Askew from the Nation: Thinking About Home and Country with Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin




CHINUA ACHEBE AND James Baldwin met for the first time at the 1980 conference of the African Language Association in Gainesville, Florida. The historic encounter between two literary giants comes to us in poignant fragments. Achebe recalled the meeting in a 2001 audio tribute for PEN America’s “A Celebration of James Baldwin: A Twentieth-Century Masters Tribute,” while Baldwin included video from the event in his 1982 documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine. In October 2020, the University of Florida’s Center for African Studies held a commemorative conference where witnesses and scholars recalled, theorized, and celebrated these men’s first moments together.

Achebe and Baldwin walked parallel roads of exile. Each spent decades living outside his country’s borders. Each would die far away from home. Each never stopped writing about his birthplace, even as he pursued life despite and across national borders. At their magnetic meeting, exile, with its wounds, was the ground upon which they recognized each other as brothers.

The 2020 commemorative conference took place during the COVID-19 pandemic that eroded some political borders and encased others in steel. From inside the virtual meeting portal, Baldwin and Achebe’s first encounter was cast at a tantalizing distance, the imperative to run, move, and fly across national borders discussed by people who were stuck at home. We can no longer take migratory journeys, even conferences and the bonds they ignite, for granted. How many of us living in New York today can leave the United States, asserting as Baldwin did, “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France — it was a matter of getting out of America”? How many Nigerian writers, exhausted from political upheaval, can secure a visiting professorship in the United States? And if these journeys are rare or impossible, where is the ground on which diaspora-makers can meet each other?

Violence, risk, and identification have long been part of the calculus when going abroad while Black. Refugees are received differently than artists; African Americans and Algerians still do not meet the same Paris. Now, in this COVID-19 era of national lockdowns and immigration lockouts, a new point of fragility surrounds African and African American people’s ability to travel. Even with the privileges of a passport and the ability to buy, borrow, beg, or broker passage, we may not always be able to leave our country. COVID-19 immobility is a global phenomenon, but it has particular consequences for Black people in diaspora, we who may only come to meet and recognize one another when we turn our backs to our countries and our faces toward the world.

Achebe and Baldwin both wrestled with the inadequacy of the nation-state. Each writer exposed and mourned his country’s inability to deliver freedom to the people within its borders. They wrote the United States and Nigeria, respectively, as spaces where violence intrudes on human possibility. “[T]he crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them,” Baldwin wrote in 1963, is “that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” In the same decade, writing from within Nigeria’s devastating civil war, Achebe asserted:

No government, black or white, has the right to stigmatise and destroy groups of its own citizens without undermining the basis of its own existence. The government […] failed to protect the fourteen million people of its former Eastern Nigeria from wanton destruction and rightly lost their allegiance.

Political violence ignited both men’s travels and kept them away.

Consequently, Baldwin and Achebe constructed lives in a suspended orbit from their home countries. Their work remained tethered to their nations’ predicaments and fortunes even as their physical bodies were at a distance. After leaving the United States at the age of 24, Baldwin spent most of his life outside the country. “I had to leave; I needed to be in a place where I could breathe and not feel someone’s hand on my throat,” he explained in a 1977 New York Times interview. Achebe, too, left Nigeria for lengthy periods during his life, seeking some kind of rest. He accepted a professorship at the University of Massachusetts in 1972, on the heels of the Biafran War and the subsequent period of “considerable harassment” from the Nigerian government. “Finally, in 1972, I got a passport,” he said. “That was when I came to the United States. I was also tired. I really wanted a break.” Decades later, a traffic accident in Lagos, Nigeria, thrust him into an extended “medical exile” in the United States. One year teaching at Bard College stretched into 15, and he remained paralyzed from the waist down, a “continuous, curious” pain in his legs.

