Biodun Jeyifo: I am not a dogmatic Marxist

Prof Biodun Jeyifo

He is clearly patrician in the way he acquires and disseminates knowledge but his general lifestyles are very simple and cool. BJ, as he is fondly called by many people, loves words— Yoruba and English—which he uses inexhaustibly. He also loves big ideas which he invests in and wrestles with endlessly. Born and bred in Ibadan seventy years ago, Jeyifo’s childhood was tempestuous because he made many considerable efforts in resistance to the codes of conduct imposed on him by his immediate society. His rebellion could have damaged him irreparably but for his sharp brain anchored in intense and wide-ranging readings. He is one good example of a man saved by literature. Today, he is an eminent, highly gifted and respected scholar teaching Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Jeyifo was one of the pioneers of radical, Marxist Literary tradition in African universities. He was also the first National president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities in Nigeria. With incredible courage, commitment and intellectual panache he led a winning team of unionists—among who were Festus Iyayi, Mahmud Tukur, Dipo Fasina and T.U.Nwala. He has taught at the universities of Ibadan, Ife and Cornell.

Between January 21 and 22 2016 at the Conference Centre of the Obafemi Awolowo University—formerly University of Ife—, Ile-Ife, ideological soul-mates, academics, journalists, students and friends of Professor Jeyifo gathered to celebrate his 70th birthday. It was an impressive turn –out. The conveners led by Dr Wumi Raji, chose “Complexity of Freedom’’ as the conference theme. Speaker after speaker engaged Jeyifo’s scholarship, pedagogy and radical politics of the Marxian variety. Some were unfairly but respectfully critical, many were deeply appreciative. He would have taken issues with his unfair critics but the moral burden of being the rallying point prevented that. He listened to some misinterpretations of his ideas in silence. The energetic defender of noble causes and people simply refrained from speaking to defend himself.

When the conference, dance, play, dinner and banters were all over that night of 22 January, KUNLE AJIBADE, Executive Editor of TheNEWS magazine and PM NEWS had a conversation with BIODUN JEYIFO which stretched till the wee hours of the morning of 23 January. While Idowu Ogunleye snapped the photos, Gbenro Adesina transcribed the interview. Below are excerpts of the reflections of this radical literary critic, theorist, unionist and columnist:
Q: The celebration of your 70th birthday started on January 5 at the University of Ibadan. We just had a stimulating conference in Ile-Ife on your life and work. In April, the African Literature Association (ALA) will do a special session on you at its 2 annual conference for 2016 in Atlanta. How do you feel about all this?

A: I am very appreciative. Normally, I am not really cut out for observing anniversaries. It is a sentiment that I am not used to. I celebrated my 60th birthday anniversary ten years ago only because some friends and former students organised it – you were one of the conspirators! But I do feel very appreciative and deeply humbled by the outpouring of genuine affection, respect, and acknowledgment of the nature and quality of my work. I am overwhelmed. No professor, no intellectual, and even non-intellectual can say that he or she would not, on any day, respond positively and movingly to genuine expressions of admiration and respect for his or her work and life. The other dimension of my response to the honour and the recognition is that it makes me reflect on the nature of my work and its reception – the kind of expectations that, apparently, my work has stirred in my former students and readership in all parts of the world, that aspect is a little more complex than the simple joy, the simple appreciation, and the simple sense of gratification.

Q: Can you share with me your thoughts on this dimension of the reception of your work and the expectations it has generated in readers?

A: Let me give you an example. For instance, in the combined panel on my work as a theorist and critic and as a public intellectual, there were at least four or five presentations that, were I not the object of discussion, I would have interrogated strongly and robustly. I won’t mention the panellists now because doing so will make it seem as if I do not appreciate them and that I have begun to pick holes in their presentations. Simply on intellectual grounds, on ideological grounds, there were about four or five in that panel of eight or nine, that I would have engaged very rigorously. There they were making critical assessments of my work and as the person honoured I had to take it all in. Although on the whole there was not a single person on the panel who didn’t express admiration and respect but the respect was also critically articulated and this generated in me an impulse to engage critically with them! But you will agree with me that it would have been an act of a lack of grace on my part to have said to any of the panellists: “what are you saying”? That is what I mean.

