Author Archives: jyeku

On The Uses of African Literature: Onyeka Nwelue and a Phantom Cancel Culture Mob

Prologue: I found it intriguing when Onyeka Nwelue, a fine writer who is always quick to declare he dropped out of university, began to use “Dr” in front of his name a year or two ago. It was fascinating because, based on professional etiquette and the stipulations of some awarding universities, it’s not common to flaunt an honorary doctorate. But when you consistently claim to teach for free at Oxford as a Professor of African Studies, as Onyeka told the satirist Dr. Damages last December, it invites more scrutiny! So I began to pay attention to him as part of my own current reflections on social media controversies, censorship, and scandals in the African literary community. When the Cherwell article came out, I considered writing about it and later did for The Lagos Review. This essay offers my sense of things, showing how relations of use and using inform a pattern of appropriating the literary/online prestige of Soyinka, Nwapa, and Pa Ikhide for the attention economy. As Soyinka remarks, the stakes of the Nwelue story go beyond Onyeka. They get at the heart of our unending fascination with Western institutions and their politics of valuation. Though long, the piece is posted here if anyone is interested in how many in our community use other people and their social capital.

Cancelling Onyeka

Questions of cancel culture and African literature, in the frameworks of the contentious politics of digital literary networks and communities, illuminate how the toxic polarisation of a social media culture of algorithmic outrage often gets assimilated into literary discourses on Africa.

The current Onyeka Nwelue saga powerfully illustrates a similar saturation of contemporary Nigerian writing on the internet, especially with discourses of cancellation and literary controversies.

One thing is clear about Onyeka, from what one assembles from the fragments of his digital traces. Like the rest of us, he is not a terrible human beyond redemption, even if his ethics and politics consistently suggest a different narrative. Something else is also clear: he understands aesthetics. Besides creative works such as The Strangers of Braamfontein, his sartorial politics reflects a love for beauty that transcends words. But he also values the attention economy and uses its demands more shrewdly than the rest of us.

In 2016 when he suggested in an interview with Premium Times that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart needed to be buried and cancelled from the public space, some read his comments as those of a budding writer seeking attention. But I would wager he was merely ingratiating himself into an Achebean public imaginary that redounds to his own credentials. His dismissal of Achebe seemed to gesture towards Sara Ahmed’s theory of use as a technique of differentiation that produces subjects and shapes worlds and bodies.

In What’s The Use, Ahmed demonstrates how use as a concept shapes people’s encounters with the world and emerges rhetorically as a trace which invites further activities or inactions.

Source of Photo:

Onyeka has a history of using others, appropriating their images and social prestige for his own benefit and many in our community consigned themselves to indifference until a student newspaper in Oxford called him out. It is possible, as Onyeka argues, that he was politically targeted, but there is nothing to suggest the intent was for him to be cancelled, as is often the case in our unforgiving age of conviction. If anything, he himself knows how to use anxiety around cancel culture to evade being called to order.

This strategy of use is evident in his many labours of self-monumentalisation on social media and in real life and has been perfected since the self-vaunted abandonment of his undergraduate studies in Anthropology at Nsukka for a career in writing. To understand Onyeka, I am suggesting we pay attention to this catalytic event at Nsukka as informing relations of use and using that involve some of the biggest names in the history of African literature, including Soyinka, Achebe, and Adichie. I am not a psychoanalyst but the Nuskka saga appears to have left in its wake a trauma that has been countered over the years through the author’s many achievements

There is a consistent indication of the decorative tactics of self-curation and branding that solidifies a particular social image and persona, from pinning a video of himself with Soyinka on his Twitter handle to instituting a literary award on behalf of some famous publisher or scholar or even shooting a documentary on the writer Flora Nwapa. Onyeka has maintained that Nwapa was his aunt, but even her children protested the documentary project and saw it as a mindless use of their mother’s image.

For someone who uses others, such protests hardly matter. Yet, as part of his identitarian politics, Onyeka stylises himself as a detribalised Nigerian writer, who, despite being Igbo, is proud to choose and deify Soyinka at the expense of Achebe. A personal choice well in his rights and one that highlights any real or imaginary rivalry between both writers.

Another dimension to this is Onyeka’s ability to insert himself into other people’s sphere of influence and social media prestige, which is all part of this performative regime of use and usability that includes the controversial Adichie-Emezi debate on transgender identities. By writing to denounce and, hence, gatekeep Emezi’s identity as an Ogbanje, Onyeka was not just attacking the spirituality and identity of a trans writer because of his own understanding of Igbo spirituality, but he was also using the attention the viral social media debates had received to draw coveted online followership to himself. To poach on the narratives of those who have more online fame is to use their social capital to your own advantage.

