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Binary Opposition of White and Black in Chinua Achebe’s Work No Longer at Ease

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Words: 2750 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: May 24, 2022

Words: 2750|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: May 24, 2022

Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. 1. Introduction
  3. 2. Materials and Methods
  4. 3. Orientalism, Stereotype and Image of Colonized Africa 
  5. 4. Binary Relation among Characters
  6. 5. Dissemination of European Culture
  7. 6. The Role of Language
  8. Works Cited

Abstract

The following paper based on Chinua Achebe’s work No Longer at Ease (1960) highlights the ways in which the Nigerian community is laid out and how the binary opposition of white and black is perceived throughout. Obi Okonkwo, the male protagonist who is born and brought up in Nigeria struggles with cultural identity and loyalty as he goes to Europe to continue his higher education but returns to his native land, torn between the practices and values of two different nations and their cultures. The west is time and again shown in a better light than the east and how western life and culture are held superior to the indigenous belief system also grasps our attention. Religion also plays a prominent part in the life of the protagonist.

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1. Introduction

No Longer at Ease is a story of a civil servant who is finally hooked in the claws of the corruption, prevalent in the society of Lagos since time immemorial. Several attempts have been made earlier to tempt him but he did not fall prey to it. The protagonist of the novel is Obi Okonkwo, a grandson of Achebe’s first protagonist in Things Fall Apart, Obi is struggling against many hurdles. He is trying to live a decent life and make both ends meet while he is trying to satisfy his family, his home village, his girlfriend and larger society. Unable to strike a balance between his values and the expectations of society, Obi experiences a total breakdown. Had there not been the constraints of religion, culture and nationality his life would have been set on a different tangent altogether. Being a postcolonial text, every situation is scrutinized through a filter of colonialism and Orientalism. He experiences the culture, the values, and the belief system of two entirely different nations and finds himself in the midst of the two, unable to choose one. The novel is somewhat symptomatic to Achebe’s life itself. The author’s parents too converted to Christianity and he too was accepted at the University College in Nigeria on a scholarship. At first, he studied medicine, but he changed his mind and opted for English- like the protagonist of the novel.

2. Materials and Methods

Through the theories of critics like Edward Said and Franz Fanon, the paper shows how colonizers indirectly and many-a-times directly influence the identity and culture of their colonized nations. Fanon’s notion of ‘inferiority complex’ could be aptly seen in the situations when the people of Umofia taxed themselves mercilessly to send one of their sons to Europe. The notion behind the action was people residing in the west are well taught and undoubtedly the usage of English language made one look ‘civilized’. They wanted to show their superiority against other villages as well, amongst ‘their’ men. To quote from the text: 

They wanted him to read law so that when he returned he would handle all their land cases against their neighbours. Although he would not be a lawyer, he would get a 'European post' in the Civil Service. The excitement that gripped the people was filled with curiosity and fantasy about the foreign land. Even when Obi returned from London, the natives were all ears to listen to the stories of the land they could only imagine in their dreams.

Obi's going to England caused a big stir in Umuofia. These critics try to examine the colonized people as the victims of Western culture and hegemony and investigate the ways in which colonial discourse acted as an instrument of power to rule over the natives. Western writing about the Orient has always represented them (the east) as weak, irrational, and feminine in contrast to the strong, rational, and masculine West. The east has always been in the periphery and the west has been the centre of all as the master to direct and guide. Tired of being represented by the ‘other’, Achebe took the responsibility on his shoulders to represent the ‘self’.

Other prominent factor, which makes the black to accept superiority over the white culture is the colonizers’ own perceived patterns and the already constructed stereotypical images of Africans. Fanon argues: “I begin to suffer from not being a white man to the degree that the white man imposes discrimination on me, makes me a colonized native, robs me of all worth, all individuality, tells me that I am a parasite on the world, that I must bring myself as quickly as possible into step with the white world, that I am a brute beast, that my people and I are like a walking dung-heap that disgustingly fertilizes sweet sugar cane and silky cotton, that I have no use in the world.” 

3. Orientalism, Stereotype and Image of Colonized Africa 

During the process of colonization, the colonizers had already created the image of the orient or the non-Europeans in different ways. They always perceive them as inferior to their own self. Said, in Orientalism, says, “the Orient (Third world countries) has helped to define Europe (or the west) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience … The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture”. 

He claims that the history and culture in the Oriental countries depend on their connection with the West; consequently, such dependency makes their self-image. The colonizers situate the colonized in their own ways and according to their needs. Therefore, the colonized never identify him/her self with the colonizers which enables them to expand their culture and attitude. First they define the occident, what the west stands for, and contrary to that they define the orient. In layman's terms, the west is what the good is and the east is quite its opposite for we never had the chance to write our own history, to represent ourselves, for west has been doing that for us since along. One significant aspect of Achebe’s novel is the description of British colonialists’ attitude towards Nigeria and Nigerians. To quote from the text:

I cannot understand why he did it,” said the British Council man thoughtfully … “I can,” said Mr. Green simply. “What I can’t understand is why people like you refuse to face facts.” Mr. Green was famous for speaking his mind. He wiped his red face with the white towel on his neck. “The African is corrupt through and through”. 

They are very proud of its past when it was the terror of their neighbors before the white man came and leveled everybody down. “But he has been sapped mentally and physically. We have brought him Western education. But what use is it to him? Achebe juxtaposes Mr. Green, Obi’s boss, as emblematic of British colonialists in Nigeria. As Obi, the main man of the novel takes Mr. Green as the British character in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. By reminding Obi of his debts, Mr. Green here tries to play the role of a protector or a guide for his foster child.

