Reading Achebe’s “All Things Fall Apart” under Trump

“And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown earth color of the vast hungry swarm.”[1] Chinua Achebe

“Anger is loaded with information and energy.”[2] Audre Lorde

There is a flower found in Hawaii, the Ohia Lehua, a beautiful red blossom significant to Hawaiian spirituality. While this flower is beautiful in its form and color, there is something far more ferocious about it; it can grow, thrive and spread out of the depths of hardened volcanic ash.

I was raised by the Ocean. An Ocean so old and powerful it seemed to know all of our secrets, our wars, our betrayals, our conquests, our un-mourned tragedies. Sri Lanka is an island of exceptional beauty. My father used to call it the original Eden, made with waterfalls, beaches and medicinal herbs. You could live here forever and be nourished for always. That’s why we were so prized by the colonizers. They wanted our soil, our weather and our wise and ultimately loving people. My soul always struggled so deeply with these stories. I found peace by the Ocean. I knew my island to be deeply spiritually important; the ground felt Old in ways I knew outsiders didn’t understand. This place was Old. And yet something had been tainted, like poison we had never fully cured. My father called our people wise and loving, while I could see that, I often experienced them to be violent and stupid. Almost possessed by gins they had forgotten how to appease, like they had ancestors they had forgotten to honor.

Okonkwo: The Living Flame

Let me say from the beginning that I felt a deep sense of abhorrence and simultaneous affectionate familiarity toward Okonkwo. I could see how the wounds inflicted upon his soul were fuel for his violence, and yet I had no time for him. Not this week.

We journey with Okonkwo throughout these pages, witnessing an intensifying flame as the chapter’s progress. Personally, I struggled with his hyper masculine sense of self-worth and affirmation; it was particularly difficult to accommodate this week, even within the confines of these pages. No matter the dishonoring legacy left to him by his father, the poverty he was lead into or his low status, I could not sit comfortably or accept his misogynistic rage; cultural or not. Achebe is careful to construct this deep sense of embedded and pervasive masculine fury within Okonkwo.

For Okonkwo, his pride and masculinity are not simply an aftermath of his upbringing, but the very reason and fuel for his tenacity to build his status and wealth. His anger is not something he is ashamed of, but something he fosters and claims as a characteristic of a powerful man. “Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness…It (his fear) was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.[3]” For Okonkwo his father failed him because he was too effeminate to provide for his family. Femininity is frequently viewed and described with disgust and blame.

His hyper masculinity is not merely a characteristic; it is a lesson. While it makes him brave it is blinding, for he can only recognize threats to his masculinity that appear in hyper masculine forms; other warriors, violence etc. He only sees men who are men like him.

Okonkwo navigates his life in varying levels of anger. It feeds and fosters all of his mannerisms and relationships. I felt his anger violently through his journey in his pages, as someone that had closed the door to any other emotion, for nothing was as masculine as his rage. However, as Audre Lorde taught us “anger is loaded with information and energy”[4]. As Okonkwo deals with his rage and disappointment at his son Nwoye for converting, he contemplates wiping the entire church out. While he mistakenly mocks the white men for being effeminate and powerless, he is haunted by a wise yet treacherous possibility; “suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors? Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. He saw himself and his father’s crowing around their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man’s god.[5]

The Locusts

The missionaries arrive, seemingly gentle, seemingly committed simply to their god. These colonizers entered slowly like the curious locusts on that first harvest with their well-meaning bibles, missionaries, teachers and songs. They were permitted to enter because they claimed to simply want land for their church[6]. They were not recognized as a threat, they were seen as less masculine, as uninformed as lunatic outsiders.

But the locusts kept swarming. Once the church was built and the first conversions began, the white people kept coming. They built trade centers, schools, jails and other buildings. Would the clans have recognized the magnitude of this threat had they entered with their soldiers instead of their priests? Would they have recognized the poison if it had appeared in the form of bullets instead of evangelical hymns?