Q: After ProfessorAttahiru Jega’s moving lecture you said that the celebration meant to you a re-dedication to all the great values that you have always held very dear. Could you expatiate on this?

A: Actually that is the subject of my column in The Nation this coming Sunday (January 24, 2016). I wrote it last night. Of course, I had meant to write on a different subject before I came to Ife for the celebrations because I knew that once I got to Ife, I wouldn’t have the time, the space and I have never failed for asingle week to send my column on time, not once. I started writing the column in 2007 and I have never failed to send my column on schedule and I wasn’t going to fail this time. So in order not to fail to write the column this week, I decided to write about the Ibadan and Ife celebrations. In the piece that I wrote and sent off to my editor at The Nation earlier today, I spoke on this subject of celebration as rededication.

What I mean by re-dedication is that when people express admiration, acknowledgement or respect for certain qualities in you, certain aspects of your achievements, certain things in your person that they find admirable, they are also expressing the hope that you will retain the qualities, the values they admire and respect in you and your work – a sort of “ma feyi sopin”! In other words, they’re saying these things that we admire and respect in you, we hope that time and old age will not change you from what we know you to be. Also – and this is important — those who ask this rededication of you are also, although more implicitly, rededicating themselves to the same values. I call it a mutual pact of re-dedication: “We expect these attributes and values to continue to be manifested in you. This is what we like in you; on our own part, because we have found these things in you inspiring, we ourselves also hereby rededicate ourselves to the values, the attributes”.

Let me put this idea in concrete political and moral terms: “we are re-dedicating our lives to struggle for a country – our country – that will be free of oppression, of “ireje”, of looting, of poverty and insecurity of life. Here, I will allude to a term from cultural anthropology to say, in this respect, that celebration as an act of re-dedication is a kind of ritual process, in the sense that, in social and cultural rituals, all the participants, all the communicants who go through the ritual process are not the same people who come out of it by the end of the ritual because they are transformed, they are renewed, they re-dedicate themselves to the values they have celebrated during the ritual process itself.

Q: How do you manage to combine the rigour of your academic exertions with all the demands and responsibilities of your participation in the public space as an intellectual?

A: Actually, I think that perhaps too much is made of the rigour. Look, you have a passion for doing something, and you get paid for doing it, and also you get public recognition for doing it – that is an added bonus! These are all things that I would do anyway. This is part of who I am. I know what people say – Osofisan often says to me, “I don’t know how you are able to write this column every week”. But I do it because I want to do it. Nobody is forcing me to do it. I feel obliged to do it. Initially, it took a lot of discipline. When I was with The Guardian, the deadline for submitting my column was Thursday; that was a little bit tougher because I teach only on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Harvard. So meeting The Guardian’s deadline of Thursday evening was a little tough for me so that when I migrated to The Nation, I arranged to have my deadline changed to Fridays.

Anywhere I am in the world, except it is an emergency that takes me to hospital either for myself or someone else, I know that on Friday morning, I must spend X hours writing my column and I don’t compromise on it. It has become a habit. It only seems to be a rigorous demand. It is, in a way, but it is something you have to discipline yourself to do. At any rate, I will do it because I have a passion for it. Maybe also, in simple, straightforward terms — this may seem like self-advertisement, self-aggrandizement — I am a workaholic. My domestic partner — she is an anthropologist — complains endlessly about my workaholic lifestyle but she knows that she has a powerful enemy in my workaholic lifestyle! It is like an addiction but in a positive sense. In high school, I was not that serious. I was more of an “ipata”, a rascal. I was satisfied to be among the first eight in the class, not the first, second or third pupil in the class, from primary school to high school. I was never first, second or third.

