Farewell, My Brother1
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 19, 2014
In the African view, it is the community which defines the person as person not some isolated static quality of rationality, will, or memory.
Ifeanyi Menkiti, "Person and Community
in African Traditional Thought."
I met Ifeanyi Menkiti more than forty years ago when I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1976 to teach at Harvard University. We did not meet at a conference or in any academic setting. To the best of my ability, I recall that we met around Harvard Square. I say around Harvard Square because in a funny way, I remembered that our shared interest revolved around another brother, Azinna Nwafor, an assistant professor in Harvard's Afro-American Studies, who had written an introduction to George Padmore's Pan-Africanism or Communism but whose contract had been terminated just when I arrived at the university. That, in itself was no shame. In those years, no junior professor proceeded through the ranks to rise to full professor at Harvard. A junior professorship lasted five years, after which a person's contract was terminated. Eventually, If he or she turned out to be outstanding, he or she was then invited back to join the senior ranks of the Harvard faculty. I know that for a fact. My assistant professorship at Harvard was terminated after five years in 1981. I was not called back.
You ask me why I bring up this incident. I bring it up because, as I remember it, Nwafor was a member of Ifeanyi's ethnic group. Both of them sailed from Nigeria to the United States together on the same ship to acquire a higher education in this country. Nwafor did his undergraduate work at Harvard (he received a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan). Menkiti did his undergraduate work at Pomona College in California and did his doctoral work at Harvard working under the guidance of John Rawls, author of the influential Theory of Justice. Menkiti would say that he experienced one of his proudest moments when he received "the F. S. Jennings Distinguished Senior Thesis Award from Pomona College in 1964 for his work on the poetry of Ezra Pound."2 He would return to the writing of poetry in later years.
But back to Nwafor. After Nwafor's contract was terminated at Harvard, he simply refused to leave the area. He would walk around the Square all day, hoping, I suspect, that Harvard would call him back rather than try to seek an appointment elsewhere. That always bothered Menkiti and me. We could not fathom why such a smart brother—his introduction to Padmore's work, "The Revolutionary as Historian" was brilliant—could not leave the illusory grandeur that was associated with Harvard, go elsewhere, and realize the unbounded promise that we believed he possessed.
For Mankiti, though, it all went back to home, what one calls home, and what happens to the concept of home once we have left that place to stretch our wings outward to other worlds. This is particularly true when we leave a society characterized by close-knit social relationships such as Africa and venture into the modern metropolis (as in the asphalt jungle) of the West. Then in 1979 out of nowhere—well, it was not really out of nowhere—Menkiti published a very controversial article, "Person and Community in African Traditional Thought" in Richard A. Wright, African Philosophy: An Introduction (not the same Richard Wright who wrote the foreword to Padmore's Pan-Africanism or Communism) in which he sought to counterpoise the "lone individual" of Western thought against what can be called the "communal subject" of African thought. As he puts it in his essay, "As far as Africans are concerned, the reality of the communal world takes precedence over the reality of individual life histories, whatever this may be. And this primacy is meant to apply not only ontologically, but also in regard to epistemic accessibility. It is in rootedness in an ongoing human community that the individual comes to see himself as man."3 It might have been that Nwafor had lost the rootedness that his original community had provided and he felt alone—the rational individual—adrift in an alien world that cared little for community. Perhaps it was Nwafor's aloneness that alerted Menkiti to a problem that so many of us felt who came to the West in those early days.
Whatever its impetus, Menkiti's essay fitted right into an emerging discipline called African philosophy—an attempt to repossess and rediscover the African consciousness—following in the wake of texts such as Placide Tempels' Bantu Philosophy (1954) (many philosophers have traced the beginning of modern African philosophy to this text); Alexis Kagame's Bantu-Rwandaise Philosophy (1956) that influenced Kagame to write his book; Janheinz Jahn, Muntu: African Culture and the Western World (1958) which relied heavily on Kagame's work; William Abraham, The Mind of Africa (1962); and John Mbiti's African Religions and Philosophy (1969). In the preface to the second edition of African Philosophy, Wright wrote that Professor Menkiti's essay was "an important addition to the original text, since it broadens our base of understanding and brings an additional dimension to our studies [of African philosophy]."4
Needless to say, Menkiti incorporated the ideas of many of these scholars into his work. He was particularly indebted to Mbiti's African Religions and Philosophy. He also drew on the thoughts of Tempels and Abraham. Since he promised to draw on the language "familiar to modern philosophy," he had no problem using the works of his mentor, Rawls, and the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Although he saw similarities in Sartre's conception of the person with that of the African notion of personhood, in the end he could not accept Sartre's notion of freedom or "being free." Thus, he notes:
Whereas in the African understanding human community plays a crucial role in the individual's acquisition of full person-hood, in the Sartrean existentialist view, the individual alone defines the self, or person, he is to become. Such collectivist insistence as we find in the African world-view are utterly lacking in the Existentialist tradition. And this difference in the two approaches is not accidental. Rather it arises because there is at bottom a fundamental disagreement as to what reality is all about.5
This was the Menkiti I knew when I left Harvard in 1981. During that period I saw little or heard nothing from Menkiti. Five years later I was appointed to the Black Studies Department—it was Black Studies then—of Wellesley College and here our paths came together again. As is his nature, Menkiti welcomed me cordially and our journey at this institution started. I had an interest in literature and Menkiti as I have mentioned is a philosopher. In 1988, drawing on our mutual interest Professor Menkiti prevailed upon the late Annemarie Shimony, professor of Anthropology and the founder of the Peace Studies Program at Wellesley College, and me to invite Chinua Achebe to give a lecture here. Professor Shimony had done field work in Nigeria where she had met Achebe who was Menkiti's kinsman. This event went well and started a long collaboration between Menkiti and me and our confronting many institutional and personal issues together, some controversial, some not, during our long careers here at Wellesley.