Regarding his educational credentials, an honorary doctorate from Haiti follows this logic, although we must wonder why a potentially brilliant writer needs these symbols to affirm his worth. A possible answer is the politics of authenticity and recognition that drives what sociologist Ebenezer Obadare calls the Nigerian prestige economy, one in which a desire to be known, to be famous trumps the ethical and is driven, among other tokens of self-exhibition, by fabricated pendants of academic distinction. For prestige and its rewards, Onyeka knows how to perform fakery for an attention economy that soon moves on to the next topic on social media. But the way to be known in the attention economy and stay relevant in online public conversations is to keep the performance of use in its different shades of simulacra going.

In Onyeka’s case, it also involves the manufacture of controversies and outrage. When you read comments like “no poor person has any value” or other similar statements on his now-deleted Twitter handle, you would be hasty to show anger since that is only the beginning of a throng of anti-poor rhetoric and inflammatory comments that sometimes shamed and dehumanised people, and sometimes mocked mostly women and children. It is possible certain medications for a health condition (which must not be overlooked) motivate these gross sentiments against the poor or unthinking Africans as he often writes about, but when you consider the attention they also engender, the image politics becomes manifest.

Photo: Markus Winkler

And many people simply looked away, and we must wonder if the ways he often uses narratives of mental health on Twitter were, in fact, not intended to numb our critical senses. People with mental should not hurt other people. It is great to read a statement of apology about the Oxford situation. I wonder if the poor and ‘useless’ people he derided would ever get one too, or if we will allow another problematic claim to a social experiment make us look away.

If anything is to be learnt from the Oxford episode, it is that credentialing himself through an empty association with Oxford and Cambridge as an academic visitor explains how Western institutions remain deeply embedded in our judgement of literary value in African literature. Despite the resurgent rhetoric of decolonisation, many African writers continue to crave these spaces, awards, and validation. The annual Nobel Prize anxiety about an Ngugi win should remind us that some of our best voices, some of whom are bent on decolonising everything except the western funding system that rewards their craft, still look to the west for consecration. Ngugi probably cares less about the prize than many online who pine for the west to validate his place in the canon of global literature.

The claim to academia is also a function of use value. In late 2022, the satirist, Rudolf Okonkwo interviewed Onyeka and asked him to elaborate on his role as a “Prof of African Studies” at Oxford. Onyeka not only doubled down on a non-existent academic role but went on to add that he was, in fact, teaching at Oxford and Cambridge for free. His interlocutor who lives in the US and understands higher education did not even bother to ask questions. Instead, he asked a curious question about Onyeka winning the Nobel Prize. He should have pressed him on that false claim—one Onyeka did not refute in the statement credited to him as an explanation of the Oxford debacle. His apology merely confirms he paid money to use these British universities as “a platform to be seen as powerful,” to frame it in his own words. When another instalment of Cherwell’s investigations was published, the financial dimensions became even more telling:

Nwelue also made online claims about donating to Oxford University, posting a letter addressed to “Professor Nwelue” from former Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson thanking him for his “generous support”. Oxford University did not respond to Cherwell’s inquiries about the full sum that Nwelue donated….However, it was confirmed that Nwelue paid £1000 to have his name engraved on a chair in Oxford’s Weston Library; the words “Dr. Onyeka Nwelue was here” are inscribed on its armrest. Although Cherwell revealed that Nwelue has no professorial position or PhD, Weston Library confirmed that the plaque on the chair will remain in place.

But why pay millions of naira to be seen as powerful? I suspect an answer to this is also what motivates the use of Oxford’s logo to officialise the events he organised. But the Oxbridge establishment does need to answer questions, and here is the other side of my reading of the Onyeka story: the student journalists appear to be too quick to ignore the hypocrisy of the authorities at both Oxford and Cambridge. While no sane person can defend several of Onyeka’s actions, some highly placed individuals at Oxford looked away and were content to use the activities of the James Currey Society to mask the sham that is Oxford’s institutional commitment to African literature. The Cherwell journalists missed a critical opportunity to interrogate the institutional gaps and agents that enable the fakery they locate in Onyeka Nwelue. In the age of decolonization, Oxford, SOAS and Cambridge’s Centre for African Studies which charged Onyeka £9000 for one year’s association in 2022-23 all have to be seen as radically committed to centering African letters–even the ones they collected money to ‘support.’ They too, it appears, used and abandoned Onyeka.