The trajectories of Nigeria and the United States catalyzed new cartographies of belonging for these culture-workers. Compelled to divest from their countries as the sites or vehicles of liberation, both Baldwin and Achebe imagined freedom askew from the nation-state. Askew because each man’s vision of belonging remained tethered to his respective country, even as he moved and dreamed outside these borders. Askew because each realized his vision within the rhythms of diaspora, the cyclical scattering and regathering through processes of exile, migration, adoption, and expatriation.

Both Achebe and Baldwin built lives and created bodies of work at once intimately connected to their countries and decidedly distant from them. Baldwin, born in New York, died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, in 1987. When his body was repatriated, 4,000 mourners gathered at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and bore his casket down the Harlem streets. For his part, Achebe, who was born in Anambra State, died in Boston in 2013. In Nigeria, for days following, young people marched in the streets with banners. Political dignitaries, artists, and global icons traveled to Ogidi, Achebe’s hometown, for a three-hour service at St. Philip’s Anglican Church. In death as in life, their community extended beyond the borders of the nation-state. 

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When they met in Gainesville in 1980, their respective countries were on distinct trajectories. Different hopes, expectations, and resources surrounded the United States in the last decades of the 20th century and postindependence Nigeria during the Cold War. Each writer’s ambivalence toward his country — and toward the nation-state form more generally — differed in genesis and style.

Baldwin’s alienation from the United States was blunt-spoken and scathing. He described his country as a “sunlit playpen in which so many [citizens] lose first their identities and then their minds.” “Nobody can go home anymore,” Baldwin insisted; the “useless[ness]” of “forays, frontiers, and flags” was both a revelation and an uttered curse. Achebe’s critique of Nigeria was no less sharp, albeit with a different meter. “In today’s circumstances,” Achebe noted, bearing a Nigerian passport “might not sound altogether like an unqualified piece of good news. But I have never thought it was. Which is precisely what it means to have my work cut out for me.” In a 2005 interview with the American Association of University Professors, Achebe unsheathed his pain, relying on an admonishing proverb: “Talking about Nigeria is so painful, because the image that always comes to my mind is the proverb that I have in my language. It says when you are told that the house has fallen, you do not ask ‘What about the ceiling?’ or ‘What about the windows?’ We are talking about a calamity.” Nevertheless, Achebe never ceased trying to tell the story. Like Baldwin, he would continue to live, write, and think askew from his country.

Baldwin’s United States was a settler state — a country located upon stolen land and built by stolen labor that nonetheless, to Baldwin’s chagrin, insisted on its “innocence.” His distance from his nation manifested as an intimacy with the country’s unreconciled history. From the moment that Baldwin arrived into the world, a poor, Black, gay, male child in Harlem, the chasm between the country’s rhetoric and its reality were made plain in his life and body. Observing this chasm swallow his father and threaten countless others, Baldwin was fixed as an outsider in the country of his birth. The outsider, as it were, can hardly be a nationalist. The promises and comforts of nationalism elude him, knowing as he does how the nation’s imagined bonds mask suffering, exploitation, and exclusion. The outsider is attuned to those beyond the door; he recognizes the person for whom the flag’s value is less than the cloth from which it was sewn. Accordingly, Baldwin thought, lived, and dreamed aslant and askew from an “American” national identity. He, quite famously, had to leave his country regularly and often, just in order to write.

Just three years before his soul flew from his body, Baldwin reflected on the bitter lesson of his years under the American flag:

What has happened, in the time of my time, is the record of my ancestors. No promise was kept with them, no promise was kept with me, nor can I counsel those coming after me, nor my global kinsmen, to believe a word uttered by my morally bankrupt and desperately dishonest countrymen.

From cradle to grave, Baldwin looked at the United States with suspicion and mounting despair.

