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The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness ()

Nobel Prize Winners (1986)

       NATURAL EQUITY - That which is founded in natural justice, in honesty and
       right, and which arises ex aequo et bono. It corresponds precisely with the
       definition of justice or natural law, which is a constant and perpetual will to give
       to every man what is his. This kind of equity embraces so wide a range, that
       human tribunals have never attempted to enforce it. Every code of laws has left
       many matters of natural justice or equity wholly unprovided for, from the
       difficulty of framing general rules to meet them, from the almost impossibility of
       enforcing them, and from the doubtful nature of the policy of attempting to give a
       legal sanction to duties of imperfect obligation, such as charity, gratitude, or
           -'Lectric Law Library

For all I know, Wole Soyinka may be a very fine playwright; I've never seen nor read one of his plays.  But after reading this collection of three lectures--The 1997 W.E.B. Du Bois Institute Macmillan lectures at Harvard University--I can say that as a moral philosopher he leaves much to be desired.  In the most important and topical lecture here--Reparations, Truth, and Reconciliation--he argues that South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission can not serve a redemptive function, nor can any such process, because:

    Where there has been inequity, especially of a singularly brutalizing kind, of a kind that robs one
    side of its most fundamental attribute -- its humanity -- it seems only appropriate that some form of
    atonement be made, in order to exorcise that past. Reparations, we repeat, serve as a cogent critique
    of history and thus a potent restraint on its repetition.

This analysis leads him to call for some kind of unspecified universal reparations, which he suggests Western nations should voluntarily provide as a form of equity settlement for the damages that the West inflicted upon blacks generally and Africa specifically.

At the outset, let me just say that I am not completely hostile to the idea of reparations for American blacks descended from slaves.  I find compelling the thesis of Thomas Sowell, the great black conservative intellectual, that the reasons for black underperformance in the American economy can in large part be traced back to the historical distinctness of their forced migration.  He offers a wealth of evidence that as a general rule immigrant groups have succeeded in the U.S., regardless of race, creed, or color.  Even black immigrant groups who have come voluntarily--i.e., Haitians--have done very well.  Moreover, there is a consistent pattern to the success of all groups.  The first generation, which is sort of a self-selected group of ambitious, highly motivated go-getters, works incredibly hard in less wellpaying fields, but is then able to send the second generation on to college and beyond.  This second generation does as well as or better than the children of more established ethnic cohorts.  Thus, a Hmong tribesman or an Ethiopian refugee may come to America and have to work three menial jobs to feed his family, but his children are doctors, lawyers and the like.

The problem that black America has uniquely had to face (Native Americans are a different, though not dissimilar case) is that they had no such first generation to provide the impetus for a drive towards the middle class.  Instead, the entire population of ex-slaves was merely turned out and told to get by as well as they could.  Then the white population did everything in it's power to make sure that they could not succeed.  We can obviously never know if Abraham Lincoln would have been able to handle the Reconstruction period differently, recall that he envisioned giving blacks their own country in Central America, but we do know that a singular opportunity was squandered in the War's aftermath.  Imagine how much different the history of America in general and black America in particular might have been, had we truly provided all freed slaves with forty acres and a mule and moved them North and West, where they might have escaped from the worst manifestations of white resentment.

In light of the opportunity, indeed the obligation, that was missed, it would seem that some form of reparations might not be out of the question.  However, a Reparations Bill should: spell out quite specifically that it is a one time deal meant to address a distinct wrong, that it is being done, not because the current generation of Americans owes any debt in particular, but as an act of charity because we can very specifically identify a harm and a class of victims; should include an end to all affirmative action programs; should only be made available to blacks who are descended from slaves; and should be structured in such a way that aid can only be used for home purchases or education.  I would consider such an undertaking to be a pure act of charity, one that would be fine if the people decided to do it on our own, but which would be illegal, unconstitutional and morally repellent if Court ordered.

