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Chinua Achebe and the Uptakes of African Slaveries Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi Research in African Literatures,

Chinua Achebe and the Uptakes of African Slaveries

Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi

Research in African Literatures, Volume 40, Number 4, Winter 2009, pp. 25-46 (Article)

Published by Indiana University Press DOI: 10.1353/ral.0.0211

by Indiana University Press DOI: 10.1353/ral.0.0211 For additional information about this article

For additional information about this article

Access Provided by Indian Institute of Technology,

Chinua Achebe and the Uptakes of African Slaveries 1


Université de Montréal


This paper examines the representation of slavery in the fiction of Chinua Achebe. The author suggests that the complex representation of slavery in Achebe’s first three novels offers an insight in how writers of Achebe’s gen- eration wrote within a period of ideological crisis and multiple competing orders of social reality; they needed to resist European cultural imperial- isms and colonial conquest at the same time that they had to evaluate the imperialisms, injustices, and, more generally, the shortcomings of Afri- can political institutions. The author suggests in this paper that Achebe responds to these situations of competing pluralizing forces by embedding African articulations of slavery within rival moral frameworks in his first three novels: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God. Achebe places slavery in an ongoing process in which the onslaught of colonialism uncovers and also radically transforms the moral and legal dispensations in which African slavery was worlded. These novels are thus narratives of loss and alienation; the afterlives of slavery become an intimate but deeply perturbing part of postcolonial heritage.

What, then, is the complex of indigenous African notions relevant to the issues we are discussing here? We have used the terms slave and slavery, yet one hardly need dwell on the fact that their meanings, shaped in one cultural- historical setting, cannot be expected to disentangle very well the institutions of another place and time.

—Kopytoff 490

Slavery in Africa was a complex system of labor use, of the exercise of rights in persons, and of exploitation and coercion, tempered by negotiation and accommodation. Its

  RESEARCH   IN   AFRICAN  LITERATURES,  Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter 2009). © 2009



form varied over time and place. Slaves might be menial field workers, downtrodden servants, cherished concu- bines, surrogate kin, ostracized social groups dedicated to a deity, or a ready pool of candidates for sacrifice.

—RobeRts and MieRs 3

In the eighteenth century, abolitionists would need

make the case for slave trade abolition. In the nineteenth century, British merchants would need the moral capital accrued during the abolition campaign to make the colo- nization of Africa conform to new definitions of imperial purpose.


—bRown 329–30


Perhaps because it has become enshrined as the novel about the African encoun- ter with Europe, assessing the putative silence on slavery in Things Fall Apart has become a way of framing a perceived larger displacement of slavery in West African literatures. 2 Yet the occurrences of slave in the novel trace the meanings of slavery in the sensibilities of the portrayed community. While slavery never

coalesces into a tangible narrative vector for the collective experience of Umuofia,

it appears in a series of references subordinated to the trajectory of the main theme

of the novel—the arrival of Europeans and the colonial dispensation. Appraisals bemoaning the absence of slavery in Things Fall Apart inherently conceptualize representations of slavery as slavery in its transatlantic manifestations. Hence, the novel plays a metonymic role in assessments that often ignore the subtleties of what slavery might look like on the continent. The epigraphs above dramatize the point that practices and evocations of slavery in Africa have had so many dimen-

sions that to insist on one single definition for all contexts is to neglect the context- specific ways in which slavery and its effects are contextually and ideologically articulated. Besides, it is almost impossible to write about slavery in Africa without considering that “the institution” has been mediated by European antislavery, abo- litionism and colonialism. Invariably, paradoxical admixtures of colonial violence, commerce, benevolence, and the enchantment of colonial modernity color the end of some forms of slavery in African communities. The issue here, then, is similar to Edward Said’s question about the nature of anticolonial resistance: How does

a culture seeking to become independent of imperialism imagine its own past?

(Culture 214). To rephrase that question: How does an African writer remember African “imperialisms” and injustices as he writes about European conquest? Although he is not concerned with writers specifically, Achille Mbembe examines an aspect of Said’s question in relation to African memories of slavery in his much-cited “African Modes of Self-Writing.” In trying to explain this so-called lack of an African memory of slavery as part of African dead-end imaginaries



created in response to slavery, colonization, and apartheid, Mbembe flattens the complex ways in which Africans remember “slavery.” This is evident in his choice and cursory readings of research on African memories of slavery. Thus, he relies on Madelaine Borgomano’s insufficient reading of a putative silence on slavery in African literature. In short, “slavery” is remembered in much more complex ways than Mbembe suggests and perhaps the best way to reconsider the possibilities of his otherwise creative and suggestive injunction to consider the heteronomy of slavery would be to examine how, for example, Chinua Achebe—among many other African writers—has offered an inquiry on slavery and memory despite claims to the contrary. Part of the problem in Mbembe’s critique resides in his refusal to think of how Africans legitimated slavery within their sovereign sys- tems and how those systems were recalibrated by colonialism. In other words, per- haps the first issue to consider is how Africans consider the relationship between slavery and colonization. If, as Mbembe points out, “colonial advance across the interior of the conti- nent could be said to have taken the character of a creeping slave revolt” and the ensuing colonization was a “co-invention” created by “Western violence as well as the work of a swarm of African auxiliaries seeking profit,” how did that co- invention calibrate memories of slavery (262)? At stake here are the African notions of sovereignty: How did African political thought rationalize slavery and how did colonization change the bases of that rationalization? Or, for that matter, how did the arrival of capitalist modernity, in colonial guise, affect African conceptions of the human? Mbembe only attends to these vital questions about the constitution of the self, of communities, and of sovereignty as they pertain to the “contempo- rary” of period of globalization and not the beginning of colonization. Hence, the insights from his considerations of African “self-styling” in reaction to “states of war” and conceptions of “divine sovereignty” are excised from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contexts where they could have been useful. Yet we cannot read the narratives of figures such as Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Olaudah Equi- ano without attention to widespread forms of endangerment about which they wrote in their respective centuries. Indeed, for twentieth-century writers, such as Amos Tutuola (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), Abdulrazak Gurnah (Paradise), and Chinua Achebe in his first three novels, writing about slavery in Africa entails a vulnerable positioning in the transition period between African sovereignty and colonialism. It is during such transitional moments in which multiple “orders of reality” are in play that what Mbembe calls the “heteronomy [of] the all-purpose signifiers constituted by slavery, colonization and apartheid” can be grasped (258). At least since the publication of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, capitalist chattel slavery has been invoked as a point of entry for African-derived popula- tions into modernity. Yet, as Saurabh Dube cautions, articulations of modernity emerge out of particular specific histories characterized by particular constella- tions of dominance and visions of progress (198–99). If transatlantic slave trade and slavery are taken as the point of entry of African-derived populations into Western modernity in the Americas, the colonial incursion arguably does the same for continental Africans. The point is made frequently that African recap- tives—slaves taken off slave ships and resettled in places such as Freetown—or returnees from the Americas paved the way for modernity in West Africa. 3 None- theless, as Christopher Brown has pointed out, enslaved Africans who embraced