Achebe’s relationship with Nigeria was also complicated. Unlike Baldwin, Achebe’s distancing was not linked to the unrelenting past but a matter of stolen futures. The disillusionment that arrived on the heels of national independence turned Achebe into a thinker located between the village and the world. Simultaneously hyperlocal and cosmically expansive, Achebe’s work remained tethered to Nigeria. His wish, in his own words, was not “to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.” He intended to write Nigeria, to fix Nigeria, to teach about Nigeria, but his own life story and work unfolded in the spaces beyond his home country’s borders. His 1983 pamphlet The Trouble with Nigeria is a cry for reform in which the author pursues a “modern and attractive country” that has not yet been born — despite independence — but which he believes could be made real. It is not too late, Achebe insists, to set the nation-state on course.

Thirty years later, things had shifted for Achebe. In There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012), a book written after his car accident and partial paralysis, when exile was not merely a sojourn but a destination, Achebe’s belief in Nigeria’s redemption and his insistence that “our condition is [not] totally bereft of hope” had changed. The dream animating There Was a Country is not the future redemption of Nigeria but the memory of a ghost country — Biafra — a place that existed briefly as a political reality, albeit largely in the hearts and minds of its people, many of them dead. When the prospect of national redemption fades and the timeline to reform seems to extend too long, Achebe flies to the realm of memory’s longing, a ghost country that decidedly was not Nigeria and ultimately was immobilized before it could rise.

In these later years, Achebe’s askew position is more pronounced. After receiving three prestigious national awards over the course of his lifetime (the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature in 1961, the Nigerian National Order of Merit in 1979, and the National Creativity Award in 1999), the 74-year-old Achebe, in 2004, turned down the honorific title Commander of the Federal Republic. “I accepted all these [previous] honours fully aware that Nigeria was not perfect,” Achebe wrote from Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, “but I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples.” However, watching “the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom,” he refused to participate in nationalist pageantry. He wrote to President Obasanjo and declined the award: “Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining.” Seven years later, when a new Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, sought to bestow on Achebe the same award, Achebe’s response was no less sharp: “The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me.” President Jonathan’s retort was one that all who have gone abroad would recognize: you have been away too long. Perhaps Achebe, the Nigerian president said, was “misinform[ed] as to the true state of affairs in Nigeria.” How could the author, living abroad, speak out about the nation’s chaotic politics?

Even as the dream of Nigeria faltered, Achebe reconstructed a vision of home askew from — simultaneously more expansive and more specific than — his country. He remained attuned to the “nourishment” and “power” that flow from belonging to a place. “My home,” Achebe says, “was not merely a house or a town but […] an awakening story in whose ambience my own existence had first begun to assemble its fragments into a coherence and meaning.” Birth in Ogidi, Achebe insists, even when speaking about the calamity of Nigerian politics, was “providential,” a divine blessing.

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When Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin met for the first time in 1980, they had long been meeting in the realm of the mind. Their paths as writers, intellectuals, and visionaries had been crisscrossing and circling each other for years. That “strange evening in Florida,” as Achebe later described it, was a culmination of years of longing and communing across distances.

In 1963, 17 years before the Florida meeting, Achebe had hoped to meet Baldwin, this man whose books “blew [his] mind,” during his first trip to the United States as part of a UNESCO tour. Achebe specifically asked to meet this man “with the fearlessness of Old Testament prophets and the clarity, eloquence, and intelligence of ancient African griots.” Unfortunately, Baldwin was not around; he had traveled. And this was often true: Baldwin’s pursuit of refuge from the United States meant that he was regularly not around.

Close to the time that Achebe was looking for Baldwin in the United States, Baldwin was moving through Israel, France, Switzerland, and Turkey, looking for Africa. Late in 1961, he accepted an assignment from The New Yorker to travel to Africa and the Middle East to explore “emergent Francophile West African nations.” Baldwin never managed to write the article, and the letters he sent to his editors and friends offer some insight as to why. “My bones know, somehow, something of what awaits me in Africa,” he wrote from Israel on October 5, 1961. “That is one of the reasons I have dawdled so long — I’m afraid.” What might Baldwin have had to fear from so-called “Africa”? “It would be nice to be able to dream about Africa, but once I have been there,” he wrote, “I will not be able to dream anymore.” Upon arrival on African soil, the hopes he carried about the continent might shatter. And he, being James Baldwin, would be required to speak of this dissolution. How could he bear that, and how could he bring ill news of Africa back to Black folk in the United States? Contrary to Achebe’s reflection that Baldwin “was not scared of anybody or anything […] not even scared of Africa,” Baldwin himself, at one point in his life, registered his fright, even said so.

