Tejumola Olaniyan was a titan in the world of African literary and cultural studies. If you were to look for the personal profile that academics are increasingly encouraged to produce in the service of marketing, you would find very little. That little, though, is precious and profound: “My deep interest,” he declares, “is transdisciplinary teaching and research. My goal is the cultivation of critical self-reflexivity about our expressions and their many contexts.”
What does one make of this declaration that comes across as both explicit and cryptic at once? The perspective is one that can be understood only in terms of experiences mediated by theory. But to effectively convey the rich meanings embedded in theoretical lineage is to traffic in extraordinary terrain, where one becomes what one says through what one does.
I received the news of Teju’s death on November 30, 2019 through a phone call, at the very moment I’d meant to call him. I knew he was travelling to Amsterdam and wanted to wish him a safe journey. All I could say to Kunle Ajibade, the caller, was “Our world has collapsed!” I said this a number of times, unaware of how mindless it sounded, yet attuned to its truth. As far as I know, Ajibade was one of five people, including Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́, Moradewun Adejunmobi and Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, who constituted Teju’s closest circle of friends. This was the collective to which that “our” referred, but the pronoun was also representative of the larger world dealt the sudden blow of the tragedy.
The additional challenge for me in coming to terms with the reality of the death of the man I usually addressed as “TJ” is that he was not just, to me, another African, Nigerian scholar or friend. He was my older brother, of a kind that neither fact nor law could fully explain. Since meeting him for the first time in Accra in 1994 (although I briefly encountered him in Ile-Ife in late 1986), we became part of each other’s world, our worlds became one, though still with distinct characteristics because even brothers must steer individual courses.
In the past decade, I turned to him for practical scholarly collaborations: as co-sponsors of the nomination of Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun for the Fonlon-Nichols Award of the African Literature Association (2010); as the academic coordinators of the first International Conference on D. O. Fagunwa, the foremost Yoruba novelist (2013); and as co-organizers of special panels to mark the seventieth birthday of our former teacher, Biodun Jeyifo (2016). I turned to him for personal reasons, too, as one would to an older sibling. His response each time was an unstinting, unconditional “Yes!”
Being asked to write about him now that he is one with the earth, therefore, is akin to being asked to offer public testimony of a sibling in the midst of mourning. If I had not written a tribute celebrating his sixtieth birthday in 2019, I might not have known how to start. Then I was charged to pay tribute to a scholar and friend who had achieved true distinction in his profession and who enjoyed unqualified worldwide respect among his peers. Echoing Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, “Teju’s exit is devastating and, even now, still incomprehensible.” So now I must reflect on the collapse of our world. But in this case the ruins are a comforting sight to behold: the accomplishments of a critically reflexive scholar and friend whose interaction with theory was concretely contextualized in a life.
Many years ago, I think it was during the winter break of 2000, I left Ithaca to spend Christmas with Teju and his family in Charlottesville, Virginia. We spoke then about the manuscript he had just begun writing, what would become—and what many regard to be his most important book—Arrest the Music! It was a cultural biography of the Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, tracing what one reviewer identified as the “transformation from an ‘apolitical hustler’ to an ideologically committed artist.” As Teju told me then, the more he studied Fela’s music the more he was convinced that his transformation signaled that the passing of “the charismatic leader”—like Vladimir Lenin, Emma Goldman, Kwame Nkrumah or Fidel Castro—was underway. The intellectual density, performative ecstasy and musical grandeur of Fela’s compositions served as homage to the complexity of the postcolonial state, in Africa and elsewhere. This was likened to how the instruments of social organization were shifting from singular political personalities to bureaucrats and technocrats, and how power no longer resided exclusively in the rhetorical antics of these icons. But even if the passing of the charismatic leader was underway, in Fela the archetypal African “big man” was still intact.
In the early pages of Arrest the Music!, Teju wrote that “the more enthusiastic I am about about [Fela’s] music, the more unrelenting I become in scrutinizing it, fundamentally accepting its self-presentations and representations but at the same time insistently identifying and exploring its gaps, cracks, and silences.” Of course, some might attribute Teju’s thinking to successful assimilation of the Foucauldian tactics commonly deployed by English or Romance-language graduate students in the late twentieth century. But TJ was already attuned to these cultural and political dynamics before he was fully exposed to Foucault. And where sociologists and literary scholars were broadly critiquing “modern disenchantment” or the “cultural apparatus,” Teju studied that apparatus while acquiring the skills of management and institutional administration for a greater good. If the style is the person, Teju was a person who could answer the call of dispassionate necessity; in Arrest the Music!, this meant cutting a figure like Fela down to size.
