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Achebe|Baldwin @ 40: Interrogate and Commemorate Africa|America

On October 22-23, 2020, students, faculty, guest speakers and audience members from around the world gathered to celebrate and interrogate the 40th anniversary of the first and only meeting of renowned African writer Chinua Achebe and African American literary giant and civil rights activist James Baldwin’s in 1980 at the University of Florida.

This two-day event was organized by the Center for African Studies in partnership with African American Studies Program, Center for Humanities and the Public Sphere, and Departments of English, History and Political Science in CLAS and the Center for Arts, Migration and Entrepreneurship (CAME) in College of the Arts with support from College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, UF Office of Research, UF International Center, UF Libraries, and UF Chief Diversity Officer.

The fully online program brought together literary scholars, historians and creative writers and performers to examine the intersection of African and African American experience through the lens of Achebe and Baldwin, two critically important 20th-century artists and intellectuals. Extending beyond the academy, presenters included Alachua County Poet Laureate, E. Stanley Richardson, and Gainesville-based author and community organizer Terry Bailey. CAME maker-in-residence, founder of the Lagos-based Q Dance Center (link), Qudus Onikeku, premiered a new creative work on Achebe, ‘An Image of Africa.’

While looking to the past, the event was deeply engaged with the present. In 1980 when Achebe and Baldwin offered their keynote at the 1980 African Literature Association meeting at UF, they were met by racist invective. As Achebe writes in the piece “The Day I Finally Met Baldwin”:

“Halfway into our conversation a mystery voice on the public address system began to insult Mister Baldwin. The geniality vanished. Stalwarts in the audience rushed to guard the exits. For a fraction of a second, Baldwin seemed nervous. Baldwin quickly recovered his composure, stood erect and defiant and replied to the intruder, “Whoever you are, it no longer matters what you think. The doctrine of white supremacy on which the Western world is based has had its hour — has had its day! It’s over!”

Screened on the opening day of the conference, recordings of the event in the film “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” (Fontaine&Hartley 1982) on Baldwin’s involvement in the civil rights movement, provided an opportunity to examine the resurgence of anti-Black violence in the present. Bringing these concerns to bear, English PhD Candidate Cristovao Nwachukwu moderated a graduate student forum addressing ‘The Future of Blackness at UF” with Yewande Addie, Mustapha Mohommed, Romy Rajan, and LaToya Scott, who launched the roundtable with her spoken word performance, “The fire this time.”

Produced by Alachua County-based Duo Studio with the assistance of CAS program coordinators Alani Ilori and Elisabeth Rios-Brooks and graduate researcher Mosunmola Adeojo, the entire two-day program along with a “Living Archive” containing a time-line and teaching material can be found on the Center for African Studies website and is available on the CAS YouTube Channel.

— Brenda Chalfin, Director, Center for African Studies