antislavery and abolitionism could not foresee the future the imperial powers had for the continent. The future the British planned and the future the returnees foresaw are best imagined as adversative anticipations of possible worlds. Thus, the figure of the (formerly enslaved) African returnee, roaming the pages of West African fiction on slavery, arguably serves as a janus-faced figure. It is a proleptic figure embodying adversarial anticipated worlds while also domesticating the violence of colonialism and representing it as the enchantment of modernity. The question is: How does slavery travel from one theatre of modernity, the circumat- lantic world, where it is conjoined to capitalism but anterior to formal (and infor- mal) colonialism, to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Africa, where colonialism needed to suppress slavery as it paved the way for a new phase of capitalist expansion? As prisms through which to focalize narratives about vari- ous African and African-derived populations, the coupling of slavery, colonialism, and modernity functions as a counterfactual connective agent. Slavery is not quite colonialism, and colonization is not quite slavery. Indeed, since the abolition of slavery functioned as a moral capital for later colonial incursions into the conti- nent, the abolition and memorializations of slavery are irredeemably conjugated with the violence of the colonizing moment. As articulations of slavery—i.e., its injuries and legacies—are taken from one moral order and resettled in another, those articulations become surface phenomena that can be pressed into the service of different representational projects. Hence, returning recaptive slaves—or even blacks from the diaspora—are regarded as embodiments of the enchantment of capital on the continent. Achebe responds to the fraught conundrum of representing slavery with a paradoxical mode of narration that interrogates how one form of violence sup- presses another but both are legitimated and comprehensible within distinct moral orders. Precisely because slavery in Africa was a clutch of institutionalized prac- tices within distinct moral orders, any narration centered within the same moral order can only portray those manifestations as unjust when that same order has been fractured and an alternative space of inspection becomes available. Achebe situates and juxtaposes moral orders that authorize the events under inquiry. While the compromised “facts” of events can be reconstructed to a certain degree, their painful meanings are refracted through alternative—often conquering— moral orders. It is the resulting de-teleologization of moral orders that makes it possible to perceive enslavement, slavery, and subsequent colonial subordination, but impossible to construct any teleological moral position. Achebe achieves such a gesture by placing his first novel at the pivotal point between a coherent African moral order and an impending European order. In Things Fall Apart, in particular, slavery recedes into the background because the narrative is vested in a moral world that not only legitimizes slavery, but also rests upon it as constituent part of a civil order portrayed through the narrative’s preoccupation with justice, the law, and the upkeep of a moral worldview. My agenda, in this paper, is to highlight how Achebe plots the changing meanings of slavery through reflexive narration that replicates the power constituting force of slavery in Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, and No Longer Ease. 4 The transformations in the evocations of slavery across the novels underline the obligation to jettison one single definition of slavery as we grapple with the ways in which “slavery” is remembered across different commu- nities. Taken together, the invocations of slavery in Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God,



and No Longer at Ease point to the search for an irretrievable moral center in which to enunciate the operations of slavery in one specific historical setting. But since that moral order is irrevocably altered, Achebe places slavery in an ongoing pro- cess in which the onslaught of colonialism uncovers and also radically transforms the moral and legal dispensations in which African slavery was worlded.


As much as slavery circulates as a heteronomous subject, its meanings are often delimited within the moral order that functions as a scene of uptake. In her exami- nation of the events leading to the last execution in Australia—known as the Ryan story—Anne Freadman reformulates Austin’s notion of uptake to elucidate the transformation and assimilation of an event into the stories that become resonant parts of collective memory. In its simplest sense, uptake occurs when a speech act crosses a threshold and creates new meaning by erasing—or at least reconstitut- ing—the traces of its previous citations. Uptake is a reflexive process operating in bidirectional relation between two citations: the utterance turns back upon its previous citation in order to move forward and create the new meaning in its uptake. Such an action may form part of a longer chain of iterations. Uptake thus

partakes in the Derridean notion of differance. As Said clarifies, such deferrals of meaning are not simply invariably at work in language but are part of the mecha- nisms through which we produce meaning in the respective contexts—worldli- ness—of any utterance that need to be actualized alongside individual readings of

a text (see “The Text”). As Freadman shows, uptake is also inevitably a process of adaptation as a narrative is always judged against a memory and the “adaptation of remembered contents to changed contexts” (41). Such adaptations are then fed

into a continuum of social action. While it is tempting to read uptake as translation,

it may be better considered as the mediation between thresholds and it must be

distinguished from the violence of translation which actually silences competing regimes of mediation that may generate uptakes legitimating other kinds of social action. Achebe’s use of these senses of uptake—and of the violence of translation— demonstrates powerfully how we may begin to apprehend slavery in his fiction. Articulations of slavery suppurate at several key incidents but they are suppressed because it is not the enslaved that determine the ensuing uptake. 5 The value of Freadman’s fashioning of uptake lies in underlining the crucial role of the law in the fabrication and consolidation of social imaginaries. As she explains, although most citizens would think of the law as being on their side, the Ryan execution went down in popular imagination as a breach in the socially imagined functioning of the law. The state’s abuse of due process created a situ- ation in which citizens realized their image of the law was based upon a socially imagined ideal process. Uptakes deriving from such deviations from imagined ideals delineate significant thresholds in the lives of deviating individuals and communities. Such deviations also highlight the imbrications of the law with legitimating social imaginaries and their implied moral orders. Charles Taylor describes the social imaginary as a composite set of ways in which people imagine and propagate collective social identities through “images, stories, and legends” and other concrete practices that mediate shared understandings of practices, norms, and the communally shared sense of legitimacy. The imaginary includes



the sense of how things should be, how they should go, as well as a shared ability to recognize infractions against common practice. These understandings could be anchored in “some notion of a moral or metaphysical order” and they become the “largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of our whole situation, within which particular features of our world show up for us in the sense they have. It can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines because of its unlimited and indefinite nature” (24–25). Most important is the material effect of these understandings:

have a constitutive function, that of making possible

the practices that they make sense of and thus enable. In this sense, their falsity cannot be total; some people are engaging in a form of democratic self-rule, even if not everyone, as our comfortable self-legitimations imagine. Like all forms of human imagination, the social imaginary can be full of self-serving fiction and suppression, but it is an essential constituent of the real. It cannot be reduced to an insubstantial dream. (Taylor 183)