But if the age of the charismatic leader has passed, it was Teju who gracefully described how the leap from disenchantment to enchantment might occur, in his scholarship and institutional leadership. As he wrote in an essay for Cultural Critique, “to be in control of (the means of) representation is … to be in a position of power: that is, to be in control of the production, promotion, and circulation of subjectivities.” For Teju, to be in control was an exercise in fairness, balanced with pragmatism; a temperance that was actively solicitous, so unwilling to push himself to the limelight.
In the 1980s, the Guardian newspaper in Lagos published a weekly Literary Series, including full-length essays on notable writers as well as poems, stories and short reviews. Those essays were later collected into the two-volume Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, edited by Yemi Ogunbiyi. Of the 53 essays in the second volume, Teju wrote eight, the most contributions by a single person in that volume.
The essays and reviews were marked by a certain objectivity—the focus is ever on the work in front of the critic—and although surprising turns of phrase were never lacking, the aim was to sublimate self-dramatization to the material integrity of the work. (I also have the strong feeling that his frequency on the list of contributors was a result of his sense of responsibility: editors turned to him often because they knew he would not fail to come through.) These qualities in the work and their producer, it seems to me, set TJ apart as a person, a scholar, a mentor and an administrator. The idea of “critical self-reflexivity,” being self-accounting, makes a lot of sense in an intellectual outlook in which pomp and circumstance, the accustomed features of the charismatic figure, are held to be less useful in getting work done. Imagine a town-hall meeting in which ideas were freely canvassed. One or two people would speak loudly and frequently. They would propose beautiful and ambitious ideas and robustly debate those ideas. When time came to assign duties, the loud ones were nowhere to be seen, no longer to be heard. It was Teju who was left to write up the communique, and (without complaint) serve on the committees.
The surprise birthday party staged for him in May 2019 gave me an opportunity to place this unusual character trait before the world and in the context of his career. There was hardly any other scholar in the entire African studies community, I stated, who approached scholarship with the kind of disposition that Teju brought to the enterprise. In an uncommon way, he smoothed out the uneasy relationship between research, teaching and service, the trinity of professional obligations that academics often view as penal.
Between 2004 and 2019, he edited or co-edited a total of six books. The field-integrating African Drama and Performance (with John Conteh-Morgan), published in 2004, grew out of a special issue of Research in African Literatures that both guest-edited. African Literature, the monumental anthology of theory and criticism that appeared three years later (co-edited with Ato Quayson), came out of a graduate seminar on the topic. His long-awaited major work of African cultural studies will hopefully appear posthumously, but anyone who carefully reads the introductions to his last three edited collections—Audible Empire (co-edited with Ronald Radano, 2016), State and Culture in Postcolonial Africa (2017) and Taking African Cartoons Seriously (with Peter Limb, 2018)—can see how much these works feed off the one that he left aside, imbued with a spirit of collaboration. In the midst of these, Teju served as chair in his department, directed University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research in the Humanities, saw several students through their doctorate degrees, held the presidency of the Association of African Literature and played a major role in turning the association’s bulletin into a referred journal.
It was too much to ask of one person, I often teased him. But I also knew that this was Teju’s way of fully accounting for himself. He might have fine-tuned the principle of “critical self-reflexivity” into a style of life and work, but I think that he also operated from an awareness of the culture out of which he came. “Yoruba thought,” according to the political scientist Patrick Dele Cole in his study of the politics of Lagos, “starts from the unitary principle that whatever [exists in nature] flows from the metaphysical starting-point [in which] obligation derives from the series of harmonious relationships between one’s alter ego and one’s personality, which are in themselves in harmony with the collective vital force of the community incarnate in the ancestors.” According to this principle, relations between individuals are defined not in terms of rights but of duties and obligations. Tejumola Olaniyan embodied this principle so well it transfigured him in life and death: if you carry out your duties very well, serving your community selflessly, it enhances your personality.
Akin Adesokan teaches comparative literature at Indiana University-Bloomington. He has been honored with the PEN Freedom-to-Write award and the Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Fiction for his first novel, Roots in the Sky.