Although I had worked with Professor Menkiti for many years and knew of his work in philosophy, I was not aware of the eminent place he held in African philosophy until I met Professor Kwasi Wiredu, another distinguished professor in African philosophy who I had invited to participate in the National Association for the Empowerment of African People Vacation School in Trinidad in 2002. It happened in the following way. From 1996 to 2012 I conducted a Vacation School in Trinidad to which I invited distinguished scholars such as Abiola Irele, formerly of Harvard University but now the provost at Kwara State University in Nigeria; Biodun Jeyifo of Harvard; Jonathan Culler and the late Martin Bernal, both of Cornell University; Kenneth Winkler, formerly of Wellesley but now at Yale and our own Joanne Berger Sweeny, formerly of Wellesley but now the president of Trinity College.
In the summer of 2002 I had conducted a seminar on African philosophy in which Professors Wiredu [REEDO] and Irele participated. They are two of Africa's finest philosophical minds. In Trinidad, I asked Professor Wiredu [REEDO] about Professor Menkiti's work to which he gave the highest praises and talked about his seminal essay on African personhood. Not being in the field, I did not know the significance of Professor Wiredu's commendation of Menkiti's eminence until I read his introduction to African Philosophy in 2004. Taking into consideration Professor Kwame Gyekye's trenchant criticism of Professor Menkiti's work,6 Professor Wiredu noted:
In contemporary African philosophy the locus classicus of the normative conception of a person is Ifeanyi Menkiti's "Person and Community in African Traditional Thought." My views regarding the normative conception of a persona are in substantial agreement with Menkiti's. Criticisms of the normative concept of a person as expounded by Menkiti were offered by Gyekye [JECHI]. Later, Gyekye returns to the subject, agreeing in principle with the normative conception, but disputing certain aspects of Menkiti's elaboration of the idea.7
Just in case you have forgotten what the Latin term locus classicus means, it defines a passage or a work that is considered to be the best known or most authoritative on a particular subject. And, just to respond to his critics, Professor Menkiti elaborated upon his position "On the Normative Conception of a Person" in Wiredu's definitive encyclopedia entitled A Companion to African Philosophy.
In the years that followed the publication of his seminal essay, Professor Menkiti turned to poetry, publishing four collections of his own poetry: Affirmations (1971), The Jubilation of Falling Bodies (1978), Of Altair, the Bright Light (2005), and Before a Common Soil (2007). In these volumes he not only expressed the wisdom of his years, but we could say that his poetry was just another vehicle for expressing his philosophical thoughts. Henry Odera Oruka has mapped out various trends in African philosophy, one of which is called Literary/Artistic Philosophy that reflects philosophical issues in works such as novels and poetry. Could it be that the poetical works of Professor Menkiti fall into this new category of African philosophy?
I leave you to ponder that thought. However, I wish to end with a personal reflection on Menkiti. Menkiti, it seems to me, is a natural mediator. No matter how controversial the topic was, no matter how heated an issue became, no matter how deep the personal animosities, Menkiti was there to bring calm to the situation and to pour balm on a troubled wound. I have never heard Menkiti say an unkind word about anyone in all the years that I have known him. No matter how angry we got or what side we were on, he kept his cool and could talk with all on each side of a conflict. Menkiti has always been a mentor to all of us.
And so the time has come for him to move from one field of endeavor to another. Quite frankly, I don't know what he is going to do with the rest of his life. Whatever it is, we can be sure that whatever he does will be in the interest of peace, security and ecumenism. And so I say, Go along my brother; may you fare well in all of your future undertakings and, as you have said in your own inimitable words:
Let this be your understanding,
You sons and daughters of the ancient stars
That your home reaches beyond
The earth which is your home.
May you go forth across the land
And with the movement of flutes
Celebrate the blessings
Which the gods have given you...
And I have called out to you,
Children of an undivided earth,
That you join your hands together
And be of one accord before a common soil-
Lest the rivers cease to water the land,
Lest the voices of the singers be forever stilled.
If this isn't wisdom; if this isn't philosophy, then my dear people, I do not know what philosophy is and do not really care to find out. I only know that when I hear these words, I think of Langston Hughes's "I have Known Rivers" or Amie Cesaire's Return to My Native Land. Brothers, we are, before a common soil. Or, perhaps I can encapsulate this thought by using a bit of Ubuntu philosophy, in a proverb that Menkiti uses so effectively in his essay on the African person, that reads: "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am." It is that common African heritage that we commemorate when we celebrate Professor Menkiti's achievements.
Professor Menkiti represents the best of each of us within a person. At moments when I am angry and the world seems a bit too much I wish I possess Menkit's equanimity. It is one of his qualities I would always remember. He has served us faithfully and well for 41 years and for this we hold him in eternal gratitude and wish him well in his future endeavors.
Some comments on the retirement of Ifeanyi Menkiti after 41 years of teaching at Wellesley College. ↩
"Rawls in Africa: A Conference in Honor of Professor Ifeanyi Menkiti," May 10, 2014. ↩
Richard A. Wright, ed., African Philosophy: An Introduction, second edition (Washington D.C.: University Press of America, 1979), 157-58. ↩
Ibid., 165. ↩
See Kwame Gyekye, "Person and Community in African Thought." In P. H. Coetzee and A. P. J Roux, eds. (London: Routledge, 1998). ↩
Kwasi Wiredu, ed., A Companion to African Philosophy (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004),17 ↩
Professor Cudjoe's email is firstname.lastname@example.org and tweet @ProfessorCudjoe.