It was not just Okonkwo who did not ask the tough questions. The Maryland critic, and our friend and colleague, Ikhide Ikheloa should have asked questions, too. Ikheloa was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Criticism from what some might consider a faux literary institution Onyeka probably created to use African literature for self-promotion. Pa Ikhide, as many call him, is known to have famously gone after Philip Emeagwali who lied his way to fame but simply looked away when it came to Onyeka.

You wonder what happened to the vocal critic who went after Chris Abani for misrepresenting facts about his ties with the Nigerian military establishment. If Pa Ikhide, as many call him, is known to have famously gone after Philip Emeagwali who lied his way to fame but simply looked away when it came to Onyeka. You wonder what happened to the vocal critic who went after Chris Abani for misrepresenting facts about his ties with the Nigerian military establishment. If Pa Ikhide found mind-boggling “the degree of narcissism and self-absorption” in Abani’s construction of a literary identity, Onyeka’s misrepresentations should have been obvious. Inattentive to the controversies surrounding the writer, he allowed himself to be used. Put differently, Onyeka simply used another controversial figure to strengthen his own status.

The point bears repeating: the Nigerian literary community, including the writers, book reviews, and scholars that now prefer to look away, is complicit in producing the Onyeka controversy. By keeping quiet and framing his deception as the literary hustle of an ego-driven youth, many fellow writers enabled him through their silence. It reeks of hypocrisy that some are now happy to attack him and gloat about his ordeal.

At the same time, I do not think anybody should want to cancel Onyeka. Certainly not by anyone who politicises a sexual identity, and uses it to circulate in western locations, or some whose penchant is to use their craft to launder state actors and justify oppression. Anyone who has benefitted from the Onyeka brand needs to sit this one out.

Onyeka’s uses of others go beyond logos and institutions, or famous people like James Currey, the former British publisher who, together with Chinua Achebe at Heinemann, produced the famous Heinemann’s African Writers Series (AWS). The James Currey Fellowship is the product of a mind that knows how to use the structures and legacies of African literature and its writers. But things also get to the arena of state politics. The journalist and supporter of Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi, David Hundeyin, for instance, has a huge social media followership that became courted and used by Onyeka for his own politics of visibility.

Yet Onyeka’s academic fakery predates the #Obidient movement, even if it also comes to symbolise the plasticity and intolerance of some followers of Obi who, in the spirit of social media cancel culture, sometimes seek to exclude ideas or persons external to their own political tribe. Obi has nothing to do with Onyeka’s sham; Onyeka merely sought to use political loyalty to the #Obidient movement for his own gains.

All of this raises the question of how people gain literary access to established voices and public actors, particularly in the social media age. The literary sphere is an essential part of the public sphere and access in one is often connected to visibility in the other. Soyinka and James Currey may not feel used by Onyeka, but neither do they have to explain how they came to have Onyeka in their ranks. It is great to see how Soyinka tactfully defends his protégé, pushing back against the Censorship Index that is bent on demonising Onyeka even when “the charges against this author do not involve plagiarism or other literary offence, nor any crime against humanity.”

Although he does not call it by that notorious name, what shocks Soyinka the most appears to be cancel culture, but Soyinka probably allows an admirable loyalty to a younger friend to underplay the necessary accountability to which Onyeka is being called. Along with cancel culture and literary outrage, though, the Onyeka case must signal to anyone who understands the ambiguities of human nature the imperative of redemptive politics, which is often absent in the selective outrage of censorious mobs.

There is no need to sanitise the Onyeka story because we don’t want to be perceived as envious of his ‘successes’ or even for the necessary sake of human decency. The fact is, he became entangled with a fraudulent production of literary fame, and he has apologised, but the pattern of using other people and their cyphers of achievements connects more intimately to broader questions about how people use African literature.

Meantime, the algorithm-driven outrage machine of social media, as Adichie frames it in a 2022 speech, has much to teach us about the social lives of African letters. The fundamental issues in the Onyeka episode cohere around a personal history of use and symbolic appropriation as fundamental to the prestige economy and literary influence of a Nigerian writer. Many other controversies in the last decade offer other similar generative discourses. For now, it has to be said: there is no need to cancel Onyeka; what’s really the use?

A slightly different version of this essay was first published by The Lagos Review.

A Valentine Poem


That story about wayward canticles from love-books

came from a tongue dripping honey and tales of exits.

A day lingers into eternity when you are not here.