[Social] imaginaries

Although Taylor describes the evolution of Western modernity, his elucidations help contextualize the forced and chaotic nature of the colonial modernity with which Achebe grapples. The idealized objectives of Western modernity are rarely extended to peoples of African-derived descent at the moments of their inception. Those populations encounter, first, the detritus that Simon Gikandi has called modernity’s counterpoints (10–11). In this uneven process the European project proffers ideals and counterpoints depending upon individuals involved in the encounter. The intrusion of colonial forces into Achebe’s fictional worlds create uneven processes of disembedding and re-enchantment, secularization alongside sacralization, as well as new spaces of individual self-fashioning that may meet stiff opposition from collectives. The tussles between African legal systems and colonial law, in Achebe’s fiction, serve as a framing device for the ongoing changes in the constitution of social imaginaries since changes in law creates new moral orders and ways of apprehending dissatisfaction with the imagination of the col- lective. As Ruth Buchanan and Sundhya Pahuja explain, the law, as a “discursive and institutional” practice, is a crucial medium for imagining, constituting and legitimating communities (261). This is especially true of Achebe’s fictional worlds in which communities sustain the constitutive force of their societies through adherence to a highly articulated legal system vested in divine sovereignty. The sacralized law recognizes the sovereignty of the people at the same time that it allows the enslavement of others. Enslavement and resistance to slavery thus cohere in the same system of maintaining sovereignty according to an inner logic. The relationship of the slave to the law in Achebe’s fiction is best grasped through the concept of the “rights-in-person,” but this concept evokes some cor- relations with with Orlando Patterson’s formulation of the radical alienation of the slave that results in “social death” that needs to be clarified. The “rights-in- person” also needs to be differentiated from what Mbembe calls the status of the total domination and social death that characterizes plantation slavery, which, in turn, is indebted to Agamben’s elaboration of the homo sacer. Historians of slav- ery in Africa use the concept of “rights-in-commodity” or “rights-in-persons” to understand precisions of legal definition of ownership of life functions. These rights exercised by one person or group exercise over another may “cover not just



a person’s services but [also] his entire person” (Miers and Kopytoff 7). Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff use the term “transactions” as applied to formal “trans- fers of rights-in-persons” to capture a range of relations that include kinship and marriage. Although these transfers are quite complex and different, they all rest upon the transfer of rights towards or over a person and his or her descendants from one group to another within a slavery-to kinship-continuum. While variants of such concepts appear in most societies, its extraordinary levels of refinement in Africa suggest that categories as “property” or “salability” may not be useful in entirely extricating “slavery” from “kinship” in “African societies, in which rights in wives, children, and kin-group members are usually acquired through transactions involving material transfers and in which kin groups “own” and may dispose of their blood members in ways that Westerners concern appropriate to “property” (Miers and Kopytoff 11). Indeed, these rights and transactions are so intricately embedded within the “traditional” organization of societies that they comprehend phenomena for which many societies would not use “slavery” (12). Addressing slavery as practiced in Igboland up to the nineteenth century, Victor Uchendu identifies similar conventions under the rubric of the “commodity rights” purchased in a person. He defines slavery as a “continuum of status disabilities” that varied with the number of “commodity rights” purchased in a person (123). The crucial issue then is that “slavery” in African literatures cannot be fully appre- hended by paying attention to representations of “slaves” alone. Slavery, as Miers and Kopytoff stress, must be examined in the contexts of African institutions and practices and not simply in opposition to freedom. Slavery covers a variety of dimensions of social mobility that may occur in an individual’s lifetime or across generations of his or her descendants. Slaves may occupy positions of the harsh- est liminality, be intimate members of a kin-group, or even hold high office and exercise great influence. To represent slavery, in other words, is to situate it as it is experienced within its meaning sustaining world with all the nuances that attend to the legal precisions related to the social thickness of slave life. That thickness appears even in the eloquent “silence” on slavery in Achebe’s fiction.


The six references to “slavery” in Things Fall Apart delineate how its meanings depend upon the relationships between individuals or communities. These range from ties of kinship, to contractual labor relations, forced subordination and imprisonment, loss of sovereignty, and social exclusion. Achebe arranges the relationships between these terms through the fundamental juxtaposition of associations between Mbaino, Umuofia, Abame, and the conquering European power. While each community stands in a reflexive chain of subordination to the other, each is also firmly embedded in a life world that precludes an emphatic comprehension of the other’s subordination. Achebe epitomizes this modality of juxtaposed incompatible historical experiences central to his novel through the narrative of Abame; events of great import happen in a meaning-sustaining order that is destroyed and overwritten by another conquering order. Each subsequent narration occurs within a different legitimizing ethical system. As Robert M. Wren suggests, the narrative of Abame is the symbolization of a past event. Historically, the Abam warriors procured slaves in raids for the Aro slave traders (Ohadike 447).



Thus, while the relationship between the Abam and Abame is not explicit in Things Fall Apart, that inconclusive nature could be read as part of Achebe’s use of ironic allusions—the historical function of the Abam warriors is revisited explicitly in Arrow of God (15; 133; 160; 203). The historical antecedent for the Abame narrative was probably the murder of D. F. Stewart and the punitive Bende-Onitsha Expe- dition (Wren 15). The punitive expedition is part of a British colonial tradition of collective punishment against the Aro who were involved in slave trading. His- torians have, of course, pointed out that these punitive expeditions were much more about colonial conquest: abolition also functioned as legitimation of colonial conquest. The people of Umuofia, however, do not register the Abam as slave raiders but as refugees fleeing the destruction of their homeland. The historical past is resettled within a different ethical framework. This narrative of Abame underlines the crucial linkage between slavery and sovereignty in Achebe’s fiction. By dispossessing the Abam of their right to self- determination, colonial terror transposes the previous meanings of the Abam. Insofar as Abame circulates in Achebe’s fictional world as a form of “originary” encounter with the terror of European modernity, the effacement of its histori- cal connection to slavery creates a form of counterfactual interface, in which the meanings of slavery are always doubled, between a changing African world and the impending colonial modernity in Achebe’s fiction. In Things Fall Apart, the silence on Abame’s possible connection with slavery demonstrates ironically the way colonial violence upstages the violence of slave raids. Because the people of Abame arrive in Umuofia as refugees and become objects of empathy, their past deeds recede into a “suppressed” moral order. In fact, the empathy of Umuofia for the Abam underscores the fact that Umuofia, itself, is in all likelihood, a slave raid- ing terror to other communities. In No Longer at Ease, Achebe revisits the silence on slavery in Umuofia through a series of explicit analogies between the warlike natures of Abame and Umuofia (No Longer 8; 186). Indeed, the similarities between “warlike” peoples of Umuofia and Abame emerge specifically in the latter novel:

The people of Umuofia are “very proud of its past when it was the terror of their neighbors, before the white men came and leveled everybody down” (No Longer 5). But the narrative of Things Fall Apart already reveals the deep kinship relations between Abame and Umuofia:

“Abame has been wiped out,” said Obierika. “It is a strange and terrible story. If I had not seen the few survivors with my own eyes and heard their story with my

Most of them were sons of our land whose

own ears, I would not have believed.”

mothers had been buried with us. But there were some too who came because they had friends in our town, and others who could think of nowhere else open to escape. And so they fled into Umuofia with a woeful story.” .

