Tuesday January 5 2016, scholars, academics, family and friends of the renowned Harvard professor, literary critic, scholar and newspaper columnist, Professor Biodun Jeyifo, popularly called BJ gathered at the historic Arts Theatre of the University of Ibadan, UI, to honour and celebrate the icon who turned 70.
The occasion was a public lecture organized by two literary icons: Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi and Professor Femi Osofisan. A professor of English, Dan Izevbaye, delivered a lecture titled “The Critic’s Calling,” under the chairmanship of the legendary Prof J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, with Nobel laureate Prof Wole Soyinka and Chairman, Kakanfo Inn and Confeerence Centre, Ibadan, Dr Lekan Are, as Special Guests of Honour.
Others in attendance were: the UI Vice Chancellor, Professor Abel Idowu Olayinka who led the principal officers of the institution including, Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic and Administration, Professor Gbemisola Oke and Professor Emilolorun Ayelari and other lecturers of the institution including former Dean of Faculty of Arts, Professor Remi Raji-Oyelade, Professor Ayotunde Ogunsiji, Professor Lekan Oyeleye, Professor Ayo Kehinde, Professor Nelson Fashina, Professor Ademola Da-Sylva, Dr. Yinka Egbokhare.
Others were: Professor Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie from University of Port-Harcourt, River State, Professor Ayo Banjo, Professor Ayo Bamgbose, Professor Dotun Ogundeji, Professor Dele Layiwola, Professor Segun Ojewuyi, Professor Folabo Ajayi-Soyinka, Professor Duro Oni of UNILAG, Professor Tunde Osobi, Professor Adebayo Williams, Professor Olu Obafemi, Professor Ropo Sekoni of The Nation and his wife, Banke, Dr.Femi Folorunsho, Dr. Femi Dunmade from University of Ilorin, UNILORIN, Mr. Kunle Ajibade of The News Magazine and his wife, Bunmi, Sam Omatseye, Chairman of Editorial Board, Nation Newspaper, Mr. Tunde Fagbele, a Punch Newspaper Columnist, and Dr. Wunmi Raji from Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, Vice Chancellor, Kwara State University. Professor Abdul Rasheed NA’Allah.
Professor Clark went down memory lane, talking about his productive years as a student in UI as a student, working career and his meeting with Jeyifo.
In the first leg of his lecture, Izevbaye showered encomiums on the celebrant who he described as an outstanding lecturer, intellectual scholars, revolutionist, and committed socialist adding, “It is surprising BJ is 70 and he still stands on his feet. For an activist at that age to still be on his feet is surprising.”
He eulogized the celebrant for breaking through the wall of the ivory tower built around the university teachers to prevent them from relating with the commoners, reiterating, “BJ is a teacher who is committed to the lower class. He believes in his theory. He does not live the life of the bourgeoisie but choses to identify with the people of lower class. He could have been on more convenient subject but he chose the travelling theatre dealing with literature and criticism.”
Delving into the lecture proper, having disclosed that the four obligations of critics are to the text, author, reader and traditional scholarship, he pointed out that textual critics are basically concerned with text which is a modeling of reality or shows what reality should be or not.
He explained that it is difficult for the critics or anyone to know the intention of the author and the relationship between the text and the author adding that while the author is a creator and maker, meaning inferred from a text could be different from one reader to the other. “Literature has more than one meaning and the different meanings infer from texts may be right. Text is opened to generations that infer different meanings. Text survives authors and critics. Creative writers are saddled with the creation of the shape of the world”, he stated.
Wondering what critics should be preoccupied with at this material time, he noted that social change is the most important thing happening in Africa and it is taking the form of modernization which is imposed on the continent. “Agents of modernization are mainly two: education, religion and trade on one hand and war on the other hand. Formal education is introduced by the West and its idea is not neutral. It has connection with colonial society and age. One of the problems of education is that of identity taking place. Education doesn’t allow us to find our identity as Africa”, he said.
He identified these agents to include enforcers like warrant chiefs in the Arrow of God and the Interpreters who were trained abroad but got back to Africa to fail their society adding, “But the interpreters are still around. They are the teachers, critics, engineers and others. The question is what kind of contribution to social change are they making? What contributions are interpreters making to Africa? I spent the last 10 years teaching undergraduates, most from middle class homes. If I go to teach in the class, usually, I will be the only one wearing our native dress while the students will wear English dresses. These are the future leaders. The conclusion is that there is a problem of identity from the younger generation. Where does it come from? For instance, how will a child whose parents don’t speak their language to make it in the world. ‘Black is beautiful’ is dead. Here the critics have work to do”.