You ask yourself why the heart still longs for the muse

it daily beholds like a bee, her honeycombs.

You wonder why absence sickens like an unwanted

friend visiting in the heat of an ungodly hour, a moment

that dithers and forbids unravelling its next passages.

You wonder. So when I said, “to love you is to bear you

in my bosom even when you are not here,” a feeling growls

inside of me and stretches into a sky where​,​ not holding you,

I’m stuck to smiles shared a flurry of seconds ago,

memories threaded by affections into a bouquet

freshly plucked from gardens that sprout longings,

the roses and magnolias of thrusted passions.

To be away from you is to become a fountain

void of waters, springs that rain down as nothingness.

A day lingers into eternity when you are not here.

The tenderness of friends

Nobody knows tenderness

like a man to whom it is a stranger.

He knows what he has never felt,

a feeling that eludes him

like the words that unbutton his silence,

the struggle to shed his mind in front of those

who misunderstand him from a far city

founded by the sages of indifference.

The tendrils of his anguish, threaded

by a refusal to play the gallery’s tunes,

bear sweetened fruits on a soil turned

to the blues of animus, a fierceness that roars.

A gentle mystery that spirals from friends

who bleed reds and roses like festering wounds

on the leg of a ghost. The plinths of an agony

for him who knows tenderness like the back of some

roughened palms, for him misbegotten

by the affections of friendly fires.

Knowing Books: My Grandfather and a Journey Through Libya

But the past does not exist independently of the present…The Past—or, more accurately, pastness—is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing The Past

It helps to consider the ancestors sometimes. To look into their gaze from below and enter their minds and from there contemplate their grief. What were their dying moments like and what was the last thought that lingered most in their minds before they crossed the threshold of death?

For my grandfather, it was probably the Sahara, with its arid hotness and the sand dunes that slowly bury weary bones in their loins and swallow pilgrims questing for life elsewhere. Grandpa’s greatest longing before passing was for a son that never returned home, even if his daughter, through whom I was direct kin, did stay back, she and her other siblings, nursing him in his last days.

Against grandpa’s greatest wishes, his eldest daughter never did get around to fulfilling her old man’s desires. She had other plans that later culminated in her decades-long business in the heart of the beauty industry on Lagos Island. If you needed some Brazilian hair weaves at a Balogun shop, she was probably your surest option. Mum is the most natural salesperson you would find, but grandpa wanted so badly to see his children, those who left and those who stayed, have some formal, educational training. From her, it became clear to grandpa he had to turn his attention to the next generation, mine.

He had a culture of incentivizing us whenever we visited, offering cash and books to take back home. His library of UK-styled Arithmetic and English readers was no longer fashionable but that could hardly stop him. It didn’t matter to him. A much-changed curriculum was not a match for his gift of books. Becoming at home with them and reading as many as we could find was all he wanted. He would constantly press the importance of knowing books.

Among the Yorùbá, a true philosophy of education appears to begin with becoming one with the world of letters. To know books, mọ ìwé, is to be at home with literacy as in a sensual experience that erupts as intimate knowledge. It is as if being able to read and truly becoming knowledgeable is to become one in mind and spirit with the books you read; to know books becomes that necessary intercourse with printed texts that congeals the most special kinship with them. The book itself—ìwé—is, as a Nigerian scholar later told me, a sign of belonging to a privileged class. Naturally then, in grandpa’s world, to know books was the surest way to becoming known and famous⁠—if you wanted that; to become a person of worth, you had to mọ ìwé.

Photo: Tomas Milik

The thing is, grandpa’s love for books derives from a cosmopolitan ethic that is traceable to his travels. Among other destinations, he had gone to Mecca and became what people in southwest Nigeria would call an Alhaji. Growing up and hearing this appellation, I had thought that was his name and I would fondly refer to him by that. But he was a man of faith who was devoted to the teachings of the Prophet.

Beyond that, he was a man who could read people, for his temperament was of a peaceful and tranquil disposition, the type that suffered long the ill-treatment of others. I sometimes thought his ethics and attitude to life were shaped by his Yorùbá upbringing in Lagos.

There was something beautiful about his gentleness and the constant ambience of grace he exuded. Well, most of the time, with the occasional times being when he would threaten to get the stick whenever I threw the kind of tantrums peculiar to my pre-teen age. His eyes were tender and soft. So were his words, although forcefully when necessary.

