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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 502-504
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The Day I Finally Met Baldwin
The 1960s decade opened propitiously for me, and for Nigeria. In 1960 Nigeria freed itself from British colonial rule. I published my second novel, and was encouraged to feel that the first one had not been a "flash in the pan." The fact that a senior executive from the Rockefeller Foundation in New York chose that moment to knock at my front door in Lagos Nigeria with the offer of a travel grant, I think proves the point. Where would I like to go? I said East and Central Africa; and we signed the papers. Two years later UNESCO came along with its grant.
This time I elected to go further afield—to the US and Brazil. In UNESCO files the purpose of their grant was to enable me "to meet writers and study literary trends."Privately I was curious to see how the African diaspora was faring in their two largest concentrations in the New World.
I was particularly curious about America because the British colonial education I had received in Nigeria had taken such pains to put America down. One of my high school teachers was fond of reading out editorials written by Nigeria's leading nationalist who apparently wrote very bad and high-falutin English—a deficiency my teacher attributed to the fellow's American education which was totally inferior to the British brand andfeatured such subjects as dish washing.
Needless to say that American books and writers did not feature in that education, with one solitary exception—an autobiography called Up from Slavery by Booker T Washington.
And so when I encountered Baldwin's books later they blew my mind. I wanted very much to meet this man with the fearless utterance of Old Testament prophets, and the clarity, eloquence and intelligence of ancient African griots.
Unfortunately, Baldwin was not in the U.S. when I arrived, but in France. The organizers of my program apologized casually and arranged for me to meet those who were around.I went to Rutgers University and met Ralph Ellison in his poky, little office. He was OK; but I had a sense that it was not a happy meeting. He seemed so anxious to establish that Europe contributed a good deal to his identity, that Beethoven was as much part of it as jazz. Why was he telling me? Everybody knows that. In any case, I had not said a word yet, and had no desire to enter a custody battle.
No one else I met quite gave me the same feeling I had listening to Ellison. Langston Hughes, John Killens, Paule Marshall, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) and others. By the way, I also met Arthur Miller who graciously took me to lunch and spoke enthusiastically about the new Lincoln Center. [End Page 502]
My chance to meet Baldwin finally came almost two decades later in 1980. My joy no doubt triggered the rather untypical flamboyance with which I greeted him: Mr. Baldwin I presume. You should have seen that severe countenance of his crumble instantly into boyish happiness! The occasion was the annual conference of the 5-year-old African Literature Association meeting that year in Gainesville, Florida. The association had invited Baldwin and me to open their conference with a conversation. Everything was going swimmingly. The tone was joyful and also serious. With typical hyperbole Baldwin called me his buddy . . . his brother he hadn't seen in 400 years. The packed auditorium exploded in laughter and applause, and nearly missed Baldwin's terrible aside: "it was never intended that we should meet."
What he said about my novel Things Fall Apart was quite extraordinary. He read it in France, he said. It was about people and customs of which he knew nothing. "But reading it I recognized everybody. . . That man Okonkwo was my father. How he got over I don't know, but he did."
Halfway into our conversation a mystery voice broke into the public address system and began to insult "Mister Baldwin." The geniality of the...