In the late 1970s, the University of the West Indies, Mona, was not only a space of discussion of Marxism and social revolution; it was also a space of discussion of Africa—the African presence in the Caribbean, of course, but also African politics and culture. This was, after all, the era of African liberation movements. So, not surprisingly, for me and fellow undergraduates, reading African literature was part of what it meant to assume a progressive Black identity. In particular we read the authors published in the available Heinemann African Writers Series, launched in 1962 with Chinua Achebe as editorial advisor. Naturally, we read Achebe’s own acclaimed novels, Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), and Arrow of God (1964). We also read the hugely influential Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), and the profoundly significant Petals of Blood (1977). To us, Ngũgĩ was a friend of the Caribbean. And when, years later, he published the long essay Decolonizing the Mind (1986), we found in his analysis of language and tradition a searching indictment of our own postcolonial malaise. But most relevant to me at the moment, sitting and writing this, as I am, in the African Regent Hotel, Accra, is that we also read Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968).1 The title, by itself, concentrated one’s attention. Like Ngũgĩ, we found Armah to be a writer whose exploration of the moral-political predicament of neocolonial Africa had deep implications for the Caribbean. In a brilliant series of novels—among the earlier cycle, Fragments (1970), Why Are We So Blest? (1972), Two Thousand Seasons (1973), and The Healers (1979)—Armah takes one on a political, psychological, and historical journey through the destruction and possible regeneration of African forms of life.
Still, it is The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born that remains to me the most richly, unsettlingly poignant of the novels because it strikes so unforgivingly at the rotten heart of our postcolonial conceit. Published in 1968, it evokes the ambiguous atmosphere of early postcolonial Ghana, the moment of Kwame Nkrumah and the 1966 coup d’état that brought his independence regime to an end.2 Nkrumah, remember, having broken with the conservative United Gold Coast Convention in 1949, had led his Convention People’s Party in the struggle against British colonialism and had come to power on 6 March 1957. He appeared to be a new kind of popular leader, both a socialist and a nationalist. Notably, however, Armah finds little to praise in Nkrumah—nothing redeeming in the years of his rule, nothing but empty phrases and pious ideology. He is mentioned by name on only a few occasions and never favorably, always derisively, dismissively—“Nkrumah and his fat men.”3 As readers know, the novel turns through the reflective consciousness of the unnamed “man” (a clerk in the railway office) who, like his friend the teacher, is haunted by his own shadow, by a sense of inadequacy, by disappointment and regret, by a generalized sense of uselessness and the futility of aspiring to anything more than he is. And yet it is precisely these qualities that inscribe in him an unshakable integrity and allow him a sharp and coherent lucidity, a burdensome insight into the emerging postcolonial condition:
These were the men who had finally, and so early, so surprisingly early, seen enough of something in their own lives and in the lives around them to convince them of the final futility of efforts to break the mean monthly cycle of debt and borrowing, borrowing and debt. Nothing was left beyond the necessity of digging oneself deeper and deeper into holes in which there could never be anything like life. But perhaps the living dead could take some solace in the half-thought that there were so many others dead in life with them. So many, so frighteningly many, that maybe in the end even the efforts one made not to join them resulted only in another, more frustrated kind of living dead. (22)
Men like Koomson, one of the man’s school friends, were among these others. They became the first generation of postcolonial leaders whom the party had sent to the ideological school at Winneba. They had raised themselves out of obscurity, out of the cycle of debt and borrowing, not by building the new dispensation imagined by Frantz Fanon in the final pages of Les damnés de la terre but by graft and corruption and greed, and by turning themselves into little more than mimic men aping the Europeans they had fought to displace: “So this was the real gain. The only real gain. This was the thing for which poor men had fought and shouted. This was what it had come to: not that the whole thing might be overturned and ended, but that a few black men might be pushed closer to their masters, to eat some of the fat into their bellies too. That had been the entire end of it all” (126).
And for Armah, the overthrow of Nkrumah brought little that was valuable. His party men were simply replaced by louder, more rapacious, more cynical, more fastidiously entitled men, eating what others had sown with seeming impunity. But isn’t this in fact our common postcolonial story, everywhere, perhaps more deeply and more assiduously and more inescapably than when Armah wrote and published his book?
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, in late 2018, in a highly public event involving African American dignitaries and celebrities, the president of the Republic of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, announced the designation of 2019 as the Year of Return for his country, for it would mark four hundred years since the first enslaved Africans were landed at Jamestown in 1619. A secretariat was established and a whole round of state-sponsored activities was planned—both to acknowledge the horror of the era of transatlantic slavery and to attest to “global African resilience.” (Notably, there was a Jamaican Homecoming Festival with a concert in Black Star Square in April 2019.) In a somewhat commodified, tourism-driven way, the whole project was imagined as a reaffirmation of Ghana’s great Pan-Africanist legacy. Indeed, Ghana remains the only West African state to organize this kind of commemoration of the slave past and to mark the emancipation of the enslaved in the Caribbean.