As I became more discerning of my environment, I came to appreciate the elasticities of a certain Yorùbá religious pragmatism in the man, so much that when I ran away from stick-wielding and mean tutors at my Quranic school to become a Christian, he never withheld his affections. The popular narrative about religious conversion and the hostility that sometimes attend that in places like Nigeria was something I heard about but hardly experienced from those closest to me.

But I could tell he was deeply hurt. Yet it was a battle he did not mind losing as long as being in school and having good grades were still in place. To him, and as I guessed later it was with most in his generation, a legacy of educated lineage was something to be proud of. To aspire to even if you have to lose some battles.

But he had other battles, beyond the domestic skirmishes of children who wanted to ká owó, rather than ká ìwé, children whose major preference was the lure of capital, rather than books. As someone who had real estate property in abundance, he fought hard to keep some of the houses he had built on lands hotly contested by other more powerful families and landowners in Lagos. Having few connections in the Lagos state hierarchies, unlike some of his competitors meant he lost many of these investments.

His greatest battle, that of every Nigerian parent of his era, was the forces that thwarted the legacy of education he sought for his children. There was one, in particular; let’s call him Hassan, who had so much promise but had his light deemed by an erratic mind that was constantly high on drugs. In a sphere where such things were hardly regulated, Hassan became undone by a gradual overdose of weed and cannabis.

But he too wanted a better life. So long before to japa entered the Nigerian cultural lexicon, long before images of floating bodies by the shores of Europe became a regular pastime of news networks and social media, he had been convinced a journey to the West through the Sahara would offer him a new lease of life.

Billy was supposed to arrange this. He was a friend of Hassan’s who lived in the same neighbourhood in the Surulere area. He had assured grandpa a journey through Libya was the surest path. Acting as some kind of travel agent with familiarity from his own travels abroad, he had promised to help Hassan as long as grandpa was ready to splash out the money.

Being the man he was, Grandpa did and so began Billy’s endless request for money. He needed to so badly help his friend surmount every hurdle he would claim. To help Hassan, who had become sober and focused on a clean start, achieve his dreams was the goal, Billy claimed.

And so Hassan left Lagos, but Billy never left grandpa’s purse. The endless demand for money was like an unwanted note in a beautiful sequence of a Jazz routine. As Grandpa obliged every time, Hassan was always said to want more. The thought of a son who was stranded in some far, unknown country was unbearable. The more Billy asked for money, the more grandpa gave him, yet only Billy could talk directly with Hassan since they had both travelled out of the country.

When the whispers began, grandpa knew something sinister had taken place, but he could not be sure. Hassan had gone for a long while, and although Billy had stopped requesting money, nobody knew where my uncle really was.

Billy, back in Lagos one rare summer, assured the family all was fine with Hassan where he was, but this country was a riddle only Billy could solve. He assured grandpa and everyone connected to him that Hassan merely needed more time to settle where he had found a new home. That, as a matter of fact, he might actually need more money! A desperately longing father was growing suspicious.

But grandpa never heard from Hassan again. Certainly not before his wife, my grandma who sold pap and fufu at a popular crossroad passed away, not knowing the fate of her son. Billy had made promises Hassan would call as soon as he settled down in Europe. But the phone never rang. In 2014, grandpa joined his wife in the ranks of the ancestors, never knowing what had become of his investments in a son’s quest for meaningfulness far away from home.

Before his final exit, he had called me one day after my arrival in Saskatoon for doctoral training. It was one of those regular Prairie days. The weather was raining ice outside and the temperature was a familiar narrative of frigidness. Winter came early that year and poring was the first snow that would later melt in May. I was about to head to a store on 8th street to get my winter tires when my phone rang. It was grandpa.
He wanted to know if I had seen Hassan. If I had found a way to connect with him since I left Nigeria. Had I spoken with him? It was as if he needed to confirm Hassan’s years of silence were not rumours of an eternal absence in the body. I had crossed to the West and could easily get in touch with my uncle, he reasoned.

“Have you spoken with him?” The voice on the other end of my Samsung A8 gave me shivers. It was the most distraught voice I ever heard. The quivering voice of a father whose son never returned. His fears and regrets, translated by radio waves across the Atlantic.

I told him I would get on the internet and see if I could find some leads online, any traces of a son for a father who wanted closure. As an elder, he did not have to remind me that ‘‘Ọmọ-o mí kú’’ yá ju ‘‘Ọmọo mí nù’’ lọ. To lose a child to death was more tolerable than simply losing a child. The wisdom of the elders: ọmọ mìí kú is deemed a better loss because it brings closure to the mourning process; whereas, in ọmọ mìí nù, the mourning is an endless season of frigid snow without heat. Nothing ends and melancholy forever threatens. But aren’t both losses a path to troubled sighs, a reminder that hope is always haunted by loss? The hope that what you have lost will take a concrete shape before you someday condemns you to a tragic longing that makes closure elusive. But how do you close something that refuses to be closed?