“But I am greatly afraid. We have heard stories about white men who made the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, but no one thought the stories were true.” “There is no story that is not true,” said Uchendu. “The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others. We have albinos among us. Do you not think that they came to our clan by mistake, that they have strayed from their way to a land where everybody is like them?” (138–41; emphasis added)





Uchendu’s remark underlines Obierika’s indirect allusion to the deep-seated connection between Umuofia and Abame; Umuofia represents for Abame, what Mbanta represents for Okonkwo. In other words, Umuofia may only remember its own “imperialisms”—i.e., its slaving past—through indirect circumlocutory narration. The careful contextualization of the terror of domestic slavery in relation to the violence of colonial conquest expresses Achebe’s crucial point; as one system of subordination conjugates another, the ensuing alterations creates compet- ing moral orders in which events can only be understood and expressed with a teleological clarity by suppressing all contradictions. Slavery, however, was very much part of the historical events Achebe addresses. Wren affirms in his study of Achebe’s fiction that slavery was part of the moral justification for the “pacification” of Igboland although economic “activity may in fact have taken precedence over the war on slavery” (18). In 1902, the British subdued the Aro and destroyed the Long Juju Oracle (ibinokpabi) that functioned as a last court of appeal. But there were in fact continued punitive expeditions for the next fifteen years (Ohadike 448). Thus, if slavery does not appear explicitly in the novel, it is because it is embed- ded in the structure of a civil order—the system of social cohesion based on local codes of justice and morality anchored within shared mechanisms of political imagination. Elizabeth Isichie, in her volume on Igboland history, contextualizes how slave raiding contributed to a general degree of insecurity that became part of the social fabric (42–67; 75–110). She suggests that while the rise of the Atlantic slave trade distorted the already existing patterns of slavery and created insecu- rity and a militarization of everyday life, the effects of slavery had an apparent contradictory nature. In as much as the capture, export, or domestic enslavement of people created a general atmosphere of insecurity, there were corollary, “ben- eficial” transformations in economic life. The increase in slave raiding and its cessation were invariably deeply enmeshed in the new colonial crisis. In effect, the fates of Ikemefuna and Okonkwo demonstrate the fusion of poli- tics and religion through the sacrificial logic underpinning the novel. Both Mbaino and Umuofia “sacrifice” members of their communities for self-preservation and in recognition of a superior subjugating power. Taken together, the conjoining of political expediency and sacral-religious nature of sacrifice offers crucial insight into the life worlds of slavery in Achebe’s fiction. Once given away to allay the wrath of Umuofia, Ikemefuna essentially oscillates between the status of a com- munity slave and a son to Okonkwo until the oracle decrees his death. Achebe orchestrates a differentiation of the life worlds in which slavery is embedded through the repetition of slave in propinquity to other forms of social relations:

Sometimes when [Okonkwo] went to big village meetings or communal ances- tral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag. And, indeed, Ikemefuna called him father. (28; emphasis added)

The elders and grandees of the village sat on their own stools brought here by their young sons or slaves. Okonkwo was among them. (46; emphasis added)



And so [Mr. Brown] built a school and a little hospital in Umuofia. He went from family to family begging people to send their children to his school. But at first they only sent their slaves or sometimes their lazy children. (181; emphasis added)

All evocations demonstrate the interdigitation of slavery and kinship. The first two passages delineate Ikemefuna’s indeterminate status in relation to Okonkwo and the community. Whereas Okonkwo allows him to behave like a son, once Okonkwo is in company of other elders—in the second passage—it becomes unclear who considers Ikemefuna a son or a slave when they emerge into public life. The third passage again reveals another association between children and slaves in the village’s value regulating system. Here the emphasis on lazy sug- gests the value of progeny lies in their contribution to the family fortunes. Thus, sending lazy children and slaves to the white man’s school underscores their interchangeability. Of course, the enslaved do not experience their expendability or the contin- gency attending their lives with the community’s emotional distance. The narrator describes Ikemefuna’s experience of deracination and introduction into a state of suspension in detail. The description of Ikemefuna’s feelings is nothing less than the life world of an enslaved child inhabiting an undefined status—Okonkwo replicates similar feelings in exile, but he never quite grasps Ikemefuna’s senti- ments. The way Achebe plots Ikemefuna’s inability to comprehend the events leading to his uprooting and his painful acclimatization in Okonkwo’s household is contrasted to the indifference of the larger community that “seemed to forget all about him as soon as they had taken the decision” (28). Ikemefuna oscillates in an embryonic status between kinship and cult slave. As John Oriji explains, as one of the oldest forms of slavery in Igboland, cult slavery is very much imbricated with religious and political power. The meanings of slavery thus emerge in what Oriji calls the “sacerdotal realm” of political and religious power (122). While this com- bination of religious and political power is most pertinent to the fate of Ikemefuna, it is also pertinent to the larger fate of Umuofia in terms of the desacralization of its world through the destruction of its political sanctity. The fate of Ikemefuna can be understood as one instance of transfer of the “rights-in-person” as compensation for the homicide committed by a man from Mbaino. Such practices, as Miers and Kopytoff point out, were part of legal dis- pensation in some African communities (13). Following the transfer of rights-in- person, the transferred will remain in a status of marginality until the acquiring group determines what is to be done with him. That person may be handed over to a caregiver until such a time. Thus, the acquired becomes a kind of non-person in legal status. As James Vaughn explains with specific reference to the Margi, societies had detailed processes of incorporating their slaves into the desired form of integration. Vaughn describes this finely balanced contradictory mechanism of marginality and integration the “limbic institution” (100). This institution of formalized marginality helped maintain social boundaries that may otherwise be lost. The vacillating relationship between Okonkwo and Ikemefuna outlines the distinctions between the latter’s “marginality-in-kinship” and “marginality- to-society.” Although an acquired person will first be marginal within his host kin group as well as his host society, the marginality-in-kinship may change as the acquired is absorbed into a kin-group. His change in kinship marginality



may, however, not necessarily affect the marginality-to-society since this latter marginality served to consolidate and preserve a generalized social identity of “slave.” Miers and Kopytoff explain the movement of an acquired person moved through the limbic institution as a process of slave social mobility that included the dimensions of “formal [legal] status,” “informal affect,” and the dimension of “worldly achievement and success.” The differences in these forms of slave mobil- ity are crucial in Things Fall Apart: The “status mobility” of an acquired person delineates the process of “informal incorporation” into the receiving group. Such a person could, for example, become someone’s slave and come into a specific for- malized relationship with corresponding rights and privileges. This formalized relationship may change over time for the individual or his descendants with the recognition of additional rights and privileges—such as the prohibition of resale. In intergenerational terms, the individual’s descendants could be recognized as “free” and become fully-fledged members of the acquisitor clan. But the actual for- mal status of an acquired may not necessarily encapsulate his everyday situation. Hence, the categories of “affective mobility,” “affective marginality,” “affective incorporation” and “wordly success mobility” become necessary implements to assess the slave’s lived life in opposition to his legal standing:

