Playwright, novelist, poet, and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka spoke about arts and culture in Africa as the inaugural guest for the Distinguished Lecture in African Studies.
The first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1986, Soyinka spoke before an audience of more than 150 people filling a Penn Museum auditorium and many more online in the streamed, hybrid event on March 22.
Interim President Wendell Pritchett said the study of Africa “is fundamentally important to understanding the world we live in and the planet we hope to nurture and protect” and “is relevant to every facet of contemporary life.
“This inaugural Distinguished Lecture in African Studies sets our course at Penn for greater attention and deeper integration of Africa, its peoples, cultures, climate, and contributions in our own outlook and understanding,” Pritchett said.
Camille Z. Charles, professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education, said in an introduction that the annual lecture will highlight “the most important voices and scholarship in African studies today” and that she could think of “no greater voice, no greater presence” than Soyinka as the inaugural guest.
From Nigeria, Soyinka has authored more than 40 works, including plays, novels, poetry, essays, and memoirs and is the recipient of numerous national and international honors. His latest novel, “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,” was published in September. He is an emeritus professor at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria; has taught at several universities in the United States and England; and has received several academic fellowships.
Now 87, he lectures internationally and continues to play an active role with artistic, academic, and human rights organizations. During the lecture, he described his views on the complex history of the World Black and African Festival of the Arts and Culture (FESTAC), the next to be held May 23-29 in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Previous festivals were held in 1966, 1977, and 2010.
He said history has defined Africa, which resulted in Africa reconfiguring its geography.
“History has defined us, the Black race, as a people from whom emerged a unique entity, the diaspora of the enslaved, distinct from other occupants of the continent, indeed of the globe, or indeed from other peoples also who have undergone the experience of slavery,” he said. “It’s a consolidated existential reality that deserves its global recognition.”
Soyinka proposed a “Grand Voyage of Return,” along with the Festival, an annual symbolic “sea voyage of the diaspora back to the continent,” to create “a floating space of learning” in a “therapeutic exercise” to retrace slave routes into Africa. The travelers would set off from the Mediterranean to cruise along the West African coast, stopping in ports that played a role in African enslavement, ending in Lagos, Nigeria, or perhaps might continue around the Cape to Zanzibar, the site of the Festival.
“Don’t try to evade history. Confront it,” he said. “Don’t try to eliminate race. Co-opt it.”
Soyinka addressed the question of repatriation of cultural objects in a Q&A discussion with Wale Adebanwi, professor of Africana studies. “What are the arts? The arts are the material expression of the people’s essence, of their spirituality of their dignity,” Soyinka said, suggesting that museums around the world “return the spirituality to Africa by returning all the looted works.”
Soyinka said he disagrees with those who consider the history of Africa begins with colonization by European nations. And he made a distinction between encounters and domination. “Encounters are very important for any society,” he said. “Culture is not static.” But domination, he said, is destructive. He said he continually asks himself, “What is human?” as he considers injustices past and present, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When asked about the fact that he writes and speaks in English, he said his first task is to communicate. “We didn’t ask for this imposition of this language” by the British in Nigeria, he said. “But if you want to communicate effectively it has to be a common language. But you can also take the instrument that belongs to your enemy and turn it against your enemy.”
Soyinka said that personally he does not “resent” the English language. “I think I’ve used it effectively,” he said.
The last question was from a young person, who said they were from Ghana and who asked about becoming a successful writer. “Get ready to receive your rejection slips,” Soyinka said, pausing for the laughter from the audience. “But don’t be discouraged. Just write.”
The Distinguished Lecture in African Studies was co-sponsored by Perry World House, the Department of English, the Program in Comparative Literature and the Penn Museum.
Wale Adebanwi is the Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
Camille Zubrinsky Charles is the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences and professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Wendell Pritchett is the interim president of the University of Pennsylvania and the James S. Riepe Presidential Professor of Law and Education at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.