Mr. Soyinka on the other hand, believes that as a matter of Equity the West owes Reparations to all blacks.  His case is stunningly weak.  He needs three things to convince his jury of readers: a harm, a wrongdoer and a victim.  First, as to harm, it is really difficult for me to believe that if an impartial observer looked at the condition of black Africans in the 15th Century and the condition of blacks throughout the world now in the 21st Century, that he would perceive their contact with the West to have been a net negative.  The impact of Western learning, industry, medicine, political institutions, and so forth have surely had a sufficiently beneficial impact to at least equal, if not outweigh, the negative impacts of slavery, colonization and Apartheid.  Indeed, by any standard, a "reasonable man" would have to say that blacks who are currently residing in the West have a higher standard of living, not merely than they would have had the West never found Africa, but than blacks who reside in the free and black ruled nations of Africa.  As a matter of fact, in many of those nations the populace was probably better off prior to independence than they are now.  These facts make it difficult to argue that there is a genuine "harm" to be redressed.  (see also Orrin's review of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe)

Second, as to the wrongdoers, though we lament the truly horrific thing that was done to black Africans, their enslavement, and though we must never forget the truth that, for all it's humanistic rhetoric and ideals, our Western Civilization perpetrated this evil, we must also recognize that it was Western Civilization which was responsible for ending the horror.  We must recognize that the generations which committed these acts should not be judged by our modern standards and that, in any case, they are long gone.  In short, there are no wrongdoers to be punished.

Finally, as to the victims, forget for a moment the impossibility of sorting out how much each person of African descent was harmed and how much compensation each is entitled to.  Forget the issue of to what degree some Africans participated in and benefited by the enslavement of others.  Forget the issue of how African leaders since the end of the Imperialism period have governed their own nations and treated their own peoples.  Forget all of these red flag issues and emotion laden diversions; the more important question for Black Africa and for it's intellectual leaders like Mr. Soyinka is:  Does this obsessive focus on the past help to create a brighter future for Africa?  Although it is a truism, the future is not about the past.  In making the case for monetary damages, the author alludes to Holocaust survivors and their quest for reparations and for restoration of lost bank accounts.  There's no need to rehash the issue of actual victims and actual wrongdoers, the more significant fact that he's missed is that European Jews did not sit around waiting for these damages to be paid.  They seized the moment, fled to better lives in America and established their own nation in Israel.  They moved forward and are a stronger, better people for it.

The course that Mr. Soyinka counsels, backward looking, grudge nursing, scab picking, entitlement claiming, as it is, must surely be a recipe for continued stagnation and even decline in Africa.  The cold hard truth is that the West will send aid to Africa, not for reasons of guilt or of obligation or of cosmic moral justice, but for that most basic, most Western, of all reasons : because Africans represent a huge underutilized customer base for Western business.  It is the height of folly for the best minds of Africa to waste their time on such a notion as Western reparations to Africa.  It's over.  You have your freedom.  You run your own countries.  Your destiny is once again in your own hands.  Enough of looking without for the answers to your problems; look within; to do otherwise is to remain dependent on the West.  Get on with your lives.


Grade: (D)


Wole Soyinka Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Wole Soyinka
    -INTERVIEW: The Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka Discusses His First Novel in Nearly Fifty Years: The Nigerian writer explains the origins of his latest book’s title, why novels are harder to write than plays, and the masochistic pull of political activism. (Vinson Cunningham, 11/02/21, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: On Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman: David Damrosch Relates the Play to Other Great Works (David Damrosch, November 17, 2021, LitHub)

