Apr 04, 2013 - Issue 511

BlackCommentator.com: Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: Free the Ignorant from Tyranny - Represent Our Resistance By Dr. Lenore J. Daniels, PhD - BC Editorial Board

How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart. 

- Okonkwo, protagonist, Things Fall Apart

He was writing a book, the newest District Commissioner of the village, Umoufia, Reverend Mr. James Smith, who succeeded the now deceased Mr. Brown in the great project to establish civilization in Africa.

Brown’s death could not have been more timely, considering civilization project could not wait forever. Brown’s method was one of “compromising and accommodating” the ignorant. He had studied the religion of the Umoufia clan (Ibo) and concluded it was best not to wage a “frontal attack” as the messenger before him had done, going so far as to informing the natives that their traditional gods were “false gods, gods of wood and stone.”

All the gods you have named are not gods at all. They are gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children. There is only one true God and He has the earth, the sky, you and me and all of us.

They are gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children.

Brown’s method of operation was different: he “built a school and a little hospital in Umoufia. He went from family to family begging people to send their children to his school.”

Brown was a humble man, a liberal of sorts.

The villagers came around to his method; they wanted to learn. They came to the church and to the school, but there was some rumbling and even more rumbling among the elders when, to their surprise, “new churches were established in the surrounding villages and a few schools with them.” The messengers of the new god appeared “in the market place,” and the Native Court was surrounded by “strangers” who spoke the District Commissioner’s “tongue.” Now there was the law to be obeyed.

It was peculiar to the elders and others to discover that the head of the church “is in England” where a queen sits, their queen now, and her messenger is the District Commissioner. England, the queen, the District Commissioner’s administration - all have great things to offer the village, if the villages, all of the villagers, including the elders and the priestess, cooperate and assist in the necessary changes that must take place.

“From the very beginning,” Brown concluded, “religion and education went hand in hand.”

Life in Umoufia followed traditions. There was the sacrifice of an “innocent” child as settlement after conflict with a neighboring clan. The elders set the terms, but the younger men who had to carry out the sacrifice did so not without trepidation. It was a hierarchical society that rewarded the brave and fearless warrior, but only a few acted without reflecting on the value to the clan of their deeds.

Traditional ceremonies placed men in authority. “There were many women, but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders,” but the village’s Oracle was Agbala (a woman) and its priestess, Chialo, was the “only living being who ever beheld Agbala.” It was Chialo, too, who, when the “strangers” came, waged her own battle against them, calling the converts to the new god and church “the excrement of the clan.” But now Chialo was denounced and women were to be seen but never heard. The District Commissioner’s administration acknowledged the power of a supreme male god and men to decide the fate of the civilization project in Umoufia.

Individual self-reflection and communal discussions had left room for evolution.

Young adults, as most young adults in any community, questioned the wisdom and lessons of their parents and elders. Most were generally torn between the stories told to them by their mothers, stories of “the tortoise and his wily ways, and of the bird eneke-nti-oba who challenged the whole world to a wrestling contest and was finally thrown by the cat,” and stories told to them by fathers and village elders. “Masculine and violent” stories. Even if a young man preferred the stories of his mother, he was reminded that such stories “were for foolish women and children.” Now, most young, particularly young men, did not hesitate. Many flocked to the new churches and schools.

For a man like Rev. Smith, however, all this confusion and chaos was too volatile. Still too many of the ignorant natives were thinking, opting out of cooperating. Uniformity, and quick! The world was black and white – “and black was evil!”

It was a “battlefield” and “the children were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.” In his sermons, Rev. Smith “spoke...about sheep and goats and about wheat and tares. He believed in slaying the prophets of Baal.” For all Brown’s efforts, Smith saw an ignorant village, ignorant of “the Trinity and the sacraments.” There was work to be done, and Rev. Smith, “filled with wrath,” set out to display “demonstrations of power. In one dramatic moment, he ordered the unmasking of “an eqwuqwu” in public! Naturally, this scene of power horrified the villagers.

