What impels a young man to leave his home, his family, and his country to study in a foreign land? And why, given the option of taking the more prestigious path of study at Cambridge would that same young man choose to decline that opportunity to study in the United States? I have been asking myself these questions about my late colleague, friend and scholar, Professor Boniface I. Obichere, and it is the unraveling of this conundrum that provides the purpose of my essay.
Through his teaching, his writing, and his community involvement, Boniface Obichere was a notable bridge-builder, an important cultural translator among diaspora Africans and between Africans and Americans of African descent. His approach was Africa-centered, though not rigidly Afrocentric; as a son of the soil, he had no need to imagine, invent, or rediscover Africa. A wonderful, often autobiographical, raconteur, I don’t believe he would have emphasized his singularity – though like all of us he was certainly unique – but, were he here to instruct us, he would have taken care to place his experience in the historical context of Africans who have traveled abroad to study and, more broadly, in that of the African diaspora. In will examine Boniface Obichere in a wider context as a way of appreciating his individuality and imagining his journey.
I began my quest by re-examining the accounts of the two most prominent West African political leaders who studied in the United States, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah, for clues about the circumstances that in an earlier period brought each to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. When I mentioned this strategy to Professor Joseph Holloway, one of Boniface’s most distinguished former students, he said, “Oh, Zik and Nkrumah were Professor Obichere’s heroes!” Finding myself on the right track, I have since that moment expanded my research to try to reconstruct a key moment and process in Professor Obichere’s life about which he has not himself written. While we do not possess the evidence to determine what he was thinking, I think we can legitimately imagine both how he came to make this decision and what he must have felt as he embarked on what would prove to be a life-altering decision and experience.
Here are the bare facts as recounted to me by Mrs. Armer Obichere, and set forth in Professor Obichere’s own curriculum vitae: Boniface was inspired by the example of Zik, the popular nickname of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the most prominent Igbo public spokesperson and nationalist politician of his day and a generation older than he. As he made his way through the Roman Catholic educational system in eastern Nigeria, he spent, in his own words, “many years as a primary school pupil teacher.” When he finally completed his secondary education at Mount St. Mary’s Teacher Training College at Azareagbelu, in Owerri, he received a Nigerian Federal Government Scholarship to study abroad. Accepted at Cambridge, he declined this opportunity in favor of studying in America. He was accepted as an advanced standing student at Harvard, but because he was unable to settle his affairs and travel in time for the beginning of the Fall 1959 semester at Harvard, the very moment when I entered Harvard as a freshman, he instead accepted an offer to attend the University of Minnesota (now identified as the Twin Cities campus), where he earned his B.A. with Honors in 1961. Following an additional year at Minnesota, he spent 1962-1964 in the Ph.D. program in European History at UC Berkeley, where he was a Teaching Assistant and where he met his future wife. In that same year he earned his M.A. in History from Minnesota. At that point, having gained a Beit Senior Research Scholarship in Commonwealth History, he decided to leave the United States to study at Linacre College, Oxford, where he earned his D.Phil. in 1967 under the supervision of John Gallagher. That Fall he returned to the United States to take up a teaching appointment at UCLA, which remained his academic home until his untimely death. The rest, as they say, is history.
Not long after he came to UCLA, Professor Obichere drew upon some of his early educational experiences in a talk on the state of African historiography he presented at a conference in 1968. His comments reveal some insight, I think, into why he was eager to study in an educational system that was not dominated by British imperial perspectives and personalities.
I remember sitting in the examination hall in Owerri (Biafra) and the Education Officer, a rotund Englishman, showed us very clearly the envelope in which our examination questions were sent from England with the seal of the University Senate in London. The regulations were that these examinations had to be opened at a specified time so that they would start at the same time all over. This was to ensure that people would not cable back and forth the questions from Nigeria to Britain. The Officer said, ‘Here are your examinations,’ undid the seal of the Senate, and the[n] zip – we started off. It was just as simple as that, because I could have landed on the steps of London University and discussed those questions with the same degree of depth and ability as any honors student in England – because the questions were the same, the people who were going to mark and grade them were the same, living in the suburbs of Essex and Sussex or what have you. So, under these circumstances it would be too much to expect African universities to branch out into the investigation of African history, because only ‘European History,’ ‘English History,’ and ‘The History of the British Empire’ were on the syllabus (p. 4).
My reading of this passage suggests that, although everyone who worked with him knew his insistence upon high standards, the fact remains that these were standards imposed on Africa from the outside by a system that represented the imperial power that had colonized much of Africa. The lack of interpretive options was clearly a problem for him in the English system as he understood it at that time. This impression is reinforced by an earlier anecdote in this same talk:
When I was living in the then eastern Nigeria, now Biafra, I was in an English-style boarding school preparing for a London University examination, and of course one of my subjects was the History of the British Empire – and that included North America. In a textbook for this particular examination, which was a set of lectures written up in London at the time, it was very interesting to note that John Hancock was described, and I quote, as ‘the greatest smuggler in Boston.’ When I came to the United States a few years later, I was told as a student in a state university, if I wanted an honors degree in history, which I was in the process of getting, I had to do American history. So, I registered for American history for a whole year, and in that particular class I was taught that John Hancock was a very great patriot, and, of course, that his name appears first on the Declaration of Independence. This is a simple fact, but it affected me profoundly later on in my college career, especially when I went back to Oxford. In this example, you see the difference in thinking, the difference in attitude, the difference in prejudices and so on and so forth (p. 1).
You may think that I am reading too much into these remarks, but let us listen once more to Professor Obichere’s recollection of his youthful experience. As he chipped away in this talk at the narrow intellectual range of options that he perceived to be available to him in the system in which he was being educated, he specifically lauded Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s advocacy of “mental emancipation” as being necessary for the reinterpretation of African history. Later, he characteristically illustrated this process by telling a story about himself that makes the distinction between genetic inheritance – what we socially define as race – and culture:
About a week ago I was out until two a.m. listening to Leroi Jones [Amiri Baraka] and his theatre group perform. But when I was green from Biafra where did I go? The Minneapolis Symphony, because I was taught in the boarding school that this was the ultimate in music. I went to the Guthrie Theatre and watched Chekhov’s Three Sisters and some Shakespeare. But today I can go to a black theatre and enjoy it.
These several extended insights from Professor Obichere suggest to me that, even if he was not so clear in his own mind about these issues before he left Nigeria for the United States, he probably was feeling a kind of intellectual constraint that was impelling him towards a different kind of educational system and experience from that with which he was familiar. And it is here that the prior experience of other, notable West Africans undoubtedly influenced his decision.