By 1980, much had occurred in both men’s lives since the years when Achebe was looking for Baldwin while Baldwin was searching for Africa. If they hadn’t met before, it was because of these cycles of going and coming, the migrations and turnings made necessary by the brokenness of their respective nation-states and their need to construct a life beyond their homes. Baldwin was a man always on the move, finding a way to write and live and earn and breathe from within his reality. Achebe was also moving, pulled across oceans and continents by academic grants, teaching jobs, warscapes behind and opportunity in front. This meeting — the fact that it had not occurred earlier, the fact that it occurred at all — was a confirmation of diaspora.

When they met in the flesh, Achebe greeted Baldwin exuberantly with a resonant colonial pun: “Mr. Baldwin, I presume!” The informed listener would immediately hear the echo of Henry Morton Stanley’s search for a colonialist legend in Congo in 1871: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” The allusion to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), with Marlow and Kurtz modeled after Stanley and Livingstone, would quickly follow. The literary mind might then recall Achebe’s iconic evisceration of Conrad five years earlier, in a now-classic essay entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” What rich diasporic language is this! Upon meeting, the layers of history, representation, and struggle that both these men spent their lives sifting through were conjured up in a single utterance.

Later, in his public remarks, Baldwin reciprocated when he recognized Achebe as “his buddy, a brother he had not seen in 400 years.” In Achebe’s retelling, the attending crowd erupted into “gleeful applause” at this poignant quip and so only a few people heard the “terrible aside” that followed: “It was never intended that we should meet.” In this moment Baldwin names the separation of kin as the consequence of centuries of slavery, imperialism, and the consequent nation-state. Within this stirring claim to transatlantic fraternity there is also a swift current of loneliness, a “keen homelessness”; “what did I ever do to deserve so ghastly a birthplace?” Baldwin had cried out while in Israel in 1961. Of course, there was joy at the meeting: the two famous writers were finding each other again, despite the historical ruptures that erect silos of nationhood around Black lives and freedom. Brothers, indeed, despite the passports, the currencies, the power and lack thereof that flowed from their national identities.

Suddenly, a voice interrupted their conversation, a male voice intruding over the PA system. This is the original Zoombombing: “You gonna have to cut it out, Mr. Baldwin. We can’t stand for this kind of going on.” The shocked audience held its breath for a moment. Then Baldwin spoke clearly into the mic:

Mr. Baldwin is nevertheless going to finish his statement. And I will tell you now, whoever you are, that if you assassinate me in the next two minutes, I’m telling you this: it no longer matters what you think. The doctrine of white supremacy on which the Western world is based has had its hour — has had its day. It’s over!

What else was this assertion if not a parallel to Achebe’s yearning declaration: there was a country! On the cusp of what we now call the Reagan Era, Baldwin insisted that “white supremacy […] has had its day,” and in so doing, invoked the shadow of a ghost country, a place that exists apart from the confines of our present moment. Together, Baldwin and Achebe manifested this golden hour: we have already reached a new era, there was a country, there is still a home place apart from and despite the constraints of our countries! The audience in Gainesville spontaneously broke into applause and the meeting continued.