Prof Biodun Jeyifo

Q: Was it a deliberate act?

A: It wasn’t deliberate. It was just that I read mostly for pleasure. I didn’t read in order to pass exams. I passed so easily that I wasn’t bothered about who was going to be first in the class and this attitude persisted up to my high school years. It was in UI, even more so in graduate school, that I became a very studious student, a very diligent student and the workaholic ethic grabbed me and it has never left me. So it has become a kind of habit. And it has become pleasurable.

Q: At that point, what was the motivation?

A: Though, I didn’t become a dedicated and self-motivated student in high school, I attended all the famous public debates and lectures in Ibadan – USIS, British Council, Obisesan Hall. When I was in primary school, the great Zik of Africa came to speak and I went to hear him speak. All the firebrand nationalists and trade union leaders came to speak at these lecture halls and I went to hear them speak. I started from all of that. But it was in graduate school that I began to read with seriousness. Before then, I read voraciously, I read everything I could lay my hands on, but not with an intention to do extra well in class. I didn’t care as long as I didn’t slip pass the tenth position in the class of about 25 pupils. My father and mother hated this because they knew I could do much better if I put my mind to it, but I myself didn’t have that inclination.

Q: I am raising this question because in your tribute to Professor Dapo Adelugba, you actually spoke about that great impact he had on you in terms of looking up to him as someone who motivated you at that point when you were in Ibadan Boys High School. How did he motivate you?

A: I differentiate that from what happened later when I was in graduate school. People called Professor Dapo Adelugba “Uncle D” but I called him “Brother Dapo” because he was an area or neighbourhood elder brother at Oke-Bola. He and Mr. Nelson Olawaiye both discovered that I was well known for getting into trouble. For instance, it was a taboo to go and swim at Alalubosa Lake because many kids drowned there. That was where I learnt how to swim. But apart from knowing about my notoriety for getting into trouble, Uncle D and Mr. Olawaiye also discovered that I had a passion for reading and they encouraged me a lot in this habit. And I also looked up to them. Uncle D was at Government College and he spoke English with a kind of diction, a kind of accent we considered superb. So, he was a role model in the sense of spotting in me a love of reading and encouraging it a lot. In contrast, take someone like Mr. Modupe Oduyoye who was my teacher at Ibadan Boys High School. He clocked 80 last year. I wrote a tribute to him. He tried to get me to become a serious student in a more structured way because he knew I could do much better than being sixth or seventh in the class. In that sense, my tutelage underMr.Oduyoye was like a foreshadowing of what I was later to meet in my mentors at New York University, NYU. Mr. Oduyoye said to me,”you are cutting yourself short; you can do much better than this. You can be more structured in your work”. That is what makes a difference.

Marxism influences ideas that power my conception, my tactics of how to go about the struggles that we wage as Nigerians and human beings for justice and opportunities for the dispossessed. But Marxism is not the only tradition of thought and inquiry that influences me. And I am not a dogmatic Marxist. And most important of all, I don’t think Marxism ever belonged exclusively or even predominantly to the Eastern bloc that collapsed after the end of the Cold War; neither does it belong exclusively to the past.

Q: At the University of Ibadan, you were not just a serious student in terms of being structured in the attention you paid to your studies but you also played hard. Do you want to reflect on your years at UI?

A: Yes,I played very hard in my undergraduate days at U.I. But in my first year, I got the English departmental prize. It was a prestigious prize. At that time in U.I. the prize was offered twice in the course of going through the English department as a student. There was a prize in the first and last years and I got it on both occasions in my set. So you would have taught that having won the departmental prize in the first year, I was going to start thinking that I would make a first class. No, that didn’t occur to me at all. You see, from primary school to high school, I always came first in English Language and Literature- and History. Quite frankly, after winning the departmental prize in the first year, I knew that I would make 2.1 (Upper Second) but honestly, I did not have my mind fixated on getting a First. By the way, I was the third to get First Class in the history of the department. It was so rare to get First Class in the Department of English in UI. I learnt that no one got it after me for about 30 years.