Under Smith, the men of the District Commissioner’s administration “did not carry guns,” for such a display was “too unseemly,” and when he spoke to the village leaders of a “just” court “where we judge cases and administer justice...under a great queen,” he made the leaders understand that this “peaceful administration” is a gift to make them “happy.” But the leaders had to agree to “cooperate.”

Many decided to cooperate; others refused. Among them was the protagonist, Okonkwo, who with a small group of men, decided to take action, to pick up arms and fight. But as always, there was discussion:

If we hit the “strangers,” we will “hit our brothers and perhaps shed the blood of a clansman.”

In the end, the group decided action was necessary.

“Our fathers never dreamed of such a thing. They never killed their brothers. But a white man never came to them.”

While the men were discussing, a messenger arrived and ordered them to stop the meeting. Okonkwo “drew his machete.”

Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umoufia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messenger escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he do it?’ 

He wiped his machete on the sand and went away.

When Okonkwo was last seen, his body was dangling from a tree. He hanged himself.

So ends Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, except for this:

“In the book which he planned to write,” District Commissioner Rev. Smith reminded himself not to include the “undignified details” such as “cutting a hanged man from the tree.” He would not want the “natives” to hold a “poor” opinion of him. He realized that everyday, he was gathering more and more material for his book, and he was happy.


the story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate.

There were more important matters to include in the book. “One must be firm in cutting out details.” And “after much after thought,” he was proud of the title of his book: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

On March 22, 2013, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe died.

It is no accident that Achebe’ s Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, ends with the beginning of a new book, written not by a village member, but by the District Commissioner, privileging the interests and goals of Western imperialism. His narrative offers a history of the Umoufia that will imprint in the minds of white readers images of an ignorant people freed from their own tyranny. The interests and goals of the “messengers,” themselves agents of the Almighty - and the queen, legitimizes the use of violence, physical, yes, and that violence of Western religion and education which stipulates submission to and the consumption of a white-centered mindset.

It has been over 10 years since I taught Things Fall Apart. It had become one of those continuous texts in college classrooms because students preferred to focus on the sacrifice of the young boy as an example of violence - African violence. In the meantime, the violence of conquest, civilizing the ignorant, forcefully removing historical and cultural memory and privileging the history, culture, goals, and lives of the invaders, is what had to happen, yes. Did not the Africans benefit from “our” knowledge of the world?

How do professors, white and Black, teach a text like Things Fall Apart? I should re-phrase the question, on which parts of the book do whites focus? The sacrifice, the violence, or the “fringe” “outsider” position of “African” women? From what perspective are Black professors allowed to teach when and if this book is on their syllabus? Would these teachers direct students to consider the U.S.’s messengers who ran covert operations in Latin America and supported murderous, undemocratic regimes or consider those most recent U.S. messengers, who heard the calling of a divine voice, telling them to invade Iraq? What about our current president who continues the drone targeting of communities where innocent children reside or who reviews “kill lists” because U.S. interests and goals supersede the interests and goals of the people and anyone who dares to resist?

Another question I have is this: could Achebe have located a publisher for Things Fall Apart today when the on-going conquest of hearts and minds continues? Today, capitalism’s messengers (not all are death squad trainers, torturers, CIA agents, drone operators but are even more effect) scourer the world in search of those Black, Red, Brown, and Yellow writers in “former” colonies, “former” enslaved “former” genocide survivors in the West, with the “by the grace of god” story to tell of childhood in a slum city or surviving sexual abuse - familial sexual abuse. Marketable stories. Successful stories. White- and imperialist-centered stories and films approved by those in control of the economy that causally teach what we can imagine Rev. Smith’s book taught his readers.

In 1958, Things Fall Apart challenged books and films like the one Rev. Smith was writing by revealing and strongly condemning the violence of the West. Few writers of color today would dare follow Achebe’s example.

After all, the civilization project is still about making people happy! Ask Goebbels.

Many thanks to you, Achebe!

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Click here to contact Dr. Daniels.