Professor Abiola Irele passed on earlier this month at the age of 81. Born in 1936, the late critic was one of the finest and most respected African literary scholars.
Graduating from the University of Ibadan in 1960, he got a PhD in French from the University of Paris, Sorbonne. He eventually joined Harvard as a Professor of African and African American Studies and of Romance Languages and Literatures, and later Ohio State University as Professor of African, French and Comparative Literature. Eventually, he returned to Nigeria to become Provost at the College of Huamnities and Social Sciences, Kwara State University, Ilorin. He has also held teaching positions at the University of Ghana, the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), and the University of Ibadan.
Professor Irele helped shape the understanding of Négritude through his essays, the most notable of which are “What is Negritude?” in African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, and “Négritude: Literature and ideology” in The African Philosophy Reader. Some of his books include The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1990), The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora (2001), and The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature (2004), which he co-edited with Simon Gikandi.
As tribute, Wole Soyinka has written a poem titled “Olohun-Iyo,” published in the Nigerian newspaper, Premium Times.
True, numbers diminish, but we are not thereby
Diminished. Memories rack, yet lift
Our spirits off the rack of remembrance. Be it
The echo of a harsh scrape, decades dimmed,
Of a street café chair, rue des Ecoles, puncturing
Peals of laughter, a head thrust sideways,
Quizzical in contestation – these hoarded trivia
Flit in and out of mind, unbidden, contesting
The tyranny of absence.
Earth revolves, nothing is resolved
The hours pass in spurts of sparse fulfillment.
We remain the thoughts we spin, and leave
Lingering over wine vapour, tobacco spirals
Around audacious faces – were we not
The Renaissance generation? Then, Gauloises,
Gitanes vied with filtered cigarillos – it was
That time when smoke-free lives were yet
Unborn. We littered Presence Africaine with stubs
And words of passion, moulders of identity.
Let no one grudge those you leave behind
These keepsakes. Some will speak Negritude,
Others Marxism and aspiring Communes. You were
The cosmopolitan, consummate, straddling proposition isles.
The Muses held you in thrall, deftly you skirted
Dogma traps. A lyric voice, suddenly in full flight
On a Donizetti aria – fittingly we named you
Olohun-iyo – but next breath became a midwife, fixated
On parturition of a new nursery of creativity.
Why this sudden ‘Francis’, I once charged, intrigued.
It swam against the tide of black awakening. Your reply,
A dismissive shrug – The name was stamped on me.
All family history – I merely restored my full identity.
Some enigma lurked, but his was right of reticence.
I simply canonized St. Francis of the Muses,
For saint indeed he was – of letters – bore the stigmata
Invisibly, the scars of honour, earned in defence
Of hallowed space for unfettered intellect.
Read the rest of the poem HERE