On the Nature of Legacies
- Lamin Sanneh (Author)
Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa. Harvard University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Ken Wiwa (Author)
In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son's Journey to Understanding His Father's Legacy. Vintage (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Virginia Whatley Smith (Author)
Richard Wright's Travel Writings: New Reflections. University Press of Mississippi (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi
Legacies are often difficult to assess and assessments are open to contention. The three books under review here are concerned with legacies of various kinds but all have the themes of travel, migration and colonial encounters in common. In 1995 the trial and execution of the Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa shocked the world. In his memoir, In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son’s Journey to Understand His Father’s Legacy, Ken Wiwa assesses and attempts to comprehend his father’s legacy. Much of that legacy lies in Nigeria. Consequently, events and sociopolitical conditions in Nigeria eclipse the narrative of a father-son relationship.
Ken Wiwa writes with a sure hand and frank unadorned language, but better treatises of Nigeria’s ills abound. The author, who grew up mostly in British schools, demonstrates amply his distance and estrangement from Nigeria. He explains wrongly, for example, the acronym NEPA (Nigerian Electrical Power Authority) as Nigerian Electrical Ports Authority. Upon arrival at the airport in Nigeria he complains about the heat and humidity. And when he flies out of Lagos, he suddenly talks about leaving Africa and not just Lagos. It is a serious error for a book that professes to be concerned with the specificities of a marginalized ethnic minority to collapse the signifier of Nigeria into the blurry symbolism of Africa.
The merit of Wiwa’s book lies in finding graphic moments in which the axes of ethnic politics, long-standing colonial relationships and newer patterns of transnational political and economic interests collide. One such moment lies in the paradox of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s desire to have his children educated in Britain—Saro-Wiwa manages to get one son into Eton college—and then expressing frustration with a son who does not want to return to a country he doesn’t know. However, the father’s investments do pay off because the son is later in place in London to become a spokesperson and public face for his father’s fight against a multinational oil concern. Other moments occur during the last hours of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life as the author races from one "world leader" to the other to have them plead for his father’s life. Wiwa reveals in those last hours how, with the media and powers of telecommunications, the world seemingly contracts as the incarcerated Ken Saro-Wiwa "moves" from the margin to the centre. But it is precisely at such a moment of contraction that the author realizes how minute his father is in the grand scheme of things. With his martyrdom, Ken Saro-Wiwa has undoubtedly left his country a troubled legacy. I doubt, though, that his son is the right person to assess that bequest.
Lamin Sanneh’s Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa is an inquiry into the legacy of nineteenth-century antislavery movements to three West African nations; Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The thrust of Sanneh’s argument is twofold. He argues that in nineteenth-century America Christianity represented a counterpractice to slavery and that as such it constituted what the author labels "antistructure." Building upon this hypothesis he suggests that black abolitionists from the US employed tenets of "antistructure" to lay the foundation for radical concepts of society in nineteenth-century West Africa where "antistructure" manifests itself as an opposition to local social hierarchies and apparatuses of governance based on a network of chiefs and kings compromised by their part in the slave trade.
Sanneh’s chapters on the involvement of various antislavery parties in the foundation of Sierra Leone and Liberia will certainly interest scholars of the African-American and African antislavery effort. Sanneh pays attention to British efforts to quell the slave trade after its abolition in 1807 as well as to the fate of Africans who were rescued from slave ships and resettled in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, the author overemphasizes the efforts of African-Americans who, as the book reveals, only wield influence in the metropolitan centres of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Sadder still, Sanneh does not put the British and the Africans on the centre stage where they belong. Not only were the British instrumental in making modern West Africa but the advance of British imperialism and, later, colonialism stopped the particular kind of radical overhaul of West Africa that Sanneh’s abolitionists might have accomplished. The title, Abolitionists Abroad, places the author away from the West Africa he writes about and puts him in America. In effect, the book is long on the lives of Americans who set sail to Africa but cannot explain the Africans they became.
Richard Wright’s Travel Writings: New Reflections is a troubled but welcome addition to growing scholarship on Richard Wright’s travel writings. In her introduction, Smith highlights Wright’s importance as an anti-colonial activist, who progresses from one concerned with the fight for racial and economic equity and justice within the national confines of America to international thinker concerned with global forces of racial, economic and colonial oppression.
The authors of these essays might all be writing about Wright’s travels but not all of them live up to the promise of the introduction. Nor do the authors demonstrate the same degree of familiarity with the critical discourse on travel writing. Some essays do not make their points strongly because they are excerpts from books, and they need to be read as part of those books. Other essays read like manuscripts that are too long to be published in journals. The former is the case with the contributions of S. Shankar and Jack B. Moore. Shankar’s essay is noteworthy because it attends to some of Wright’s conflicting anti-colonial concerns and his connections to a colonial tradition of travel writing. Moore’s essay is rather a curiosity because, excerpted from a book about the city in African-American literature, it segregates the Ghanaian cities Wright visits from the extended framework of his travel. Nwargunsu Chiwengo’s essay on Black Power mobilizes the terminologies of postcolonial criticism to indict Wright’s representation of Ghana and Ghanaians. The three essays on Wright’s travels in Spain are devoted to intertextual contexts of Wright’s narrative. Two essays by Virginia Whatley Smith and Yoshinobu Hakutami about Wright’s lesser-known account of his travel to the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1954 address Wright’s anti-colonial engagements. Smith’s second essay in the collection, on Wright’s plans for intended travels to French West Africa, requires some editing but contains illuminating moments about the composition of Wright’s travel accounts. Smith’s study of the author’s notes, especially, highlights the ways in which practical exigencies, such as profitability, shape Wright’s published documents. But perhaps the greater bequest of this collection lies not in the essays but in the set of Richard Wright’s photographs that it makes available. These photos do not appear in recent reissues of Wright’s travel books. They are, however, important because they show Wright in postures he otherwise does not write himself into.
- Odysseys by Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi
Books reviewed: Odysseys Homes: Mapping African-Canadian Literature by George Elliott Clarke
- A Cosy World? by John Xiros Cooper
Books reviewed: High Hopes: Coming of Age at the Mid-Century by Paul Almond and Michael Ballantyne
- First Engagements by Andrew Bartlett
Books reviewed: Adam's Peak by Heather Burt and The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson
- Visit-Stay by Gili Bethlehem
Books reviewed: Sulha by Malka Marom
- From Child to Adult by Leslie Harlin
Books reviewed: Bambi and Me by Sheila Fischman and Michel Tremblay, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again by Linda Gaboriau and Michel Tremblay, and L'autre côté du monde: Le passage de l'âge adulte chez. Michel Tremblay, Réjean Ducharne, Anne Hébert et Marie-Claire Blais by Robert Verreault
MLA: Osinubi, Taiwo Adetunji. On the Nature of Legacies. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #174 (Autumn 2002), Travel. (pg. 191 - 193)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.