By Nehru Odeh
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” – Charles Dickens,
The famous, opening sentence of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities actually defines the lives of three black men who as American poet, Robert Frost, would say took the road not taken, which made all the difference. It defines the lives of three leading lights, men of great intellectual power, who shattered the glass ceiling and gave out light in a darkened world. It defines the lives of three men who said yea when almost everyone said nay.
This indeed is the astonishing story of three leading black intellectuals, Professors Wole Soyinka, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr, who went to University of Cambridge in the early 1970s as smart young men, broke new grounds, discovered not just themselves but, literally one another, and helped others discover themselves.
More than 50 years after they walked on hallowed ground at the University of Cambridge, they were on Wednesday 22 June 2022 alongside seven others, conferred with honorary degrees. As the varsity’s official website noted, the honour is bestowed upon people “who have made outstanding achievements in their respective fields.”
Yet that was just the prelude to another groundbreaking event tagged 50 Years, and Counting: A Conversation with Professors Wole Soyinka, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr, which took place on Thursday 23 June at the University of Cambridge.
In that panel discussion brilliantly moderated by Dr Gillian Tett, Chair of the Editorial Board and Editor-at-Large, US of the Financial Times, these leading academic voices who are hugely influential in their fields of expertise looked back over the last 50 years, considered how they have influenced each other, and shared reflections on their lived experiences. Still, the remarkable thing about their experiences at Cambridge is that had they not met there 50 years ago, their lives and those of others may have looked different.
As expected of such an intellectual meet, which Tett described as a historic moment since it had rarely been done before in that way, what dominated discourse was not just the stories about their lived experiences at Cambridge but also tropes such as race relations, the black experience, identity, self-discovery, scholarship and what it means to be black in a white dominated space. Yet it was an evening of memories, ideas and fun, as peals of laughter punctuated the conversation every now and then.
Tett set the conversation rolling by asking the trio what brought them together at Cambridge and how they thought the world had or had not changed and what was going to happen next. Gates Jr said while he was growing up he wanted to go to Harvard or Yale and then Oxford or Cambridge because smart people went to those schools and his mother told him he was smart. And given that his father’s first cousin had graduated from Harvard in 1949, it had a kind of mystique. But he finally went to Cambridge.
“I went into the interview, told them I didn’t know what I wanted to study but I wanted the experience of studying in a dominantly white culture other than the United States, whose relationship to slavery and Jim Crow racism is different from that of the United States to give me an opportunity to discover myself,” Gates Jr recalled.
He also said he got to meet Appiah on the third day after three people had asked him whether he knew him. That was instructive since there was no black people in 1973 when he was there. But when he finally got to meet Appiah he knew at that moment he was the one. “The third day I was walking through Old Court and I saw this black man who had this big amount of hair and a cowboy hat and I walked up to him and I said ‘I don’t know anything else about you But I bet my bottom dollar that you are Anthony Appiah.’
Appiah, on his part, said Cambridge wasn’t exclusively white when he got there, as there was one Nigeria who was a philosopher. However, before he got to Cambridge, he had been torn between reading medicine and philosophy. Though he opted for medicine, he later changed to philosophy in his second year.
Still, when a journalist asked his father what he (Appiah) was going to do. “”He said, ‘Well if he is going to be a doctor, he will go to Cambridge. And if he is going to be a philosopher, he will go to Harvard.’ I decided to be a doctor. So I applied to Cambridge because my father thought that’s where you should go. … So it was a pure good fortune,” Appiah reminisced.
However, Soyinka, with his characteristic sense of humour, said he came to Cambridge looking for peace, which set the hall roaring with laughter. “”It is ironic because I came to Cambridge looking for peace. I was still trying to recover from political detention, what I sometimes called my political sabbatical; which is my euphemism because I hated admitting I was in exile. So I used the expression that ‘I am going on political sabbatical.’
“To this day, I cannot quite recall how an invitation came from Trinity. I got an invitation to come and see Mr Butler. How he heard about me I had no idea. And before I got to him, there was a message from Churchill College. Butler sounded to me at the time a little bit less formidable than Churchill, from colonial history. So I said let me tackle Churchill first.”
Soyinka also said on his way to Churchill, he was literally waylaid by two dons who told him not to make any commitment until he had seen Mr Butler from whom a formal invitation really hadn’t come at the time. When he finally met with Mr Butler in what looked like a medieval castle, they talked and to Soyinka’s astonishment, he said he (Soyinka) could do with a two year fellowship at Trinity.
“I said stay in this medieval castle for two years after being in prison for two years? It didn’t sound quite right. So I went back to Churchill. Though Churchill had done s a bit of colonial harm to us, I think I am safer with Churchill. It is more open; I could always run away. But in Trinity I once I get in there I could never get out,” Soyinka said, and that cracked everyone in the audience up.
Gates Jr, whose doctoral thesis Soyinka supervised at Cambridge, said with a sense of humour that the first time he heard Soyinka’s name he thought he was Polish. And when he got to meet Soyinka after writing to him, Soyinka was taking aback by his mode of dressing. “I wore a bright blue sun glasses. I knocked on Professor Soyinka’s door and when he opened, he jumped. I said ‘Oh, maybe I should take the sun glasses off.’ Soyinka later told him that the real reason he agreed to supervise him was that he was the only African American he met that did not try to recite that muntu rubbish.”
