Wole Soyinka presents Commencement Rites at the Tree Creativity

Lecture Series

Wole Soyinka has been described as ‘Nigeria’s national conscience.’ He is a professor, activist, playwright, critic and poet. His work often tells stories of democracy, government, religion, and tensions around tradition and progress. He is concerned with “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it.” He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986. Soyinka is the first African laureate.

In introducing Soyinka for the third and final lecture of the series, Professor Wendy Laura Belcher, professor of African American Studies and Comparative Literature stated, “The occasion on which Wole Soyinka, the first black man to win the Nobel Prize in literature speaks in honor of Toni Morrison, the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature is not just a historic moment but a poignant one. Unless the world changes radically, it is highly unlikely that you will ever again be in a room honoring two Nobel Prize winners of African descent. Nor in a room honoring two who are part of the literary sublime, great spirits whose command of language is so extraordinary that inspires not just a kind of ecstasy but a change in the course of history itself.”

As It Was in the Beginning

Let us consider for instance whether trees should not be held responsible for capital punishment. If they were not around perhaps no one would have conceived of hanging as a way to place human beings permanently out of circulation.

Perhaps the most easily apprehended distillation of the affinities we have to trees whether as poet, teacher, activist, ruminant or just plain citizen, plain human being, is that even when ignored, taken for granted, even neglected, trees do transform their environment just like humanity in metamorphose.

Like humanity they pass through transformative stages. From seed where they may be tended in a nursery, the very expression that we apply to infants. The young shoot just rub up and eventually through the majestic entity creates its own aura, alone, or with others. Both possibilities can merge into or dominate the environment.

Sweet are the Uses of Diversity
That red herring, cultural relativism, is often hooked cynically to the bait of diversity as a cunning device for the attenuation of fundamental human rights. Cultural relativism serves directly as a contrivance of power and dictation against the freedom inherent in genuine diversity. Some of our kinfolk here appear to think that in their original home, time has stood still. Worse, many remain even ignorant of the internal dynamics of society in pre-slavery, pre-colonial times and the diversity of these sociological data that proliferated the entire continent even at the time of the abduction from North to South and East to West. You do not own other human beings. Society all over the world in general has learned that human beings are not bales of cloth, cattle, or even real estate that can be passed from hand to hand at will.

There is no escaping the imperative of choice. Either we exert it or a single-minded, fanatical-minority will exercise that mandate on our behalf and thus deny us our existential will.

Is it really difficult to see that this is what is at the heart of the world's current dilemma?

In Praise – and Dread – of Trees
When we speak of creativity you and I must continue to understand that we’re not speaking merely of what comes out of words or tunes, notes, music, graphic arts, etc. We’re speaking also of our partners in crime. The sciences, technology, the act of probing apparent reality. The fact of creativity that all of this science or humanities begins with curiosity.

Just as a tree does not make a forest, so does one gender not make humanity. When you compromise or you pander to fragmentary notions like cultural relativism, you are merely opening wide the gates to your own destruction. You have taken the first step, however long it takes, towards yourselves also becoming relative and thus expendable. This is when you wake up to discover that you have become first line designated victims.

Perhaps it's about time that we adopted the language of those very enemies of humanity, but this time on behalf of humanity fundamentalism. Yes, perhaps it's high time we declare ourselves fundamentalists of human liberty.

Latest in the AAS 21 Repertoire

▶︎ Rethinking Empire and Democracy
Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Reena N. Goldthree
▶︎ The Formation of ‘Religio-Racial’ Identity
Judith Weisenfeld, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.
How Black Americans See Discrimination
National Public Radio
Stuart Hall: In Conversations
Imani Perry, Ben Carrington
p: (609) 258-4270 | f: (609) 258-3484

African American Studies for the 21st Century

© 2017 The Trustees of Princeton University
  1. 'Rethinking Empire and Democracy' Reena N. Goldthree, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. 44:49
  2. 'The Formation of Religio-Racial Identity' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Judith Weisenfeld 47:32
  3. 'What Was African American Marriage?' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Tera Hunter 44:59
  4. 'Before Cornel West, After Cornel West' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Cornel West 52:46
  5. 'An Insistence on Not Being Discouraged' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Chika Okeke-Agulu 55:19
  6. 'A Through Line for African American Studies' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Imani Perry 44:07
  7. 'Activism and Risk in the Face of Trump' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Asanni York, Destiny Crockett 43:02
  8. 'Langston Hughes, Religious Thinker' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Wallace Best 45:50
  9. 'Convergences and Dissonance' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor, Naomi Murakawa, & Imani Perry 60:08