Getting the departmental prize in my first year did not spur me to say that I would focus exclusively on my studies in order to get First Class at all cost. So instead of sitting down and studying hard, I got involved in all kinds of extra-curricular activities, so to say. I was in student politics and became Public Relations Officer of the Students Union. I was in the Student Dramatic Society and acted in many plays on the stage and on television. I was in The Pyrates Confraternity. I even played soccer and was a member of the Kuti Hall football team that won the Inter-Hall competition for 1968. Indeed, I won the Kuti Hall Masters Prize for 1970 for being the best “all-rounder” in the hall. The way I see it now is that getting the English departmental prize in the first year should have inspired me to think of becoming a lecturer. But that is not what happened. I didn’t think of what I would do after graduation.

I had also got admission into UNILAG to read Law.  From the time I was in primary school, people would tell me that I would be a lawyer; it got to my head. But that never happened. It was in graduate school that it occurred to me that I would be a lecturer, and that I would be an intellectual. That was when I became more disciplined, and more structured but throughout UI, it wasn’t the case. For instance, I wrote a tribute to Professor Ayo Banjo in which I reflected on this particular aspect of my experience as a student of English at U.I. Professor Banjo was my teacher in English Language, not English Literature. Well, Banjo sort of put the fear of rigorous intellectualism in me because he taught us structural linguistics and transformational grammar. The thing was a complete mystery to me because it is very scientific. It is the most scientific aspect of the study of language. I tried everything I could to get a grasp of it but until I left U.I. even with a First Class, the finer points, the intricacies of transformational grammar eluded me. It was when I got to graduate school that I said “this thing that Banjo tried to teach us and I didn’t fully understand, let me now finally come to grips with it’’. Only about four of us understood what Banjo was teaching us and it wasn’t because he was a bad teacher; it was simply that the material was tough going. Before Banjo’s classes in structural linguistics and transformational grammar, for me grammar had just been how to put sentences together syntactically in order to write correct English. That was what I understood grammar to be but transformational grammar insists on the conditions under which you produce a sentence that is “right” in terms of the structure of the language even if, semantically, the sentence is wrong or even meaningless. This baffled me as at that time. I just said, this is not for me. Until Ibadan gave me a scholarship after getting a First Class, I didn’t really think of what I would do post- graduation. Because, then, in any way, you got job at NBC and you got a car immediately, and you got a house. I also participated in lots of quiz competitions and won lots of prizes.  In short, I had no real intention to be a teacher but in graduate school before I finished my PhD, I got married and became determined to be an academic. The year before I finished my PhD, I had a son, Okunola, in 1974 and then I had to go and teach in order to augment the bursary that I was getting from the U.I. scholarship so as to support my new family. It was then I thought that teaching might be a life vocation. I taught at Queens College of the City University of New York; I taught at Hunter College and Pace University, which was a private college. That was when I knew that I was very good at teaching. I loved teaching and the students liked my classes immensely.  

Q: Even at the point of choosing UI over UNILAG, it never occurred to you what you were going to become?