The conversation, guided by Tett’s interventions, later veered to race relations, what it means to be black in a white dominated space, racism and the erroneous belief of the West that African literature was non-existent and that the best recognition African literature could get at Cambridge was to be part of the department of Anthropology. In 1973, African literature was seen as a branch of cultural Anthropology and not proper literature. Soyinka had the baptism of fire on first getting to Cambridge when he ended up in the department of Anthropology and not in a full-fledged department of Literature
“But when I got there I was a fellow. I was supposed to teach. The agreement I thought was to teach literature, with emphasis on African literature. . How the conversation went, I cannot now remember, But it ended up with my being sent to see the Head of Anthropology. And then I discovered that they didn’t mind one talking about African literature but only as an anthropological phenomenon. And that is how I ended up in the department of anthropology… They just didn’t accept there was anything like African literature,” Soyinka averred.
Responding, Gates Jr jokingly said he was tempted to say that African literature started gaining acceptance after Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. “No. I think the enlightenment began a little before that. It gradually crept on. I introduced books, literature, which had not been heard off before,” Soyinka said.
Whether or not Africans were really human in the same way the Europeans were was a matter of great dispute throughout Europe. And Africans were deemed to be humans based on whether they had literature or not. Appiah also talked about how a talk he had given in Yale about Soyinka’s seminal work, Myth, Literature and the African World gave him his first job. “I am very grateful too for that,” Appiah enthused. When Soyinka said the title of Gates jr’s thesis was accepted because they managed to phrase it in mythopoetic terms, Gates Jr said it was because he himself couldn’t write about African literature but could write about Europeans reactions to the first black writers.
Asked if they encountered racism or prejudices at Cambridge, Appiah, whose father was Ghanaian and mother British and grew up attending English schools said maybe he encountered racism but wasn’t aware of it. “So if people treated me badly on account of my skin colour, I mostly think it was their problem because I was usually condescending to them on class grounds. …But let us be clear. The fact you couldn’t study African fiction or drama or poetry in English department, stuff written in English, is evidence of racism in my view. So I am not saying everything was perfect,” Appiah noted.
Soyinka, on the other hand, maintained that African students were usually treated as princes but the influx of the West Indian amalgam of cheap labour spoilt the party and their rapid fall from grace began.
“I think my generation came on the cusp of a certain tradition, we call it the tradition between class and actual race. What I mean is that as a student I found that students were treated like an exotic class. They were usually princes. But the transition came with the influx of the West Indian amalgam of cheap labour, when those boats began to arrive from the West Indies, mostly Jamaica. They were obviously the working class who came as cheap labour. That was when our stock fell from princes to labourers. And even some of our own people, Nigerians, West Africans, absorbed this.
“During this particular period, students now saw themselves as a class, as almost a race apart from the working class blacks, especially the Jamaicans. It was only when the race riots began, it was then I think many West African students found that their best bet was to be on the side of the Jamaicans. That was when the gap closed,” Soyinka said.
Gates Jr, on his part, disclosed that he became conscious he was an American at Cambridge because he was seen as American, rather than black or white. “I became an American here. I was not treated as an Afro-American. People said you Americans were all the same. I said I beg your pardon.
“This echoes something W.E.B Du Bois read about when he was in Berlin. If you were a student in the University of Berlin in the 1990s, you were a member of the educated bourgeoisie and it didn’t matter what you look like. So for Du Bois, it was his first experience of a society in which his colour mattered less than his mind.. He was very grateful for Germans. He was critical of German anti-Semitism. But the thing that he experienced for the first time there was the sense that ‘Okay I am here because I am a smart person. If I do well intellectually they will take me,” Gates Jr said.
The African-American intellectual also said when he was in Tanzania and hitchhiked across the equator, Africans called him Mzungu, the same Swahili word they used for Europeans, but each time they did he would tell them that they were the same.
Asked again how they see the racial dynamics playing out and what needs to be done to get more black students at Cambridge flourishing into leadership roles, Soyinka said the onus is on African leaders to stop, in the first place the mass exodus of African students to European universities.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is what is the African continent doing to ensure that their institutions, universities, institutes of technologies are kept at the same level that they were especially at the beginning of independence, when the reverse traffic was the truth and we were receiving students from all over the world coming to study in the University of Ibadan,, in Legon, Ife, Ahmadu Bello. But at that time it was enough to see some brilliant students coming to study in those universities.
“What bothers me is why these is such a desperate exodus going on in this direction and what African governments are doing to restore the university system to what they were just immediately after independence?” Soyinka said.
Any wise words of advice and inspiration for students in the University of Cambridge? The Nobel Laureate said succinctly: “Read, read a lot and read outside your immediate discipline.
While Appiah said: “One of the great things about the colleges is that the person in the next room is not in your subject. I think it is really important to take advantage of this place. One wonderful fact here, the great feeling that Cambridge can give you is each other. I was raised by my mother to be a medical Doctor, raised by my father to be a lawyer. But it took this long to reveal to me that all along that I wanted to be a man of letters, that I really wanted to be paid to read and write the books, to be surrounded by students the rest of my life. And it took me three thousand miles to have that revelation.
“You should pick a career not because your mum wants you to do it, not because you promise your father you want to be an engineer or a a doctor but because you wanted a subject that you love. And I always tell my students, imagine you are 40 years old. Your wife or your husband just told you that they are going to leave you, what is going to make you get out of bed? What is going to turn you on? What are the subjects that will allow you to follow your heart the rest of your days, even when you are going through crisis? That is what you should read,” Appiah advised.
“So go forth and have the courage of your convictions. And if you are very lucky and have big dreams, in 50 years’ time, you too may get an honorary degree.” added Tett. And that highly inspirational words by the moderator indeed signalled the end of the once-in-a-lifetime conversation between three leading intellectuals who had a day before been conferred with honorary degrees 50 years after they walked on the hallowed ground at the University of Cambridge.