Book-related and General Links:
-Wole Soyinka (1934-) - in full Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka (kirjasto)
    -Wole Soyinka (Official Nobel Site)
    -Wole Soyinka Winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -ESSAY: Wole Soyinka  on the rot in Nigeria : The Nobel laureate, charged with treason in his home country, pours scorn on his accusers (Wole Soyinka, Mail & Guardian)
    -ESSAY: ALI MAZRUI AND SKIP GATES' AFRICA SERIES (Wole Soyinka, West Africa Review)
    -LECTURE: Redesigning a Nation by Wole Soyinka : text of a public lecture at the Nigerian Law School, Lagos on Friday October 16, 1998
    -LECTURE: Arms and the Arts -- A Continent's Unequal Dialogue  (Wole Soyinka, University of Capetown)
    -LECTURE: Constitution and Continuity (Wole Soyinka, DAWODU.COM  Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues)
    -REVIEW: of WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES Stories From Rwanda. By Philip Gourevitch (Wole Soyinka, NY Times Book Review)
    -PROFILE: WOLE SOYINKA: WRITING, AFRICA AND POLITICS (Henry Louis Gates Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -PROFILE: A VOICE OUT OF AFRICA  (Jason Berry, NY Times Magazine)
    -PROFILE: A Dramatic Life : Exiled Nigerian playwright, activist, and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka '96H finds sanctuary at Emory ( John D. Thomas, Emory Magazine)
    -PROFILE: Writer, activist Wole Soyinka focuses on his native Nigeria  (Misha Berson,  Seattle Times)
    -BIO: Wole Soyinka (Imagi-Nation)
    -BIO: Solyinka, Wole (
    -INTERVIEW: Wole Soyinka (Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley)
    -INTERVIEW: Take a Stand, Mandela! Nigeria's exiled campaigner for democracy, the Nobel laureate WOLE SOYINKA, talks about his regret at South Africa's failure to respond the excesses of the Nigerian regime (Interview by BARTHOLOMåUS GRILL, Mail & Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES: "soyinka" (NY Review of Books)
    -RESPONSE: E. Agbegir & A. Abubakar  Nigerian Information Service  Nigerian Consulate (NY Review of Books)
    -PROFILE : Wole Soyinka's Outrage : The divided soul of Nigeria's Nobel laureate. (Alan Jacobs, Books & Culture, Nov/Dec 2001)
    -ARTICLE: Islamic Militants Threaten Nigerian Nobel Winner  (KENNETH B. NOBLE, Special to the New York Times)
    -ARTICLE: WRITER SAYS COLLEAGUES SHARE SPIRIT OF AWARD (FRANK J. PRIAL, Special to the New York Times, October 17, 1986)
    -ARTICLE: Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka makes triumphant return to Nigeria (CNN)
    -Wole Soyinka: An Overview
    -Wole Soyinka Study Guide (Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State Universit, World Literatture in English Home Page )
    -ESSAY: Nigeria : A Country in search of Nationhood
    -ESSAY: Writing Within: The Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka and Breyten Breytenbach (Mark L. Lilleleht)
    -ESSAY: Wole Soyinka and the Archetype of Ulysses (Christopher Drummond)
    -ESSAY: Ode to Wole Soyinka ( Uju Nkwocha Afulezi, Ph.D., Nigeria World)
    -ESSAY: Editorial: The  Mazrui - Gates Debate (AfricaUpdate is the quarterly newsletter of the Central Connecticut State University African Studies Program.)
    -Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka:  'Champion of the Underdog... Enemy of the Establishment' (Knox College)
    -REVIEW: of  THE BURDEN OF MEMORY, THE MUSE OF FORGIVENESS By Wole Soyinka (Caryl Phillips, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE OPEN SORE OF A CONTINENT A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis By Wole Soyinka (HOWARD W. FRENCH, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE OPEN SORE OF A CONTINENT A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis. By Wole Soyinka (Robert D. Kaplan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Open Sore of a Continent by Wole Soyinka (Peter L. Berger, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of ART, DIALOGUE, AND OUTRAGE Essays on Literature and Culture. By Wole Soyinka (Michael Gorra, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of AKE The Years of Childhood. By Wole Soyinka (James Olney, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of AKE. THE YEARS OF CHILDHOOD. By Wole Soyinka (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of ISARA A Voyage Around ''Essay.'' By Wole Soyinka (Rita Dove, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Isara A Voyage Around ''Essay.'' By Wole Soyinka (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)

    -Nigeria World on the Net
    -Nigeria Web : The Nigerian Starting Point
    -DAWODU.COM  Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
    -Department of African Studies,  University of Pennsylvania - Nigeria Page
    -Postimperial and Postcolonial Literature in English (Landow, Brown Edu)
    -Africa News
    -West Africa Review
    -Legacy Magazine : Africa's Leading Magazine on Social Issues
    -AfricaUpdate Archives : quarterly newsletter of the Central Connecticut State University African Studies Program.
    -Transition Magazine
    -Center for Culture and History of Black Diaspora
    -Africa Policy  Information Center
    -PEN American Center: Nigeria
    -South Africa Truth & Reconciliation Commission : Investigating the effects of apartheid in South Africa
    -REVIEW : of A COUNTRY UNMASKED Inside South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission  by Alex Boraine (R. W. Johnson, Times of London)
    -ESSAY: When Things Fall Apart : Last month's brutal massacre was just another crime by Nigeria's most-feared criminal organizations, student cults. But just who these cultists are is a matter of some dispute. (Hank Hyena, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Trading Truth for Justice? (Susie Linfield, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY : Holocaust Reparations--A Growing Scandal (Gabriel Schoenfeld, Commentary)