The commemorative “Achebe | Baldwin @ 40” meeting took place in October 2020, so we were all tuned in from our separate locations around the world. Six months into the isolation of the pandemic, sitting in my upstairs office, I felt a pang of longing as I watched the footage of their time together outside of the heady conference (as recorded in the 1982 documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine). The unguardedness of their bodies together in space seemed impossibly far away. As depicted in the film, the two are walking by the water in St. Augustine, Florida. For some minutes we have the pleasure of seeing them stroll together by the ocean. The camera is just far enough away so that we see their faces and their lips moving but do not always hear their words. We are deliberate voyeurs to the intimacy of this walk and conversation by the Atlantic, with the wind and water spray between them, a few others walking along behind. As they walk and talk, they seem intensely focused on one another; Baldwin’s voiceover does not reveal the entirety of what these great minds said to each other or what they meant. But we see that they are focused on one another: a hand touches an arm, their strides sometimes are moderated to match, an eye scans a face to find what it seeks.

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Both Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin wrestled with how to wear the cloth of national identity while walking toward freedom. Leaving was part of how each learned to live with his country. Their electric collision and diasporic embrace in Florida was forged through decades of movement across national borders, both in body and mind.

How does the global COVID-19 pandemic impact our ability to live and move askew from the nation? How will it shape our embrace? We are still learning how to count the costs of this novel coronavirus: millions of people have died, and the precariousness of our lives under global capitalism has been flung into our faces so clearly that no shred of self-delusion remains. There is one loss that I must articulate even though I fear it is a curse. What happens to the James Baldwins and Chinua Achebes of our era if they cannot leave their countries? What happens to the rest of us if the artists and thinkers, the poets, fiction writers, and essayists are not able to run and rest, to see and scoff and love askew from the nation? Of course, we will continue to create while we “shelter in place” in homes that are not fully our homes. Still, the relationships built through diasporic movement, the askewness that allowed Achebe and Baldwin to recognize each other as buddies who have not seen each other in 400 years, can these possibilities emerge in our virtual reality?

Twenty-four months into the isolation of the pandemic, in February 2022, I attended another online meeting. This time we viewed a 1970 documentary wherein Baldwin elegantly saunters down the streets of Paris. In this film, the author insists that he ran away from the United States to avoid certain death; simultaneously, he refuses the narrative of finding refuge in Paris. “Where, anyway, would I go to escape?” Baldwin scathingly queries his interviewer. “To your country [England]? […] Where would a fleeing Black man go if he wanted to escape?”

During the post-film discussion, one of the panelists misspoke. “Recently I was in Paris,” she says. Then stopped. “Not recently … you know … COVID …” A rueful smile and then she continued. Perhaps I was the only one who heard the question entering the room, waiting to find a voice: if you have not been recently and cannot now go to Paris, what of Baldwin? What of those who see that their grave is already dug and yawning? What of the artists who would have already left, those who have missed the opportunity to walk the streets of some other world, sifting slowly through what is yours and what is your country’s, and why? We have been counting the consequences of the COVID-19 era for Africa and the African diaspora in bodies and dollars, but how will the forced immobility of repeating cycles of pandemic lockdowns affect our political imaginations?

Travel is a privilege accessible to some, impossible for others; journeys of scant benefit to some may be salvation to another. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on global mobility, the ways it has “deeply curtailed the mobility prospects of some groups, while making little difference to [others] whose nationality, resources and status enable them to continue crossing borders,” is a harbinger of a future where leaving one’s country becomes even more rare, for more of us. It is complicated to live askew from the country, but for Black folk confronting a violently anti-Black modernity, it has often been necessary. The roll call of Black internationalists is long and storied; we should not underestimate the necessity or fertility of moving while Black.

There are moments when an activist has to be reminded, as Marguerite Cartwright did for Martin Luther King Jr. when inviting him to Nnamdi Azikiwe’s inauguration as governor-general of Nigeria, that “while one government wants to honor you it is ironic that our own government permits you to go to jail.” We move so that we might see and breathe; we move to meet each other and ourselves. In a 2018 article in the South Atlantic Review, Jason Miller reminds us that, at Azikiwe’s inauguration, with Martin Luther King Jr. in the audience, the Nigerian statesman quoted in full a poem by his former Lincoln University classmate Langston Hughes. Hughes was also present in Lagos to hear his lyrics read aloud:

We have to-morrow
Bright before us
Like a flame

Yesterday, a night-gone thing
A sun-down name

And dawn to-day
Broad arch above the road we came,
We march.