A:  No, not at all. Let me give you one interesting aside here, I don’t know if I have ever told you about this. In my final year at Ibadan Boys High School, every school in the Western Region sent two students — two for science, and two for arts — to do the entrance exam for higher school in GCI and I passed. But before the letter of admission came, I had been expelled from Ibadan Boys High School. They didn’t let me see the letter. But someone in the principal’s office surreptitiously made a copy of the letter of admission and gave it to me. So, I went to D. J. Bullock, the legendary Principal of GCI, to present myself and to pay the ten pounds deposit for the two-year HSC course at GCI. As I was dressed in school uniform, Bullock asked, “Where are you coming from?” I replied, from school. He said no, you are not coming from school and he fished out a letter from a file on his desk from Mr Laseinde, my principal, who had written Bullock to inform him that I had been expelled and that the offer of admission to me should be withdrawn. Bullock told me that I wrote the best essay among all the applicants in the Western Region for admission to HSC at Government College that year. With such a disclosure, I thought that if they had adjudged me to have written the best essay among the applicants, I should eventually go and read English. Government College then was an enormously prestigious institution. So, for Bullock to have said to me, “You are welcome to GCI and you can forget what your principal has said as long as you don’t come to GCI to do the kind of thing for which you got expelled from your school”.

I think that sort of prepared me for the choice of English as the subject I would read at U.I. Interestingly,this was all rather comparable to the time when I received the letter of admission into UI which coincided exactly with the time that Soyinka resigned from UNILAG to come to UI. That also played a role in my choice of going to U.I. to read English. Soyinka then was not the towering Nobel Prize figure he is now; and I had actually not read anything by him with the exception of one or two newspaper articles. And he was then a young man. All I was interested in was a rascally figure that was super articulate. 

Q: In short, your own rascality attracted you to Soyinka’s rascality. Is that right?

A: Non-conformism, I would call it.  

Q: I was just leading you to talk more of why you didn’t choose law inspite of all the pressure mounted by your immediate family members?

A: One other factor, to be frank, was that at that period even If I had wanted to read law, it was very rare to turn down an offer fromthe greatUI to go to the University of Lagos. You had to have had a Rotimi Williams as a father who wanted you by all means to succeed him as a lawyer in the family law business.

Q: Why didn’t you eventually go to Government College for your HSC?

A: Two things happened. One, that very year, the set of lower six admitted in 1965 to GCI which would have been my set (I don’t remember the exact reason now) were transferred to Comprehensive School, Aiyetoro, but I didn’t want to go to Aiyetoro; I wanted to go to Government College. Second, which is more complicated, I had not told my father that I had been dismissed from Ibadan Boys High School.  Mr Laseinde, the Principal, who was also the organist at St James Cathedral saw my father and apologised to him for expelling me from school and explained what I did that called for the expulsion. At that time, it was the height of disgrace to be expelled from school. It is like you have no future. “Ipatae yiti take e over patapata”, meaning” this rascality of yours has taken you over completely”. For that reason, my father said that he would not send me to the school for the HSC even if I passed the school leaving exams – which I did. I had a sister in the UK who was a nurse who sent me the ten pounds for deposit and promised to sponsor my HSC education. But once they then transferred that set in 1965 from GCI to Aiyetoro (Arts not Science), I said, forget it, I am going to spend the next two years studying, do the A levels as a private student and enter UI the same year as my set. So, I did GCE A ‘Level on my own and entered UI as an undergraduate the same time that the students in my set who went to Aiyetoro also entered university. 

Q: When did you finally meet Wole Soyinka? And what kind of a teacher was he?

A: Soyinka didn’t come to UI when we all eagerly awaited his coming. They sent him to prison in 1967, the year I was admitted to U.I. The civil war broke out that same year, and Soyinka went to Biafra in a last ditch effort to avert the war, as we all know now. He was arrested upon his return from Biafra so he couldn’t come to resume his position until my last year, 1969. Soyinka was a great and inspiring teacher but in a very special kind of a way. He was a hugely charismatic teacher, but he wasn’t always present in the class. Adelugba and Adedeji covered up for him most of the time. But the times when he came to class, he was incredibly stimulating. The class he taught me was Dramatic Criticism and he was great. I think in a whole semester, maybe he came two or three times. That was all. He rarely came to class and other people were doing his teaching obligations for him. But you must remember that that was his time of intense and prodigious creativity. He came to class two or three times and that was all I had of him as a teacher.

Page: 1 2 3