Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Wole Soyinka Nobel Laureate 1986

Wole Soyinka

On Friday evening Clem and I joined our friend Ruth Omabegho for an evening in New York. We enjoyed plantain, chicken, steak, sweet potato fries, and coconut flan at a lovely Cuban restaurant.

Then we headed to NYU for “Wole Soyinka in Conversation with Taiye Selasi.”

The Institute of African American Affairs of NYU where Wole Soyinka is “Scholar-in-Residence” presented the event.

You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka memoir which I read on train

Soyinka, Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, and essayist, won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first African to do so. It’s been years since I read his work. I bought his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn,  and read it on the train going in.

Selasi is a Nigerian/Ghanaian author and photographer. I thoroughly enjoyed her novel Ghana Must Go

Their conversation was moderated by Awam Amkpa, Associate Professor of Drama, Africana Studies, and Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU.

Their rather esoteric topic – “identity and creativity at home and abroad” – actually led to fascinating dialogue.

They both spoke about ‘shape-shifting.’ Being at home in more than one place gives a writer a broader canvas, they said.

What does African authenticity mean? they asked.

In partial answer, Selasi said for years she felt,”not Nigerian, not Ghanaian, because I didn’t speak the languages of my Nigerian mother or Ghanaian father fluently.” People continually told her she wasn’t fully of their tribe or country for her lack of the language.

Taiye Selasi was in conversation with Wole Soyinka

Taiye Selasi was in conversation with Wole Soyinka

Today she defines herself by her own feeling of belonging and doesn’t let others place an identity, or non-identity, on her.

She made me think of our children who don’t speak Igbo. Do they believe they are Igbo? I think so. I’ll wait to see if they respond! They are also American. Double identity, not a lack of identity!

Selasi made us all laugh when she responded to the accusation that Nigerians are too proud. She said, “We Nigerians have big heads because we have big brains!” She said she’d heard this remark, not claiming it for herself!

She and Soyinka agreed that Africans in the diaspora are “heir to so much.” Although there is great richness in the diaspora, they want a way to move forward as Africans who can be at home in their own places.

“We are stymied,” Soyinka said, “by the complete failure of leadership.”

You can see and hear Soyinka reading his poetry in this video from the Nobel Prize organization.

Question Time

When it came to time for questions, one audience member said, “I am a Black American. I have known Africans who condescended to me because I couldn’t trace my line directly to a tribe in Africa.”

My husband was sitting next to me. He has at times been one of those condescending Africans! Not to her, but to others, and not publicly, but in his mind! He said later he was happy to know he was not alone!

I was undecided about whether to join the queue to ask a question. I finally stood up just before they closed the line!

I said, “I was one of those Peace Corps volunteers in Nigeria you [Soyinka] mentioned earlier. I stayed for 24 years altogether, and found the sense of community amazing. How can African writers help the West learn the power of belonging, being in community?”

Selasi answered. She said, “That’s a wonderful question! We must learn to appreciate the sense of belonging among ourselves first. We need to see it as a strength in each other. Then we can share it with others.”

UN New Secretary General Not a Woman

I’m disappointed, but not surprised. The United Nations has selected their next leader. Ban Ki-Moon’s term ends in December.

Antonio Guterres, newly appointed UN Secretary General

Antonio Guterres, newly appointed UN Secretary General

Several women were in the running. For the first time, the process was transparent. Votes were taken by members of the general assembly to see who would emerge as a winner.

This past week Antonio Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal and former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was named as the next UN Secretary General.

I’ve read several positive reviews of the decision. Maybe a woman next time?

Black Lives Matter Banner

This morning at The Unitarian Church in Westport we celebrated the installation of our Black Lives Matter banner. It will be up on Lyons Plains Road.

I was one of those who carried the banner into the foyer where we held the ceremony.

I'm carrying the banner with colleagues

Six of us are carrying the banner. Can you see me? I’m almost hidden.

Rev. Dr. John Morehouse welcomed everyone. He introduced the speakers.

  • Harold Bailey, Chairperson of TEAM Westport
  • Rev. Cass Shaw, President and CEO of the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport
  • Rev. Alison Patton, Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport
  • Michael Dunn representing Congressman Jim Himes
  • Westport State Senator Toni Boucher
  • Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe

The rabbi from the temple next door was there too.

Rev. John said that we shouldn’t think of Black Lives Matter as meaning that other lives don’t! But it’s time, as he said, to rectify more than 250 years when black lives didn’t matter in this country.

When black lives matter as much as white lives, then we will no longer need to say Black Lives Matter.

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.

4 Comments

  1. How exciting to be present at the conversation between Wole Soyinka and Talye Selasi. It sounds like a truly rewarding evening.

    Also, congratulations to you and the Unitarian Church of Westport for displaying the Black Lives Matter banner.

    When will the day come when we all feel part of a peaceful world community?

  2. Catherine I love the answer above to your question about building community! This is as wonderful a frame for a “within” End statement as I have read anywhere. We must learn to appreciate the sense of belonging among ourselves and see it as a strength in others then we can share that with the world. Please bring this to next Saturday’s workshop on Ends!!!

    • Wow! Yes, that makes sense. “We must learn to appreciate the sense of belonging among ourselves and see it as a strength in others; then we can share that with the world.” If it’s true for a country – Nigeria or Ghana – as Selasi was thinking, then it can surely be true for a congregation. I’ll bring it to the workshop.