For a while in the mid-1980s, the writer Ayi Kwei Armah published a number of expository essays in the now-defunct West Africa magazine. The pieces included a historical analysis of the droughts and famines raging across the Sahel in 1984 and 1985; a critique of the bureaucratic obsession with cultural jamborees; another on the concept of “Third World”; and an unanswerable two-part review of a new edition of George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile. One thing was common to the articles: they came from a writer who had studied the intellectual traditions of the African continent so closely and extensively he understood contemporary instances of ethical or political dead-ends as symptoms of the tragic fragmentation of those traditions. As he perceives it, there is actually one complex tradition, and the so-called heterogeneity of African experiences is a consequence of its fragmentation.
This conception of intellectual work is at the core of The Eloquence of the Scribes, a book of memoirs that doubles as a report of the author’s thirty years of research in African literary practice. It is inaccurate to describe the book as an autobiography: Armah’s legendary aversion to self-display remains intact. There is a well-judged amount of personal recollections of childhood and early adult experiences, an unobtrusive one-eighth of the book, brought in to illuminate the author’s rationale for deciding on the writing profession after having “failed” at the more important undertaking as a social revolutionary. Armah parsimoniously recounts his youthful experiences in Sekondi-Takoradi in the 1940s, a milieu of strike-leaders, prostitutes, and small-time hustlers. He pays a magnificent and humorous tribute to his mother, a figure of great personal will. There is a comic incident in which the mother tries to administer a fortune-teller’s magical bath for the son’s protection as he prepares to enter the famous Achimota College. But the really thrilling drama concerns the combination of personal and political events [End Page 125] that decisively shaped young Armah’s perspective about the world of careers and professions.
After graduating from Achimota in 1958, Armah won a Carnegie Corporation scholarship to Groton in Massachusetts, preparatory to entering Harvard. He was quickly blessed with a number of friendships, the most dramatic involving Jeremy Richdale, a Groton colleague whose rich father, with business interests in South Africa, offered to fund the young African’s education if he got into Harvard. In a chapter suggestively titled “Ivy and Cane,” Armah chronicles this friendship in which Richdale père was the dominant figure. The summer before his matriculation, he traveled with the family in Europe, staying at Grosvenor House in London, followed by a stint at Bristol Hotel in Paris, then a six-week stay at a Spanish seaside resort called San Feliu de Giuxols. In ordinary circumstances this exposure could only command respectful admiration. Even obsequiousness. However, the early 1960s were an extraordinary time in Africa, so there was a problem: Let us listen to Armah, the unusual beneficiary:
Mr. Richdale was a liberal. He had business interests and a home in South Africa. It was his reasoned opinion that the harsher aspects of apartheid and white supremacist rule in general were regrettable. But when, citing economic statistics, I said gold mining profits were high because African wages and working conditions were atrocious, he thought I was misinformed. He also thought it wrong to allow Africans to vote, because he was convinced that in South Africa, Africans were not ready for democracy. In his opinion, the best option would be to give the vote, in gradual stages, to a small number of Africans selected on the basis of education and responsible behavior.(84)
There was thus a widely held view among the Richdale people that Armah was an unreasonably opinionated person, incapable of civil conduct in intellectual or political discussions. Although Armah matriculated at Harvard as a literature major, he soon decided that that field of study was still shaped by a worldview that did not admit of minority views. Bear...