My grandfather did not wait for me to return his call. He too, like his wife before him, bid the earth a final goodbye, leaving behind a grief he could not fully express; a mourning I can only take up in the wake of an inscrutable loss.

Never knowing the fate of his son, whether swallowed by Sahara’s sands or buried under Sicily’s depths, he died with scars of hope unfulfilled, drowning in a sea of sorrow, with his heart frozen by a trauma that became food for the next generation. They remain with mom today even when she doesn’t talk about Hassan. There is something haunting about her silence, like a horror story on the pages of a tragic book.

As I close this meditation and think of Hassan’s past life that is really not past, I have come to know a book that I can only describe as activating an upsetting experience of reading, not for its poetic and beautiful language, but for the tragedies it unfurls: Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake in which she explores the precarity of Black lives, and mortality in the many afterlives of slavery as evocative of “the past that is not past” and which “reappears, always, to rupture the present.” Like the undying question Hassan’s passage through Libya left in its wake: are you still alive?

A ​Fevered World Cup

So the desert sky​ ​would not welcome him,
a life threaded by the chains of a Kafala weaver.

Yet ​​a​ dusty​ cloud hung over him like a looming
threat of skylines​ ​sprawling the roads​ ​to stadiums

that blossomed from the beads of his sweat.​​
An outcast among ​tourists and ​fans, ​untouchable,​

as ​a leper that wears​​ shame like​ a ​jersey
from a keeper who lets in a barrage of goals.

​They​ passed​ ​by him,​ without a glance​,
their gaze focused on the digital billboard

splashing images of Messi and Jesus
juggling a ball in a say no to racism ad.

I passed by him too, clutching my copy
of Marx’s Capital, with a divider between

pages that warned of a laborer’s alienation.
A fevered World Cup in the theatre of the unwanted.

Photo Credit: History of Soccer

Encountering Africa in a Used German Bookstore

He was sure I had come into his store to look for books by Achebe or some other African author. He had read Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and loved her coverage of the Nigeria-Biafra war. The septuagenarian bookseller at a used bookstore in Bochum. The beginning of Autumn of 2022 marked my encounter with him, his shelves of books, and the reality of subtle bias and the essentializing logics of its civil and polite gestures. 

Intrigued by the assumption that I would be uninterested in, say, works by Western authors, I asked if he had anything by Foucault or the Frankfurt School. And then added, “I generally like to feed my mind and not be limited to any particular intellectual tradition.” He didn’t seem convinced but offered an explanation of the rarity of the English editions of books by those scholars.

The used bookstore borrows its name from a European literary classic, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu—a play whose unruly obscenities blended well with the old tomes and decorative items by a glass window overlooking a busy road leading to the central train station. It became clear as we spoke that the bookseller’s political confessions were to be found in the themes of this French play, along with the picture of American musical legend Prince, and the other items he had displayed to court the attention of bibliophiles to his store.

At a point, my bookseller-interlocutor spoke of African and Caribbean literatures as mainly the same thing. I told him I wasn’t an expert in the Caribbean literary tradition, but he made the point to revisit the distinction I had insisted on as if he did not think it made any sense. Black literature was an undifferentiated aesthetic. When I asked if he had any African literary classics in German translations, he was sure he had some and so began the journey of his fingers across the forest of dusty book spines before him.

Naguib Mahfouz caught his eyes but the Arabic literary great was not an African writer he remarked. I protested with a smile—the kind you offer when you want to communicate warmth and friendship as a way of surviving the hostility of a strange environment.

Of course, he agreed North Africa is still in Africa, but I could not help recalling then the historical and epistemic politics of symbolically reterritorializing countries like Egypt. But I would not be drawn into rehearsing the efforts of Martin Bernal, Cheikh Anta Diop, and several others who have written about the African roots of the construct that is European civilization. Yet I found this aspect of our conversation useful in reinforcing my decision not to replicate the common erasure of North Africa from the African literature class in my own African lit syllabus. Of course, the Maghreb may define itself and its literary traditions first and foremost in Arabic terms that marginalize its Africanness, but, like most people to the South of the continent, our shared kinship was something to affirm.