Izevbaye emphatically stressing the need for change for the African continent and identified two challenges that needed to be taken care of, which are problems of social justice and identity. He said, “If the current generation doesn’t grow up the way we want, what do we expect in terms of justice? Under this situation, we will not be able to get social justice. We have the problem of identity with the younger generation. It has nothing to do with the fact that they are not culturally rooted but, the fact that they are seduced by European idea of history. European history, of all peoples doesn’t allow for difference and we are different. Our history has been one of (apart from the one in oral culture) enslavement, colonialism and exploitation. Whereas, the history of the west has been that of enlightenment, exploration, conquest and exploitation of other places and people. So we are different. Now, they set up this history such that only two civilizations are recognized: the West and the East, specifically the Middle East. So when wars get fought like Boko Haram, it tends to be West versus East. Where is Africa in it? This is the point about identity. Therefore, the intellectuals, especially the critics should learn to be bilingual in both European language and local language.”
In his brief remark, Olayinka noted that it is a privilege to clock 70 in Nigeria as life expectancy is around 50. He expressed his delight that Jeyifo, Ogundipe-Leslie and Izevaye who were first class graduates are in the academics as against what occurs nowadays whereby First Class graduates and the likes would be working in MTN and other multinational companies.
Ogundipe-Leslie, Osofisan and Clark in their remarks noted that the celebration of the life of Jeyifo is worth it as Clark ordered the audience to render the song, “Happy birthday to you” to the celebrant.
Lekan Are lamented the gradual fading out of Nigerian languages and culture saying, “By the time we are gone, your languages will be gone. If our language and culture die, we are finished. Japanese don’t speak anybody’s language and that is why they have been able to preserve their culture. We should focus more on our language and culture. Teach your children your language and culture. I am appealing to our writers to encourage people to maintain their culture. For a very long time, I have not been wearing foreign dresses and I will not wear them.”
Are also used the occasion to dispel the wide believe that pyrate confraternity established by Soyinka is a secret cult.
Agreeing with Are, Soyinka said, “About the pyrate, sea dog, anybody who still believes that pyrates are cultists, should go and have his or her head examined by a genuine cult.” He later presented the celebrant with three gifts items: two exotic drinks including Braga, a Russian local brew, and a portrait of late Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
Reacting, the celebrant who said that he was so touched and humbled by all the show of love said that for the first time in his life, he became superstitious explaining, “For about a month ago, for the first time in my life, I became superstitious. I have not travelled for the past one month telling myself that I will not travel until I make it to 70.”
He stated further, “The demand for a better life for our people is urgent and we must not simplify what it takes. Change will come to our country, lives will be better, poverty will reduce and we will truly have a united federal nation only if we pay attention to its complexity.”
Guests later retired to a reception hall in UI where J. Solanke treated them to many of his old tunes and the songs of Soyinka, to which they were familiar.
According to Harvard University Gazette, Jeyifo is an authority on African drama who is widely viewed as the world’s leading interpreter of works by Nigerian writer and playwright Wole Soyinka. He has been appointed professor of African and African-American studies in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, effective July 1.
Jeyifo joined Harvard from Cornell University, where he has been a professor of English since 1988. Editor of the authoritative anthology “Modern African Drama” (Norton Critical Editions, 2002), Jeyifo’s work has long framed scholarship in African drama and theatre. His 1984 study of the Yoruba Popular Traveling Theatre is viewed by many as seminal in the study of African drama. He is currently working on an ambitious history of Anglophone African dramatic literature.
Jeyifo’s early essays single-handedly shaped critical discourse on dramatic works by Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature and a fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Jeyifo’s three subsequent books extending the scope of these essays have established him as a top interpreter of Soyinka. His most recent book, “Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, Post colonialism” (Cambridge University Press, 2004), weighing Soyinka’s vast and complex body of work, is arguably the most sophisticated analysis of any single author in African literature.
Jeyifo has also turned his attention to Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, writing a series of essays in the early 1990s that placed Achebe’s work, including “Things Fall Apart,” in an ideological and theoretical perspective not previously considered by other critics.
Jeyifo received a B.A. in English from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1970, followed by an M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University in 1973 and 1975, respectively. Before joining Cornell in 1988, he taught at Queens College in New York from 1974 to 1975, Ibadan from 1975 to 1977, the University of Ife in Nigeria from 1977 to 1986, and Oberlin College from 1987 to 1988. He has also served as a visiting fellow or professor at Harvard, from 1998 to 2000, as well as at Indiana University and the University of Bayreuth in Germany.
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