[A slave’s] affective mobility leads to a reduction in his affective marginality and to his greater affective incorporation. This change is in the sphere of emotion and sentiment rather than formal and legal codes. It has to do with the esteem and affection in which he is held and the way he is treated. An acquired outsider, for example, may be warmly accepted by his acquisitor lineage and come to be held in high regard, yet his formal rights may remain entirely unchanged. He may, for example, still be legally liable to be resold [or even killed like Ikemefuna],

even though his masters would never consider doing

mobility means changes toward a better style of life, more political influence, and even more control over greater wealth, all which reduce the marginality of his everyday existence and indicate success in the business of things. Needless to say, this may occur with or without any change in either his formal status or his affective incorporation. (19–20)

His worldly success

In such a situation of great variance over the meanings and everyday manifesta- tions of slavery, writers could either pen ethnographic fiction that would explain all contextual differences or suppress ethnographic contextualization, as is the case in Things Fall Apart. Whereas the “enslavement” of Ikemefuna eludes Okonkwo, he comes close to grasping the loss of sovereignty as a form of enslavement through the repeated propinquity of slavery and Abame. The function of this proximity has its most striking effect on Okonkwo during his exile:

Kotma of the ash buttocks, He is fit to be a slave. The white man has no sense, He is fit to be a slave. (175)

This song appears in Obierika’s account, to the exiled Okonkwo, of events in Umuofia. There is an irony in that invocation of slavery. This song of derision



essentially constitutes the reaction of the men of Umuofia to their subjugation and undignified treatment by the British colonizers and their court messengers.

Thus, the irony of the song as the futile resort of the conquered strikes Okonkwo forcefully; the people may well consider the court messengers fit to be slaves, but from Okonkwo’s perspective the men of Umuofia are being treated as slaves. Hence, in a rare display of despondency, Okonkwo bows his head in sadness (175). Okonkwo’s despondency results from what he considers loss of sovereignty. As

if to reinforce this point, he immediately reflects upon the reasons for the new

weakness of Umuofia’s men and discards Obierika’s proffered lesson from the destruction of Abame:

“Have you not heard how the white man wiped out Abame?” asked Obierika. “I have heard,” said Okonkwo. “But I have also heard that Abame people were weak and foolish. Why did they not fight back? Had they no guns and machetes? We would be cowards to compare ourselves with the men of Abame. Their fathers had never dared stand up before our ancestors. We must fight these men and drive them from the land.” (175–76)

This is in effect the second mention of Abame in proximity to slavery in the novel. The first allusion occurs in the episode in which Obierika discusses the destruction of Abame (137–41). The manner in which this reference to slavery occurs in the context of what is essentially a cautionary tale highlights the function of caution- ary tales in Achebe’s fiction: they are for all intents and purposes reflexive narra-

tives that test or attest to a character’s level of consciousness or lack thereof. Events similar to those in Abame overcome Umuofia, but Umuofians heed the lesson and refrain from attacking the white man. The dialogue about slaves in the New World and the contingent nature of abominations circumscribes the instability of the locus of power and, as a consequence, the shifting patterns of signification on slavery. But the way this reference to transatlantic slavery is coupled to Obierika’s great fear evokes correlations with Ikemefuna’s own fear immediately after being introduced into Okonkwo’s household (28). Indirectly, then, the narrative raises

a subterranean exploration of the elusive conjugations between slavery, colonial-

ism, and sovereignty. Obierika’s fear foreshadows the manners in which the community will go through a symbolic process of conversion similar to Ikemefuna’s. The coupling of slavery and sovereignty in Things Fall Apart is, thus, part of a carefully wrought plan. Umuofia, as Gikandi suggests, has a clear pattern of zones of inclusion and exclusion that is suddenly subverted by colonization (48–49). Consequently, as much as the first five references to slavery touch upon the changing nature of political power and self-ownership, the last reference rightly concerns the emergence of new identities for cult slaves in the fold of Christianity. The conversation between Mr. Kiaga and new converts of Umuofia is not simply a tussle over the meanings of osu but a demonstration of the violence of translation:

These outcasts, or osu, seeing that the new religion welcomed twins and

such abominations thought that it was possible that they would also be received.

The whole church

raised a protest and was about to drive these people out, when Mr. Kiaga stopped them and began to explain.

And so one Sunday two of them went into the



“Before God,” he said, “there is no slave or free. We are all children of God and we must receive these our brothers.” “You do not understand,” the convert maintained. “You are our teacher, and you can teach us the things of the new faith. But this is the matter which we know.” And he told them what an osu was. (156)

In the free indirect discourse that follows the last sentence, an authorial voice explains the meanings of osu as living practice in a whole paragraph. Mr. Kiaga reduces all those nuances into the word slave. Whereas the osu and the domestic slaves gradually find new identities that allow new spaces of affirmation, the complex issue of lost narratives in the Ikemefuna episode, focalized through Ikemefuna’s own lack of an interpretative paradigm for events that befall him as well as the unrecorded narrative of the girl that accompanied him, underscores Achebe’s attention to the consequences of setting a stable normative center through which to focalize an African historical experience of which slavery is part. More important, the operations of the osu system as part of a legal dispensation are seemingly confined to a so-called traditional world while the deities to which the osu are dedicated are without their legal underpinning in the modern world. The paragraph of free indirect discourse explaining the worlding of the osu functions as a counterpoint to the district commissioner’s paragraph on Okonkwo. While the former expands a word into a paragraph, the other compresses a life into a paragraph. The inverse proportion of amplification versus simplification hints at the thresholds at which African conceptions become modified as they enter the colonial dispensation.



As much as no slave character gains voice in Things Fall Apart, any critique of this omission must be coupled with a question: Under which conditions does the voice of the slave or former slave enter circulation within any given social order? Achebe does not answer this question but demonstrates how the disembedding of the sacerdotal realm banishes certain surface realities such as ritual slave sacrifice and the necessity for the osu to maintain their unkempt hair. Christianity, and behind it the military force of the British, gives the osu the space in which to fashion new identities that remain in articulation with the discarded osu identities in the so- called traditional sphere. Put differently, the treatment of slavery in the novels elu- cidates Mahmood Mamdani’s notion of the theoretical bifurcated modern versus traditional Africa, developed in his Citizen and Subject. As Mamdani argues, the British colonial administration’s system of indirect rule implicated a bifurcation of political dispensations. There was on the one hand the native law and customs and, on the other hand, the colonial law and administration—which will later become the independent nation-state. The resulting bifurcation of legal dispensa- tions is omnipresent in Achebe’s fiction and must be understood as a set of con- flicting legal domains in which articulations of slavery have different meanings. Thus, in Achebe’s novels, African legal systems recognize the rights-in-person concept associated with slavery while the colonial and postcolonial state does not. Although this co-presence could be plotted in narrative and consequently read as