Meantime, the bookseller was sure there existed an African adaptation of Ubu itself but he did not remember to which African country the play had traveled. King Baabu, I ventured to remind him, with a half-confident response that betrayed my own uncertainty. His face beamed with recollection.

Frankly, I hadn’t realized myself that Soyinka adapted King Baabu from a French play, but the sonic resemblances of both titles gave things away. I remember watching the play on the stage of the Arts Theatre on the campus of Ibadan over a decade ago. A political satire, King Baabu was written by the Nobel Laureate to parody the meaninglessness of the military junta in Africa. Naturally, it was time to rummage through the selves for Soyinka’s books. My host was charitable. He found a German translation of Ake, Soyinka’s childhood memoir. And then the playwright’s debut novel, The Interpreters.

“Do you recommend I read them?” The bookseller wanted to know. Of course, these are literary classics everyone should read. They were early editions, priceless books I could only hold but was unable to read because of my non-existent German language skills. But to mark my encounter with Soyinka in a used German bookstore, I did buy a rare print copy of his Nobel speech, published in 1988. The opening page taken from a poem in Ogun Abibiman tricked me into its pages. Rendered in English, it was a homage to Soyinka’s patron deity, but the rest of the material was in German! Yet I would not walk away from it.

In all honesty, the bookseller was a lovely soul who simply wanted to sell books and talk about literature with an African literature professor from the US. At the same time, I could not ignore his assumption of a certain provinciality in my reading interests. In millennial lingo, he gave certain vibes! Vibes that construed me as inhospitable to ideas from any canon that was not African. Because I see the danger of a binary here, let me note too that I am indeed interested in books. Period. Not Western. Not African. And I wished the bookseller had seen this.

But could I have been interested in Western classics and African literature at the same time? This lingered in my thought as I looked around the store for more books. It is a critical question that evokes the same failure of a woke decolonial movement today that is drunk on superficiality and structurally empty on the substance that improves the lived conditions of postcolonial societies. You want to dismantle oppressive systems by erecting another kind of structure. Like the nativist sensibilities that drove the wheels of Negritude. A performance of decoloniality that abjures any appearance of European thought is itself a reification of the ignorant niceties of the European mind who cannot bring himself to expect a productive and non-hierarchical cohabitation of African and European ways of knowing. While such an attitude is historically produced and shaped, our response to it could be more critical and nuanced.

To be fair, the bookseller is probably a reflection of our current moment. In our post-George Floyd era, would I have accused him of white privilege and chauvinism had he mentioned, or offered me, books by Goethe or Kant? Is the German bookseller merely obsequious to an epoch that appears to demand that white people tiptoe around Black people and give them whatever they want? I am not saying this was the case here, but anywhere you have a semblance of this scenario, it is the agency of Black people that is undermined.

While the encounter reminded me of the roadside booksellers I had met in Lagos or Harlem, street archivists of print culture whose knowledge was as vast as the universe in the books they sold, it was his reductionist gestures that stayed with me the most. I concluded the issue here was probably a free play of assumptions that overlapped with our zeitgeist.

When I left the store with my bag of books, the receipt he offered had a summary line that indeed reduced everything to my Africanness. And as if to document his essentialism. Never mind that the only Africa-focused works I had purchased were Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy. The rest, and there were many, comprised works of Euro-American cultural and intellectual traditions, including books by Wilde, hooks, Marx, and Durkheim.  But I was an African, and all the receipt was made to read was: “Books on African literature and sociology.”   

an epitaph on the loss of nuance, or on the crooked timber of humanity

In some corners of the internet

some brothers spill their rage onto an epitaph

yet to be written, a message carved

by time on the tombstones of terror.

I want to ask, is your anger a dirge mistimed,

or a muttering of protests drowned by noise?

Or what is to be lost if we swoop both low and high

in the face of fury? But I desire silence

in a humane verse, reading half-truths

from those who fully know the past

without knowing themselves.

Protest Rituals and the Change English Football Kneed

That Premier League players are no longer required to take the knee at every game by the 2021/2022 season begs a pertinent question: did it really work and was it worth it? Put differently, when does a performance of an anti-racist ritual in sports neutralize its activist politics? The answer depends on whom you ask, but for two prominent Black players, the answer was significantly varied.

The resumption of matches in the Premier League in June 2020 after a pandemic-forced break came back with players kneeling for a few seconds after the opening whistle. It was a powerful and symbolic protest and a vital embodied performance against racism in English football that was inspired by Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Pre-match kneeling to protest racial injustice soon became a common sight in stadia across England, drawing mixed reactions from supporters and critics, even as it caused stirs and boos in several European countries.