I won’t attempt here to describe the Elmina or Cape Coast castles—the dungeons and death cells and doors of no return. There are images and accounts enough that seek to evoke the unspeakable horrors of these modern monuments to the human depravity upon which the capitalist Enlightenment has so cynically depended. You walk through the dank passageways and shadowy chambers accompanied, you palpably sense, by the outraged spirits of generations of the captive dead, and you try to control the involuntary heaving and unnameable turmoil you feel. You notice other Black visitors clutching their chests in disbelief—in shame, too, perhaps, dimly aware that the trade, however motivated and driven it was by European powers, also depended on the acquiescence of networks of African powers. You notice, too, the eager White visitors, and you wonder, What in the name of God are they doing here? What do they want? Knowledge? Absolution? What dimension of responsibility do I want them to feel for the evil violence and evil enrichment the slavery system produced? No one needs the cheap fragrance of their personal guilt or regret. But whoever they are, they are certainly beneficiaries of the White supremacy that capitalism built out of the blood- and excreta- and vomit-soaked floors they now walk on. You emerge onto the cannon-guarded parapets and gaze out at the Atlantic Ocean in all its ironic Sisyphean beauty, eternally crashing with a relentless rhythm against the rocks below. Something tells you to just leave, now. But you hesitate, aware that this guided tour of historical pain that has interpellated you also inscribes you in the “heritage” narrative of the neoliberal postcolonial state (familiar from Jamaica on the other side of the Middle Passage), fitted out with the overflowing market stalls selling kente cloth and trinkets of every kind and, on the margins of this, the energetic hustlers using every stratagem available to massage your gullibility in order to scrape together the living you well know is pitiful.
When I first read The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born in Jamaica in the late 1970s, I was unaware that it had incited negative criticism from no less a person than Chinua Achebe.4 I am not going to comment on the dispute here—I doubt that I am qualified to do so. I only want to attend briefly to an essay of Armah’s, “Who Are the Beautyful Ones?,” collected in his important volume Remembering the Dismembered Continent, because beyond responding to Achebe he offers an insightful reflection on those sources and motivations that informed his novel’s composition and that have been overlooked by his critics.5 The “Beautyful One,” Armah writes, is a “praise name” for Osiris, one of the central figures in ancient Egyptian culture, and evokes simultaneously “our human vulnerability to division, fragmentation and degeneration,” and “our equally human capacity for unity, cooperative action, and creative regeneration.”6 Though he was aware of this powerful symbol since his youthful preoccupation with Egyptian mythology, it seems to have lain dormant in his mind until, in the final stages of revising the manuscript of the novel, he happened to see painted on the side of a minibus in Accra the slogan: “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.” One can only imagine the creative force of such a serendipitous moment when a latent conceptual imaginary resurfaces through a popular contemporary image. In a flash of recognition, Armah’s attempt to capture the sense of enormous disappointment in independent Ghana was given a resonant covering title. In the independence period, he says, virtually no African leader could evade the colonial seduction: “The invitation to disguise the old European style of governance as a new African solution. Under such circumstances, even the least discerning had to realize, eventually, that Independence did not mean the birth of the new, hoped for African society. Ergo: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” (272).
But the neglect of the significance of the Osirian figure of the Beautyful One is not the only oversight committed by Armah’s critics. As he tells us, there is also a temporal sense of anticipatory hope and longing inscribed in the novel’s title to which insufficient attention has been paid: the “beautyful ones,” after all, have not yet been born. That “yet,” Armah says, was a way of signaling that “the expected social birth had only been postponed, not abrogated” (273). There remained, remains, the prospect of other futures, future births. Thus the questions for Armah, as indeed for me, are, What is the work required to make possible the birth of the beautiful ones? When will the beautiful ones be born?
I went to Ghana in early November 2022 to give a lecture and seminar at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon. I am grateful to Professor Samuel Ntewusu, director of the institute, for hosting me; Dr. Chika Mba for extending the invitation; and Eric Tei-Kumadoe for his deeply informed questions. I learned more from them than they will ever know.
On Nkrumah, see June Milne, Kwame Nkrumah: A Biography (London: Panaf, 1999). The CIA is now widely believed to have been involved in deposing Nkrumah. See Seymour Hersh, “CIA Said to Have Aided Plotters Who Overthrew Nkrumah in Ghana,” New York Times, 9 May 1978, 6; and, more broadly, Susan Williams, White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa (New York: PublicAffairs, 2021).
Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (London: Heinemann, 1968), 157; hereafter cited in the text.
See Chinua Achebe, “Africa and Her Writers,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day (New York: Anchor, 1975), 38–42; and J. O. J. Nwachurwu-Agbada, “An Interview with Chinua Achebe,” Massachusetts Review 28, no. 2 (1987): 278–79. I am grateful to Eric Tei-Kumadoe for alerting me to the controversy.
Ayi Kwei Armah, “Who Are the Beautyful Ones?,” in Remembering the Dismembered Continent: Seedtime Essays (Popen-guine: Per Ankh, 2010), 267–80; see also “Two Letters to Chinua Achebe,” 281–86. “Who Are the Beautyful Ones?” was published as the preface to the 2008 Per Ankh edition of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.
“Who Are the Beautyful Ones?,” 267; hereafter cited in the text.