Chinua Achebe Symposium, 2015

Forty Years After

Chinua Achebe and Africa in the Global Imagination

University of Massachusetts Amherst
14-15 October 2015
Bernie Dallas Room, Goodell Hall

On 18 February 1975, the great African writer Chinua Achebe presented a Chancellor’s Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, entitled ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.’ The lecture was subsequently published in the Massachusetts Review, and since that time it has become celebrated and iconic: a remarkable moment both in literary criticism, and in a broader cultural assessment of how Africa has been perceived and represented in the Western world. In making his case, Achebe challenged the entire framework in which works of art would be judged, and in which the discussion of Africa would be sustained.

To mark the fortieth anniversary of this epic moment, as well as the fortieth anniversary of the Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series at the University of Massachusetts, the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute will host a symposium devoted to the impact of Achebe’s lecture and its continuing legacy. In this, our aim is twofold: first, to commemorate the event itself, and its significance; and second, to bring the discussion into the present by reconsidering both Achebe’s importance, and the shape of things today in terms of the issues he raised.

The question now is not only how Africa is represented in Europe and North America (still relevant to be sure), but also how that question has been reversed—how Africans see the global North. Now we have a new generation of writers, creative thinkers and artists who have their own perspectives and are reimagining the order of things. As Achebe himself saw, the question of humanity lies at the heart of it: how the human was defined in the past; how we define it now as we go forward; and of the role Africa can and should play in that. There is also the role of literature, equally important to Achebe. How do we see the paths he laid out for us now? How do current writers and thinkers see their own roles?

In taking on these questions, we want to underline our appreciation for Chinua Achebe and the extraordinary part he played as both writer and person. And we want to do so by taking his challenge seriously in our present times. We believe that one of the best ways we can pay tribute to him is by continuing the discussion he initiated.

See photos from the Symposium


Denja Abdullahi
Denja Abdullahi, a poet, playwright, literary essayist and culture technocrat, has degrees from the University of Jos and the University of Ilorin in Nigeria. His poems and other literary pieces have appeared in several anthologies, and he has published five collections of poetry and a collection of plays. Apart from lecturing and other public service vocations, he has also practiced active journalism with The News/AM News/Tempo group. Currently he is Director, Performing Arts in the National Council for Arts and Culture in Nigeria, where he is also National Vice President of the Association of Nigerian Authors.

Jules Chametzky
Jules Chametzky was born in Brooklyn in 1928, and attended the University of Minnesota, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. Jules taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1958 to 2004, where he was a founder of the Massachusetts Review, and for 27 years its senior Editor. He also held guest professorships and Fulbrights at universities in seven European locations, including Berlin, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, and Zagreb. Jules is the author of From the Ghetto: the Fiction of Abraham Cahan (1977) and Cultural Mediations in Selected Jewish and Southern Writers (1986); he also co-edited Black and White in American Culture: Ten Years of the MR (1969, 1971), and Jewish American Literature: a Norton Anthology (2001). His latest work is Out of Brownsville: Encounters With Nobel Laureates and Other Jewish Writers--a Cultural Memoir (2012).

Johnnetta Cole
Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole was appointed the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in March 2009. Prior to that, she had a long and distinguished career as an educator and humanitarian that included teaching and administrative positions at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is Professor Emerita of Emory University from which she retired as Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies. Johnnetta Cole also served as the president of Spelman College and Bennett College, and was the first African American to serve as the Chair of the board of United Way of America. Dr. Cole is the recipient of many awards, and has received 68 honorary degrees. She is a fellow of the American Anthropological Association, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She currently serves as the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Achille Mbembe
Professor Achille Mbembe was born in Cameroon, and obtained his Ph.D in History at the Sorbonne in 1989 and a D.E.A. in Political Science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques. He has held posts at Columbia University, the Brookings Institution, University of Pennsylvania, University of California Berkely, CODESRIA (Dakar), and Duke University. Currently, he is a Research Professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg). Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant and innovative thinkers in the field of African studies, Achille is the author of the acclaimed On the Postcolony (English translation, 2001), recently republished in a new African edition by Wits University Press. Other publications include La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (Paris, Karthala, 1996), Critique de la raison nègre (2013), and the edited collection (with Sarah Nuttall), Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis (2008).

Maaza Mengiste
Maaza Mengiste is a Fulbright Scholar and the award-winning author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, selected by the Guardian as one of the ten best contemporary African books. Her work can be found in the New Yorker, the Guardian, the New York Times, Granta, BBC Radio 4, and World Literature Today, among other places. Maaza has won fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Prague Summer Program, and the Emily Harvey Foundation. She was the 2013 Puterbaugh Fellow and a Runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Maaza writes fiction and nonfiction dealing with migration, the relationship between photography and war, and the plight of sub-Saharan immigrants arriving in Europe. Her second novel, The Shadow King, is forthcoming.

Okey Ndibe
Okey Ndibe is the author of the novels Foreign Gods, Inc. and Arrows of Rain, and co-editor (with Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove) of Writers Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa. Foreign Gods, Inc. was named one of the top ten or most remarkable books of 2014 by NPR, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mosaic, and the New York Times. Okey came to the US to be the founding editor of African Commentary, published by Chinua Achebe. He earned MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has taught at Brown University, Trinity College, Simon’s Rock College, and the University of Lagos. Currently he is the 2015 Shearing Fellow of the Black Mountain Institute, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Ndibe worked for many years as editorial writer for the Hartford Courant where his essay, ‘Eyes To The Ground: The Perils of the Black Student,’ was named by the Association of Opinion Page Editors as the best opinion piece in an American newspaper in 2000. He has also written for the New York Times, BBC online, Al Jazeera online, Financial Times, The World & I, and Fabian Society Journal.

