It appears the African junior scholar abroad, let’s call him Saka, also has his own crises of Duboisian double consciousness. The protocols of graduate education in North America and other similar climes mandate him to call his advisors and evidently older colleagues by name. “Hi Ray” soon replaces the hitherto “Dear Professor/Dr Lagbaja” he once painstakingly enunciated in deference to fire-breathing superiors at Legon or Lagos. Never mind he initially finds it befuddling, a culture shock perhaps, to appreciate he is expected to address mentors and teachers the age of his parents and uncles by their name.
But here he is, faced with a culture that, unlike his, sometimes doesn’t care about hierarchies in interpersonal relationships. It gets worse. He also finds himself at London or Leiden in the company of fellow African elders in the Western academe; to this group, he is unable to extend the new gesture to which he has to ingratiate himself. Or is there not an awkwardness in calling Professor Adeseyi “Ade” at a dinner table where a much older Riley insists you call her by her first name. Different strokes. Just call each of them what they prefer? A voice in his head tells him to avoid the “Ade” being thrown around by the non-Africans at dinner.
He has to negotiate multiple identities and cultural norms in the same space. Having just arrived at York, he feels he needs to be at his best behavior. Because he does not want to call Professor Adeseyi “Ade,” he simply says “Prof” and everyone around him wonders if they were mechanics. For every Saka that wishes to be true to what, for instance, literary scholar Adeleke Adeeko might term one of the many arts of Yoruba beingness, this here is double wahala.
But how does he appear collegial with Riley, while mindful of the baba he also venerates, well, for now. And then after five years, he is ready to conquer the world, as every Tom, Dick and Harry suddenly become coterminous with Tola, Dike and Harinola. Never mind the generational gap. He has just conquered his defense and must now be addressed as “Doctor Lamido.” Away with ageist pretensions! Compounding things, he has to retain a faux humility in dealings with his former professors back at his own Africa country. Call them “oga,” master even; just make sure nobody sees through Saka’s fakery. At home, as in many other places, there is probably a class politics to insistence on titles, for instance. After all, to make legible the fact of superiority –I better pass my neighbor– through insistence on titles and accolades is the rule of thumb for some.
On social media where it matters to him to be perceived as thoughtful and brainy, he happily refers to African senior interlocutors by their first names, now indifferent to the moderations of a culture he once held dear. After all, they are all “in the abroad.” If these African colleagues are anything like those who want you to prostrate yourself before them each time you meet at conferences, or those annoying ones on a search committee who stare you down, then those must encounter the brute of your arrival.
Okay, enough of ramblings. Just wanted to ask some of my peers to take it easy. Haba, guys! Social media may be a democratizing space for knowledge circulation, but there is something about courtesy we must yet retain. I may not agree with everything a senior colleague posts here, but there is something of intellectual modesty that reminds me to be generous and kind in my response. Not Kowtowing, but being kind. Titles are empty signifiers, but respect is sacrosanct. To be clear, honorifics are not limited to the African junior scholar abroad, and are, in fact, cross-cultural.
Extending honor to all–even to those who tell you to call them by their first names–is appreciated in many contexts. Respect your advisor’s expressed preferences, but do not forget the African senior scholars in your Western space or on social media. The wise ones have left things unsaid; they expect you to think. But I do not think we should homogenize the state of relations with Western colleagues. I imagine some of them, even if silent about it, actually appreciate those that still insist on certain articulations of respect, first name interactions or not.
One of the seniors I work with is somebody I respect deeply. Let’s also call him Peteru. Back in Ibadan, I would genuflect–very proudly and performatively so–to greet him at each encounter, but here, I have to constantly remind myself that a culture that rightly fixes signs of equality to all often negates its best assumptions. I think what is most important is never to allow relations of deference become a pretext for either flattery or subservience. And wise is she who understands the particularities of contexts. Also, rather than invoke an African essence as a fetishizing dodge for the larger tensions of honorifics, the intent here is basically to speak to the peculiar situations of many a peer, mostly African, who grapples with questions of titles and personal names in Western contexts.