As the announcement was finally made that taking the knee would no longer continue in its previous iteration, what has actually been achieved by the expression of support by England-based footballers for one another and Black people around the world? With the Premier League making knee-taking a less frequent ritual, which will mostly be required of players only in certain matches like those on Boxing Day fixtures, an important ritual of protest can retain its performative force. While the Premier League has said in a statement that it remains “resolutely committed to eradicate racial prejudice and to bring about an inclusive society with respect and equal opportunities for all,” the real issue remains one of the persistence of racial injustice which only a symbolic act could not undo. In other words, as the protests started by Premier League club captains initially got endorsed and, in a sense, coopted by officials as part of efforts to underscore the League’s opposition to racism and its commitment to equality, there remains a lingering feeling that not much progress was being made.

This perspective anchors the often-referenced disposition of England-born Ivory Coast international for whom continued kneeling without a commensurate change in the system produced a non-working system. Zaha appeared to be suggesting that rather than any evident alterations in social conduct and values, what was achieved was the mediatized emptying of a powerful gesture through an ineffectual routineness. Hence, beyond the performed ritual of kneeling, other concrete and material changes that address, for example, things like the criminally low number of Black managers and referees s do need to become visible. When the Crystal Palace forward stopped kneeling in 2021, he said the protest had become “a part of the prematch routine” that does very little to change ingrained problems of race. Although he would rather “stand tall,” Zaha, crucially, did not see any problem with taking the knee. His problem was that it was not working. But he of all people understood its visceral power to highlight the blights of racial hatred. What was irksome for the former United star was how the act had become casualized as another sporting ritual with no material connections to the quotidian and ugly realities of race that frequently tarnish the beautiful game. Like the one directed at Gunners forward Eddie Nketiah in 2021 that made Arsenal chief executive Vinai Venkatesham conclude online racism is football’s “biggest problem” that must not be underestimated.

Yet, Zaha was probably an outlier, for there were other Black players such as former Watford captain Troy Deeney who, in his recent autobiography, wrote of the need to “keep taking the knee until something changes.” This was in response to how the lack of concrete action to end racism was seen as “evidence that taking the knee is not working and therefore we should abandon it.” For Deeney, players had a huge platform in the Premier League to show solidarity and direct the world’s attention to the problems of racial injustice. From this standpoint, one significant way of addressing the tenacity of race in football is through an equally relentless performance of bodily resistance that sufficiently remains in the public view to provoke more conversations and eventual change. Of course, non-Black players are routinely abused online, sometimes the most, but that is hardly on the basis of their race.

And it has to be said, Deeney’s approach to only stop kneeling until real change is evident seems sensible, for although many English players both at league matches and in national team colours abroad continued with the gesture, the ugliness of racism continued in some quarters. For instance, years of discriminatory attitudes towards Black footballers in England once again became painfully reiterated after the Euro 2020 soccer final that involved a penalty shootout against Italy. After missing a decisive kick, the 19-year-old Bukayo Saka became scapegoated by irate fans on social media who flooded his Twitter timeline, and those of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, with racist language and symbols.

The politics of knee-taking may remain controversial, but it certainly makes sense that it continues in some ways in the Premier League. There is something to be said about leaving politics out of sporting activities, but this is hardly sustainable since the racist actors who distract from the fun could hardly be said to be apolitical. Whether the latest move to stop taking the knee is about the coming world cup in Qatart or not, as some pundits claim, to take the knee does acknowledge that a problem is deeply embedded in the system and more still needs to be done collectively to push back against it.

At the same time, the real change that is needed—and this is the point both Zaha and Deeney made in different ways—cannot be merely cosmetic and focused only on prematch rituals or even on empty political dissociations from racist and political groups; more needs to be done to actually change the social conditions that generate racial injustice of any type. That way, the ritual performance and its processuality, even in the playful frameworks of football, might contribute to a necessary social transformation.

An unterrifying unknown

What is familiar soon fades away. Neither as

an untravelled path that petters out at night

when the sky kisses an eerieness from a distance.

Nor as a memory disappearing into a depth

that explodes into an afterlife of traumas.

But as a rebellion that purloins our strongest desires,

tethered to the brutal fictions of perpetual becoming.

Unarrived, and never arriving, a deluge of hollows

echoes through, standing before the door of unfreedom.

What is familiar soon unravels into strangeness,

and disappears into a sail beyond the shackles of terror,

an unknown sea that terrifies not, a place of refuge

where dignity is Black power.