On occasion these converts and missionaries overstepped their welcome, calling the gods of the clan dead and impotent, and that they were prepared to burn their shrines[7]. Even here the impending threat of Christianity is only viewed as lunacy, but nothing that would ultimately cause defeat.

They allow the locusts to fester, until it is too late and there are too many who are too comfortable.

“One of the greatest crimes a man could commit was to unmask an egwagwu in public… and this is exactly what Enoch did”[8]. It is finally Enoch, who was always at risk of enraging the tribe, that commits an unspeakable crime. Enoch’s complete disregard to the sanctity of the local religion permits him to unmask and kill an ancestral spirit.

Even when the tribe brings themselves to stand up to the colonizers who have committed such intense violation, they are thrown off by the calm collected nature of Mr. Smith, even as he protects Enoch.

A toad jumps in the daylight because something is after its life.

After the warriors of the clan are jailed, and the village is fined for the mere act of protecting itself and demanding justice for its fallen ancestral spirit, it is clear that the missionaries mean harm to their very way of life. “Our fathers never dreamed of such a thing, they never killed their brothers. But a white man never came to them. So we must do what our fathers would never have done. Eneke the bird was asked why he was always on the wing, and he reply: men have learned to shoot without missing their mark and I have learned to fly without perching on a twig. We must root out this evil, and if our brothers take the side of evil we must root them out too. WE must do it now. We must bale this water now that it is only ankle deep.[9]

In its final chapters Achebe tells us it is too late. Clans from near and far gathered to finally organize against the evil that has taken root in their land. Okonkuwo, has lost sleep all night. Validated in his anger, but unable to contain it. He kills a court messenger with one swift swoop. When the white men come to arrest him, he has already taken his life.

Are we too late?

I have woken up throughout the last week in pain, rage and a deep sense of fear. Unable to stomach the impending violence and the tenacity for denial among well-meaning liberals. Why didn’t we see the locusts coming?

The enraged white supremacist locusts have existed in our world for a long time. They have come in droves before, and devoured the earth. Why then did we underestimate their power in flocks?

Unlike Okonkuwo, our ancestors have seen the violations on our spirits and lives set forth by our colonizers. My island never recovered fully from that poison. It made our people committed to masculinity and ownership, rather than balance and respect. It made masculinity custom and blinding to other forms of terror.

In the U.S. that poison has had a similar impact. Is it possible that we could did not recognize the viciousness of the impending danger, because it first came in the form of well-meaning bibles and hymns, again? Did our communal hyper-masculinity train us to only recognize dangers that appear in the form of overt acts of violence and terror, and not the slow gradual swarm of democratic republic?

And now suddenly I am Okonkwo.

For in my lack of sleep, in the depths of my misery at knowing that we have allowed something to occur whose poison will outlive us, nothing will be the same. My anger is full of information and energy, and it is telling me that while the water is ankle deep, we must make all attempts to uproot this evil. I don’t have hope. I don’t expect things to be okay. I feel unchangeably violated. And I am no longer afraid to name that.

I am an embodiment of that surviving poison. The missionaries, the violent colonizers, the leaders of the locals, the murdered activists, the countless women who reminded my people that we were not this misogynist before the white men, the Holy people who reminded us that our island is Old and full of spirit, the stupid ignorant Christians who demonized the Old spirits of our land; they all run through my veins. That poison is permanent for me. And like Okonkuwo, I don’t think I am afraid of its destruction. I struggle with our peculiar senses of anger and patience, masculinity and femininity, destruction and evolution. As if they cannot happen simultaneously. As if the magnitude of the phallic, hate spewing violence of Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Stephen Bannon did not come from the well-meaning politeness of hymn singing, Bible bearing Christians.

In Hawaii the spiritually significant flower, the Ohia Lehua grows and thrives out of the depths of hardened volcanic ash. Amongst total fiery destruction, beauty is able to grow and foster.

[1] Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1992. p.55

[2] Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984. p.127

[3] Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1992. p.13

[4] Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984. p.127

[5] Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1992. p.152

[6] Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1992. p.154

[7] Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1992. p.154

[8] Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1992. p.186

[9] Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1992. p.203