Chinelo Okparanta
Born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Chinelo Okparanta received her BS from Pennsylvania State University, her MA from Rutgers University, and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Okparanta was one of Granta’s six New Voices for 2012. Her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, among others. Short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize in African Writing, she is also a 2014 O. Henry Award winner and a 2014 Lambda Literary Award winner for Lesbian Fiction. She is the author of Happiness Like Water (2013), and Under the Udala Trees (2015).

Caryl Phillips
Born in St. Kitts, Phillips grew up in Leeds in the north of England, and later attended Oxford University. He began writing for the theatre, and has written several plays and screenplays. To date Caryl Phillips has published ten novels, including The Final Passage (1985), A State of Independence (1986), Higher Ground (1989), Cambridge (1991), Crossing the River (1993), The Nature of Blood (1997), A Distant Shore (2003), In the Falling Snow (2009), and The Lost Child (2015). He is also a prolific essay writer, and his non-fiction volumes include The European Tribe (1987), The Atlantic Sound (2000), A New World Order (2001), and Color Me English (2011). Phillips’s work has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he has won numerous awards, including the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. In 2000 Phillips was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Esther Terry
Esther Terry served for nearly four decades at the University of Massachusetts as both professor and campus administrator. She was a founding member of the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies, and later had an unprecedented nineteen years as its Chair, helping to establish one of the nation’s earliest PhD. programs in African American Studies. She also served as Associate Chancellor for ensuring the recruitment and support of minority and women faculty, Associate Provost for Faculty Relations, and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life. After her retirement from UMass Dr Terry served as Provost of Bennett College (her undergraduate alma mater), and later as its President.

Ekwueme Michael Thelwell
Ekwueme Michael Thelwell was the founding chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After coming to the United States from Jamaica as a student, Thelwell participated in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). In the 1980s his anti-apartheid activism resulted in successful legislation against corporate write-offs for U.S. based corporations paying taxes in South Africa. Thelwell’s work has been published in journals and magazines nationally and internationally, and he has held fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Society for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include The Harder They Come (1980), Duties, Pleasures and Conflicts (1987), and the memoirs of Stokely Carmichael published as Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (2003). 

Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Enugu State, Nigeria. She has degrees from the University of Nigeria and the KU Leuven, and holds a PhD from the University of Leiden in Holland. She is the author of three novels, including On Black Sisters Street (Jonathan Cape, 2009; Random House, 2011) and Night Dancer (Jonathan Cape, 2012). Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals. Her works have been translated into a number of languages including German, Japanese, Hebrew, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish and Dutch. 


***All panels will take place in the Bernie Dallas Room in Goodell Hall***

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

2:00 PM   Opening and Welcome
Kumble R. Subbaswamy, Chancellor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Invocation, Rowland Abiodun
Welcome and Acknowledgments, Stephen Clingman
2:30 - 4:00 PM   Session 1: Where one thing stands, another will stand beside it

Dr. Johnnetta Cole, video
Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, keynote address: ‘Chinua Achebe: The Ironies of History Dancing with the Politics of Literature’
Moderator: Esther Terry
4:00 - 4:30 PM   BREAK
4:30 - 6:00 PM   Session 2: It is the storyteller who makes us what we are

Panel: Okey Ndibe; Caryl Phillips; Chika Unigwe
Moderator: Stephen Clingman
6:00 - 6:30 PM   Reception

Thursday, October 15, 2015

1:30 - 2:15 PM   Session 3: I have called you all together

Denja Abdullahi, Vice-President, Association of Nigerian Authors
Dr. Chidi Achebe
Jules Chametzky, editor emeritus, Massachusetts Review
Moderator: Joye Bowman
2:30 - 4:00 PM   Session 4: We intend to do unheard of things

Panel: Maaza Mengiste; Chuma Nwokolo; Chinelo Okparanta
Moderator: Sabina Murray
4:00 - 4:30 PM   BREAK
4:30 - 6:00 PM   Session 5: The African story from an African perspective—in full earshot of the world

Achille Mbembe, keynote address: 'Chinua Achebe and the African Century'
Moderator: Patrick Mensah
6:00 - 6:30 PM   Reception

Major funding for ‘Forty Years After’ comes from the Chancellor, University of Massachusetts; the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute; Office of International Relations, University of Massachusetts System; the College of Humanites and Fine Arts; Five College Lecture Fund; Department of History; Department of Afro-American Studies. Other funders include the following: Commonwealth Honors College; Department of English; Department of Economics; MFA Program for Poets and Writers; Department of Anthropology; Black Studies Department, Amherst College; Creative Writing Center, Amherst College; Department of History, Mt Holyoke College; Department of English, Mt Holyoke College; Department of Africana Studies, Mt Holyoke College; Department of English Language and Literature, Smith College; African Studies Review. The Interdisciplinary Studies Institute is funded by the Provost, University of Massachusetts, and the Deans of the Colleges of Humanities and Fine Arts, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Natural Sciences. We are very grateful to all our sponsors.


Photographs by Jon Crispin.


Opening and Welcome

Where One Thing Stands Another Will Stand Beside It

It is the storyteller who makes us what we are

I have called you all together

We intend to do unheard of things

The African story

All videos