I must admit that I am guilty of having read and taught only one Achebe novel, Things Fall Apart, and only one essay, his response to Conrad: “Is Heart of Darkness Racist?” (The answer in that essay and in several essays throughout this collection is an unequivocal yes.)
In this collection, Achebe gets at several central issues – What is the perception of Africa? Does it matter that African writers write in English? What is the reason and meaning behind the phrase African-American? And he does so in a light, gentle almost teasing manner. That he can stare these concepts in the face without apparent rage is remarkable. He saves his most savage mockery for Conrad and perhaps casts too much of an uncritical eye on Equiano.
The most powerful pieces – “Spelling Our Proper Name,” “Teaching Things Fall Apart,” and “Africa is People” – are simple and clear reminders of things we should no longer need to be told.
What I will take away from this collection comes (for the second time) at the end – the difference between the Eurocentric emphasis on the individual and the Bantu declaration, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” – A human is human because of other humans. We would all do well to remember that.
(Does anyone have a second Achebe novel to recommend?)