, Kofi Ayidoho, Anthonia Kalu, Obiora Udechukwu, Kenneth Harrow, Lokanga Losambe, Arthur Flowers, Tejumola Olaniyan, Maik Nwosu and I both served as rappotuers for the symposium.
Expectedly, much penetrating insight emerged from the past fifty years of African literature, and an attempt was also made to chart its course for the future. It was clear that the study of African literature, particularly in the western academy and in a global context is at the crossroads.
The increasing obscuring of the values of this literature raised concerns for the future of its production and its scholarship, and an important question of the sustenance of its legacies also came to fore with Ernest Emeyonu’s disturbing revelation of the sale of parts of Cyprian Ekwensi’s memoirs by Charles Larson to the Humanities Center at the University of Texas in Austin.
Indeed as figures critical to the autonomy of African ideas like Echeruo exit the stage after years of toil in that field, it is crucial to draw attention to the necessity of preserving the heritage of letters and ideas which has been at the core of Africa’s resistance aesthetics in the 20th century.
This much was the sum of the concluding statement by Gregg Lambert, who compared Echeruo to Derrida, at the fine dinner at the Grande to mark the end of the symposium.