the spectral afterlives of slavery and colonial modernity in Africa, I read it as the threshold and sign of the interpenetrations of the bifurcated systems and their respective uptakes of African dispensations displaced into spaces of alterity. Cer- tain aspects of social life do not move easily across the threshold and it is at such moments of gridlock that the traditional demonstrates its effective hold through the sudden appearance of its individual uptakes. Especially since the extreme physical violations that index the rights-in-person just about disappears, slavery operates as a vestigial remain that Anthony Appiah has described as a stigma marking the hidden afterlives of African slaveries (254). Achebe demonstrates artfully the operative force of this vestigial remains by creating parallel—African and colonial—remains in Arrow of God and especially in No Longer at Ease. In a sense, the logic of sacrifice that inheres in Things Fall Apart runs through the latter novels; however, its sacral and undisputed nature in the former is already being corrupted in Arrow of God and in No Longer at Ease, it simply operates as unnamable force that nevertheless possesses effective materiality. Olakunle George extends Mamdani’s notion of a bifurcated Africa to reveal the pattern of never-ending translation in Arrow of God. He suggests key scenes dramatize “the complexities of conversion and translation, both understood as motions of historical becoming” (349). The conversation on slavery in the two novels subsists in this larger process of what George calls conversion. Of course, as demonstrated powerfully in the conversation on the osu between Mr. Kiaga and his converts, translation is never complete or successful but generates the surface meaning or the truth events needed by competing communities while relocating other competing meanings into the sphere. What George calls “tensions” and “epiphanies” are thus markers of the thresholds of uptake. As he points out, the bifurcation of the African nation-state into dual epistemic orders creates an educated elite and teeming millions incorporated into state structures through tribal identity. This bifurcation is also fluid since the elite also participate within the traditional or switch codes in the continuum between the traditional and the modern—learning English, French, or Portuguese does not mean Africans forget African languages or the various creoles that structure living linguistic practice. Rather, this bifurcation hardens and dissolves according to the law—or the con- stituting powers—of the object in translation. In fact, the ascendancy of one over the other, tradition over the modern, creates the epiphanies in question. This concept of a tussle over thresholds of impossible translation appears in Arrow of God—and even more so in No Longer at Ease—as the juxtapositions of slavery and the logic of sacrifice. At the end of Things Fall Apart, the African world has lost jurisprudence over political power, leaving only the religious power of the sacerdotal realm. Arrow of God charts the erosion of that religious power and No Longer at Ease charts how the sacerdotal operates within the remains of kinship rules. Hence, in Arrow of God, the recurrent intimations of slavery appear in rela- tion to the transformations—or translations—of sacrifice, the necessary legitimi- zation of such transformations, as well as its explicit reference to the private sphere of kinship as the realm that confers the powers of transformation. This reflexive iteration of sacrifice gains its constituting (and indeed constitutional) power in the narrative from what can be described as the “originary” human sacrifice at the formation of the community in a now mythical past:



In the very distant past, when lizards were still few and far between, the six villages—Umuachala, Umunneora, Umuagu, Umuezeani, Umuogwugwu and Umuisiuzo—lived as different peoples, and each worshipped its own deity. The hired soldiers of Abam used to strike in the dead of the night, set fire to the houses and carry men, women and children into slavery. Things got so bad for the six villages that their leaders came together to save themselves. They hired a strong team of medicine-men to install a common deity for them. This deity which the fathers of the six villages made was called Ulu. Half of the medicine was buried at a place which became the Nkwo market and the other half was thrown into the stream which became Mili Ulu. The six villages then took the name of Umuaro, and the priest of Ulu became their Chief Priest. From that day they were never again beaten by an enemy. (Arrow 14–15; emphasis added)

Slavery thus gains its salience through its unspoken association with subservience and its opposition to sovereignty. The villagers essentially found a new commu- nity grounded in a fear of enslavement by the Abam. Ulu, then, becomes a form of ikenga—the life-constituting force of the community and its link to ancestors— that protects against the Abam. Readers may remember that the great medicine created by Umuaro consisted, in part, of a human being from the community. As Ezeulu explains, times of emergence may need urgent measures such as human sacrifice (133). While it may be absent as a force in public life, slavery operates as the occulted counterpoint to sovereignty and self-ownership. In other words, the opposition to slavery operates as the foundational logic of the community’s politi- cal system. The infractions against a person’s ownership of the self are thus not simply rare, but their appearances also crystallize the unspoken law of Umuaro. It is against this fundamental narrative of community creation that all references to slavery and sovereignty gain meaning. A number of distinctive features about the references to slavery bear men- tion. Unlike in Things Fall Apart, where slaves are members of the community, slavery appears as a relic in Arrow of God or is simply silenced. Hence, it appears in proverbs and warnings that refer to the terror of an ancient time anterior to the constitution of the community (15; 26; 27; 108; 160). The single reference to the practice of enslavement in Umuaro refers to the abolishment of the institution by the father of the present Chief Priest (133). The constant reiteration of the absence of slaves also emerges in a reference to its manifestation in the public. The two passages reveal the differences between slavery in Umuofia and in Umuaro. The first passage from Arrow of God “revisits” a similar passage in Things Fall Apart:

The meeting [of elders and ndichie] began as fowls went to roost and continued into the night. Had it been a day meeting children who had brought their father’s stools would have been playing on the outskirts of the market place, waiting for the end of the meeting to carry the stools home again. But no father took his child to a night meeting. Those who lived near the market place carried their stools themselves; the others carried goatskins rolled up under the arm. (Arrow 141–42; emphasis added)

In view of the repeated association between stools, slaves and children in Things Fall Apart (46), the elaborate attention to the children and stools at the political meeting in Umuaro hints at the possible presence of slaves in that community. But



if slavery does not operate visibly in Umuaro, the foundational logic that is consti- tuted through the human sacrifice against slavery surfaces repeatedly as a series of allusions to the connections between the contingency of self-ownership and the contingency of sovereignty. Hence, the numerous references to slavery emerge in contexts in which the power or limits of self-ownership need to be determined. Invariably, such contexts are intrinsically linked to sacrifice which functions as the ultimate means of assuring self-ownership or life (157–58). In his reading of Arrow of God, Mark Mathuray details elaborately the world- constituting function of the repetitions of sacrifice in Achebe’s reflexive novel. Turning to Emile Benveniste’s use of the ambiguous character of homo sacer as both “polluted” and “divine,” he reveals that the figure—embodied in the person of Ezeulu—is essential to what Gikandi describes in the context of Umuofia as the “zones of exclusion and inclusion” crucial to social order. In Arrow of God, the polarities of exclusion and inclusion are invested in the sacred person of Ezeulu who functions as mythical hero and sacrificial victim. The sacred is thus not only intimately connected to divine power for citizens of Umuaro, but it is also the symbol of sovereignty. Read thus, the political tussle between Nwaka and Ezeulu symbolize contrapuntal mappings of the impending reconstitution of the sacerdo- tal realm. Both the European administration and Umuaro are asserting forms of rights-in-person over Ezeulu. This point emerges, for example, in the opposition between Ezeulu’s reference to his possible death as human sacrifice at the burial of Winterbottom and the command by the leaders of Umuaro that he “eat” “death” (167; 208). Nwaka, the priest of Idemili, sums up the issue as a constitutional battle to ensure the separation of political and religious power:

“We have no quarrel with Ulu. He is still our protector, even though we no longer fear Abam warriors at night. But I will not see with these eyes of mine his priest making himself lord over us. My father told me many things, but he did not tell me that Ezeulu was king in Umuaro.” (Arrow 27)

Nwaka in essence explains the necessity for change; the demise of the threat of slave-raiders augurs a new world in which Ulu is of less use. Ezeulu apprehends the possibility that Ulu might be abandoned much clearer in his dream (160). Since this essentially takes place at the end of the narrative, the new world augured by the decline of Ezeulu and the relegation of Ulu is the conversion to the sacrifice of Christ (230). Yet the conversion to Christian sacrifice doubles as a veiled inter- face between Umuaro and the European world. On one hand, it hints at the new disjuncture between the colonial law and the sacred that promises a disenchant- ment of modernity. On the other hand, that impending modernity appears in counterpoint to earlier forms of contact between Europe and Africa through the “self-styling” of Africans converted into new beings in the novel: Moses Unach- ukwu and John Nwokida (47; 169–70). If Moses plots his encounter with Europeans in Onitsha as a sojourn in Egypt, what is evoked is the context of Jewish enslave- ment in and deliverance from Egypt. Beyond the blatant biblical allusion in John’s name, his narrative testifies to the benefits of European commerce. Submerged between these two narratives of trade, Christianity, and deliverance from slavery is the suppressed history embodied by the conspicuously silent West Indian mis- sionary, Blackett, who impresses Oduche—the son Ezeulu sacrifices to the white



man—because it “was said that this black man had more knowledge than white men” (46). Ultimately, then, the originary flight from slave-raids and Umuaro’s human sacrifice to ward off enslavement finds their counterpoint in the missing narrative of the West Indian missionary. The horror that occurs between the Afri- can flight from slave raids and the diasporic return from Atlantic slavery appears as the enchantment that refuses complete domestication. Achebe’s portrayal of the “counterfactual”—as supposed to simply contrapuntal—relations to slavery do not simply mark the heteronomous nature of memories of slavery. It also indicates the different temporalities and discrete uptakes of slavery across the diaspora.


Perhaps more than anything else, No Longer at Ease addresses the fractured temporalities of colonial modernity and the seemingly counterfactual parallel worlds they engender. Slavery, symbolized by the mistranslated osu institution, marks the insurmountable obstacle between the traditional and the modern—in fact, the eradication of the stigma becomes the measuring plank for the progress towards civilization (86). Obi Okonkwo bears an inverted similarity to Blakett; he is a returnee from an encounter with Europe; his journey is plotted as a journey to the spirit world (58–59). However, the returnee now encounters the suppressed past as an archaic relic. As readers know, No Longer at Ease revolves around two seemingly unrelated narratives in which Obi Okonkwo participates. In the first narrative, he arrives from Great Britain as a graduate with a promising career in the civil service but is arrested and sentenced for accepting bribes. In the second, and almost tangential narrative, Obi decides to marry Clara, an osu, and seems particularly determined once he has the first of many opponents to his objective (82). These two strands come together, as Gikandi suggests, in terms of Obi’s search for the proper moral codes he needs to function in a Nigeria he does not under- stand (Reading Achebe 85–87). Obi Okonkwo, like his grandfather, functions within imaginaries other than that of the worlds around him. In effect, Gikandi’s reading of the novel returns us to the question of moral order I invoked at the beginning of this essay. The Nigeria Achebe describes in this novel is an inchoate process from which his characters are alienated. In many respects, Obi shares with his grandfa- ther, Okonkwo, the inability to grasp the transformations of social imaginaries or the multiplicity of moral orders in which he is placed. Thus, like his grandfather he orchestrates his own ruin. But while Obi’s insistence could be read as Obi’s inabil- ity to switch codes as his fellow Nigerians seem to do, my emphasis on slavery leads me to read the resonances and repetitions between Things Fall Apart and No Longer Ease around the mutually conjugating issues of slavery, sacrifice, kinship and sovereignty as part of a deliberate meditation on slavery. As Don Ohadike explains, the osu had a particular status in an elaborately articulated system of unfree persons. They were persons dedicated to a deity, who could neither be killed nor sold but had freedom of movement. They could not associate with or marry the freeborn, and despite their apparent freedom they were thought to be socially inferior to chattel slaves because they could never aspire to “the status of a freeborn” (438–39). In as much as the osu are not slaves, the only way Achebe can demonstrate their specific status is by demonstrating how the institution survives—as a vestige of the sacerdotal realm within kinship—well



beyond the abolition of slavery. Thus, the significance of the juxtaposition of the narratives of the bribe and the osu is that the former finds an uptake—in the sense of the law capturing and transforming Obi’s life—while the other disappears in the narrative, although the life of an unborn child is destroyed. In other words, the law of the colonial state codifies and operates upon a moral order distinct from the vestigial moral order in which tradition operates. The particular relationship of the abortion as a death in a reflexive chain of iterations emerges in the way the trial in all but name within the family inflects a crucial scene between Okonkwo’s son and grandson, Obi and Nwoye, with sacrifice:

“When they brought me word that he had hanged himself I told them that those

who live by the sword must perish by the

spoke the white man’s messenger whom my father had killed. He did not know I spoke about Ikemefuna, with whom I grew up in my mother’s hut until the day came when my father killed him with his own hands.” Obi knew the sad story of Ikemefuna who was given to Umuofia by her neighbors in appeasement. Obi’s father and Ikemefuna became inseparable. But one day the Oracle of the Hills and Caves decreed that the boy should be killed. Obi’s grandfather loved the boy. But when the moment came it was his matchet that cut him down. (157–58)

Mr. Braddeley thought I

There are several uptakes in these passages and the contrast between them underlines the function of repetition as a device of extrapolation. In the first para- graph, as Nwoye and Mr. Braddeley place themselves in different moral orders through their affiliation with different victims, they demonstrate their affective relationships to violent events. Achebe emphasizes the private nature of Nwoye’s grief through the rehearsal of Obi’s received memory of the event; Nwoye’s pain never becomes as palpable to his son who receives the narrative second-hand. As much as Nwoye recounts his pain at Ikemefuna’s death in order to underline the stress of his conversion to Christianity, he now uses his suffering during conversion to underline his adher- ence to an element of Igbo tradition that causes Obi great pain. The latter cannot marry Clara, the mother of his unborn child, because she is osu:

“We are Christians, [Nwoye] said. “But that is no reason to marry an osu.” “The Bible says that in Christ there are no bond or free.” “My son,” said Okonkwo, “I understand what you say. But this thing is deeper than you think.” “What is this thing? Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an inno- cent man osu, a thing given to idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, and his children, and his children’s children forever. But have we not seen the light of the Gospel?” Obi used the very words that his father might have used in talking to his heathen kinsmen. (151)

These are not just words that the father might have used; the conversation rehearses almost verbatim the conversation on the same subject in Things Fall Apart. However, the realm of kinship now harbors a material power that even Obi perceives in a “heathen” song offered by a woman “who had been married into the village after he had gone to England”:


He that has a brother must hold him to his heart, For a kinsman cannot be bought in the market, Neither is a brother bought with money (146–47)


In terms of narrative action, this song immediately precedes the conversation in which Nwoye forbids the desecration of the kinship through marriage. The larger irony Obi might have recognized, or not, is that phrase “had been married” indicates a forceful nature alluding to the common consideration that a woman who marries away from her into a village or clan where she has no kin was being enslaved. 6 These torturous reflexive maneuvers stress the inverted relationship between osu and Ikemefuna’s captivity as part of a complex system of exclusions translated into English as “slavery.” In an inverted sense, whereas Ikemefuna undergoes affective mobility but retains his marginality-in-society, Igbo society maintains an affective distance from Clara although she cannot be marginalized within the nation-state. The violence of slavery resides, thus, in a stigma of which the uptake is an effective death sentence for the unborn. Yet the gesture towards the virtual on which the Achebe’s conversation on slavery ends signals the importance of beginning evaluations of the afterlives of slavery from within what my selected epigraphs elucidate as their entangle- ments within local cultural-historical settings. Invariably, constantly emerging narratives of slavery’s multiple manifestations and legacies respond to located forms of animus. Thus, Achebe’s attention to the actual social acceptance and legitimization of a form of what we now call slavery is instructive for learning how the institution was transformed and subsided into a seemingly imperceptible social stratum. Among other things, what Achebe teaches us is that with historical practices, we may best begin by paying attention to their affective and powerful vestigial remains. In order words, Obierika’s reflection about the veracity of sto- ries about slaves taken over the seas should not be read as a silence on transatlantic slavery. Rather, it is part of the reflexive play of differance in the text. On one level, Obierika—and perhaps, in extension, Achebe—does not presume to be able to tell that story for them. On the other, and much more significant, level: since Obierika lives in an oral culture, that reflection is a meta-fictional nod to the larger world of stories—such as the slave and neo-slave narratives—with which Things Fall Apart is in articulation. Most important, the feared loss of sovereignty apparent in Obierika’s sudden awareness of the slaves “taken away” underlines how the impending formal colonization functions as the bridgehead for Africans into Euro- pean modernity. This revelation of slavery in practice in the fiction of Achebe is not a silence on slavery. It promotes an examination of slavery as it was embedded within a now altered moral order. Obierika’s reference to the slaves taken away is the only instance when any citizen of Umuofia utters the word slave—all other ref- erences, except for Mr. Kiaga’s, simply occur in narrative. As such, it is Obierika’s implicit recognition of injustice of the sanctioned practice within Umuofia’s moral order. The slave is seen, shown, felt, but we are never given an unproblematic voice to reclaim and press into service in our own moral order. Achebe points to the necessity to consider imaginaries as materially affective entities and to locate how vestigial afterlives of historical practices, such as slavery, are now legitimized or occulted within our unfolding present. It is, perhaps, in recognition of Achebe’s



achievement that a host of Nigerian writers writing in the wake of the return to democratic rule in 1999 invariably make allusions to Achebe’s fictional worlds as they investigate the new values of human life and labor within the twenty-first- century cultures of commerce, law, and governance called globalization. 7


1. A version of this paper was presented at the African Literatures Association

2009 conference in Burlington, VT. I would like to thank Ato Quayson, Nandini Dhar, Eldon V. Birthwright, Sandra Richards and Anthonia Kalu for their comments. I thank also Germain Hamel and Trina Ojo for listening to my endless ruminations on the grammars of slavery. I am grateful to Adeleke Adeeko for his patience and his encour-

agement as I worked through the issues in Achebe’s attention to slavery. This paper is dedicated to the memory of my father, Matthew Adeyemi Osinubi.

2. For this type of analysis, see Ogundele; Opoku-Agyemang; and Borgomano.

These essays are quite different in their analysis of the “silence” on slavery and I have somewhat simplified the nuances of the authors for a lack of space. Besides, these essays need to be placed in a sustained dialogue with alternative conceptualizations of memories of slavery in work produced by Modupe Olaogun, Christopher Miller, Anne Bailey, Bayo Holsey, Achille Mbembe and writers in the collection of essays in

the edited volume Africa and Trans-Atlantic Memories of Slavery. I attend to these larger contexts in my book project.

3. For one such argument, see especially chapters three and four of Lamin Saneh’s

Abolitionists Abroad. For an alternative view, compare Christopher Leslie Brown’s critical assessment of the contradictory hopes of formerly enslaved Africans and Europeans in chapter five, “Africa, Africans, and the Idea of Abolition,” in his Moral Capital: Founda-

tions of British Abolitionism. For treatments of returnees in fiction, see Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments or Syl Cheney Coker’s The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar. Of course, other novelists use an inverse trope of the returnee that was captured but did not make the Atlantic crossing. In these novels, such as Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Yaw Boateng’s The Return, and Obi Akwani’s March of Ages, the returnees are dedicated to forging “African modernities” with new forms of kinship.

4. I will not be treating the novels in the order in which they were published, but

in the order of the historical periods they cover.

5. Freadman’s fashioning of “uptake” deserves a much more elaborate engage-

ment than I am able to offer in this paper. It is a reading of J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words alongside Judith Butler’s theorization of the politics of performative

speech in Excitable Speech. What I try to suggest in this paper is that the contexts of anti- imperial agitations in which Achebe wrote necessitated a particular mode of writing that paid attention to African slavery at the same time it needed to avoid legitimizing colonial conquest. Freadman’s use of the speech act in connection to an execution that most people considered unfair is useful for considering how the human being is pro- duced as a slave and the whole process is regarded as legitimate in any society. What is important here is that it is the very people who consider the law as working for them that “turn against” the same law. It is only through this deviation that we perceive an otherwise normalized valuation of human life. I attend to the nuances of Freadman’s essay and its connections to the formation of social imaginaries, in which the values of the human are embedded, in a forthcoming account of the new uptakes of slavery in Nigerian fiction after 1999.

6. Anthonia Kalu in conversation.

7. For a discussion of ways in which slavery is “remembered” in contemporary

Nigerian fiction, see my “Gridlock and Political Signification in African Post-Slavery Narratives” paper presented at MLA 2009.




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