The sojourning of West African scholars, politicians, and artists in the United States has consequences. When we leave the nation, we leave with many others; we become part of generational waves of immigrants forging new legacies and leaving behind absence. If we return home or remain stuck in place abroad, this also matters. “The likelihood is increasingly evident that many of the thousands of African scholars in whose heart beats the urgent desire to relocate to their homelands may in the end not be able to make that transition,” P. Chudi Uwazurike writes in a tribute article to Michael C. Mbabuike, a Nigerian literary scholar who worked for decades in the United States before his 2006 death. Mbabuike is an emblem of the sweeping community of “doughty patriots who once dreamt big dreams centered in their beloved Africa. Many, filled with chagrin, are graying overseas.” The forces keeping these individuals from returning home to Nigeria may not be the closed borders of a pandemic, but the immobility of these “self-exiles” who were “driven away [and kept away] by dysfunctional politics” is instructive. Uwazurike looks for legacy in a new generation of well-resourced, educated Nigerian-American youth. The Mbabuikes of the story are recast as “bridge-builders” who have birthed a class of youth that, “in a trans-Atlantic alliance, may be the saving grace for the ancient continent.” If these exiles remain stuck abroad, perhaps their children will be the ones who return and remake the country anew. In this way, what Tiffany Ruby Patterson and Robin D. G. Kelley have called the “unfinished migrations” of diaspora, the dream of returning back to a country that perhaps has turned again into a home, animates the narrative of Black migration, even when exile is a permanent condition.

One of the lessons of the Anthropocene is this: the droplet of water missing today is tomorrow’s drought; the slight upward temperature creep now is the glaciers later cracking, erupting, and thundering under the water; today’s new pathogen becomes tomorrow’s pandemic. The lockdowns and immobility that we have recently experienced will not be the last or the least of what is coming. Where will we meet each other and learn to see each other when we cannot go easily to Paris or Accra or Gainesville or Lagos?

While I was stuck in place in rural New York, my sister friend sent me a photo from Paris. It was the first time I saw David Hammons’s “Oh Say Can You See,” and the beauty of this tattered US flag, cast in red, black, and green and hanging in a gallery in Paris, took my breath away. While dwelling with this art and its shadows, I found the fascinating story of Hammons’s friendship with Nigerian author Ben Okri. After reading Okri’s essay collection A Time for New Dreams (2011), Hammons sought a meeting, and the two men were connected by the White Cube gallery in London. When Okri arrived at JFK Airport, he found Hammons waiting to meet him, as vividly related by Calvin Tomkins in a 2019 New Yorker profile of the artist. Over the course of a week, Okri and Hammons “took long walks in Harlem, the East Village, the Bronx, and other parts of the city, and they talked ‘as though [they’d] known one another for a long time.’” “To walk with David is a lesson in seeing, and not just ordinary seeing,” Okri relates. “I came back to England a different person.” The transformations made possible by our leaving and coming again are precious.

What happens when we cannot walk together and share our extraordinary sights? What if poet Nicole Sealey was not able to travel to Nigeria and so did not see the mbari, the sacred museums that depict life and invite destruction? Would we have Sealey’s poem “in igboland,” this poignant vignette of encountering Igbo cosmology and art from within the wounds of diaspora?

The West in me wants the mansion
to last. The African knows it cannot.
Every thing aspires to one
degradation or another. I want
to learn how to make something
holy, then walk away.

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Abena Ampofoa Asare is an associate professor of Africana Studies and History at Stony Brook University whose writing has been published in Radical Teacherthe International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, and African Arguments. She is the author of Truth Without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

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Featured images: “James Baldwin Taken in Hyde Park London” taken by Allan Warren is licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0, and “Chinua Achebe in Lagos, Nigeria, 1966” is in the public domain. Both images have been cropped.

 

 

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