According to Said, the accidents imagined the Orientals as lazy, ineffectual, and incapable of carrying out their duty in order to justify their own role as colonizers. As Said argues in many cases, ‘irrationality’ and ‘laziness’ are among the attributes that the Orientalists usually attach to the Orientals. Accordingly, by trying to manage Obi’s financial affairs or in the words of Achebe “For one brief moment a year ago Mr. Green had taken an interest in Obi's personal affairs”- Mr. Green is fulfilling his role of a benefactor. In this way, he justifies his stay in Nigeria. In other words, he thinks that the Nigerians need him and other colonisers for their welfare because they cannot manage on their own. Corruption and guilt are the colonized characteristics, in contrast, the colonisers are right and just in whatever they do or pursue, and “the native is always presumed guilty”. Achebe skillfully depicts the sense of guilt among the Ibo people. Obi, who is accused of bribery, does not at all feel pity in the court. The courtroom is full of the people who left their jobs to witness the hearing and hear the vote; some of them pay money to doctors to obtain papers of illness for that special day. Such corruption, like bribery, pay money for certificate paper, and abortion are interwoven in a colonized nation, justifying theirs deserve punishment. In the eyes of Christopher, Obi’s friend, bribery of money is not equivalent to sleeping with someone for a night. He encourages and supports the act of sleeping with girls for benefits but strongly opposes the idea of marrying from a different tribe or community. Hypocrisy was at its peak.

4. Binary Relation among Characters

The protagonist of the novel, Obi is a typical representative of a collaboration of his native and of the foreign land where his native being a part of the continent Africa is assumed as a ‘dark continent’ there on the other hand the Europe is taken to be a land of knowledge and power. According to Hegel, for each slave group, there should be a master one. For the existence of one is null without the other. As Obi tells the readers, the times of Mr. Green are different from early colonial days when a British official was free to treat Africans as and how he pleased. However, Mr. Green is blind to the changes in current Nigeria and continues using his lens of a typical colonialist’s attitude to see the world of colonised. For instance, when he orders beer in the club, he tells one of the men near him to bring “one beer for this master” . The deep implicit encoded master-slave expressions in his character highlight his colonial mentality and his false presumed image of the Nigerian community. This way of self-expression corresponds with Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism as a kind of knowledge, which remains blind to historical changes throughout the years. Even the division of a kernel is described in terms of binary oppositions. To quote: “Sometimes one kernel was shiny-black and alive, the other powdery-white and dead.”

Time and again the comparisons have been made in terms of black and white and dark and light which depicts the idea of ‘self’ and ‘other’ where one automatically achieves a higher position. The Reverend Samuel Ikedi of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Umofia says in his prophecy:

The people which sat in darkness 

Saw a great light,

And to them which sat in the region and shadow of death

To them did light spring up.

Mr. Green is patronizing and takes pride is his background. His treatment of Nigerian people reminds Obi of a certain British man, a school inspector, Mr. Jones whom Obi had met. Obi remembers a day in school when the British school inspector slapped a Nigerian headmaster in front of students and teachers as punishment for the headmaster’s failure in an official matter.

For Obi, Nigeria has changed and white men can no longer act as boldly as they did in those old days. “That was twenty years ago. Today few white men would dream of slapping a headmaster in his school and none at all would actually do it. Which is the tragedy of men like William Green, Obi’s boss”. In those days, ‘old African’ men were submissive and easy to mould because they worshipped white men as Gods. The new generation of Nigerians have a higher self-respect and sense of dignity and no longer accept English men as their masters. To quote from the text:

The second generation of educated Nigerians had gone back to eating pounded yams or garri with their fingers for the good reason that it tasted better that way. Also for an even better reason that they were not as scared as the first generation of being called uncivilized. The above instance holds accountability for the fact that the second generation unlike the first did not care for being judged and was self-reliant.

5. Dissemination of European Culture

Every nation has a set of belief system and customs which binds its citizens and represents its nationality. The European culture not only in the text but across the nations has been kept on a higher pedestal. Till today, after several years of independence, we have not been able to completely decolonise our hearts and our minds. Their mannerisms and mindset has been so deeply ingrained and rooted in us that we unknowingly fall for it. Obi is a typical educated young man. During several instances, people of Umofia in their broken English refer to him as the ‘man of books’.

He believes in the European education system and finds it enriching. He has no tolerance for “old Africans” whom he considers as the root of corruption and all problems in general in Nigeria. The term old Africans in his viewpoint refer to those Africans who still occupy some offices for years and years and lack ample education and skill to cope with the circumstances of modern Nigeria: Obi’s theory was that the public service of Nigeria would remain corrupt until the old Africans at the top were replaced by young men from the universities was first formulated in a paper read to the Nigerian Students’ Union in London. But unlike most theories formed by students in London, this one survived the first impact of homecoming. 

In some ways, Obi looks more like Europeans rather than the Ibo, in beliefs and in mindset. He does not allow Umuofia Progressive Union, his father, or his tradition to pass an opinion on his decisions. He decides on his education and marriage. His European education alienates him from his own people. He shuns the idea of sending thunder to their enemies unlike Umofians, he likes to exchange the ring with Clara, a European wedding tradition and even he does not find an issue in marrying a girl from an outcast. He goes on having an affair which was considered strictly forbidden in the Ibo community and later towards the end of the novel we learn that he goes on having sexual relations with girls in order to get them the scholarship. It is due to their westernized education and European lifestyle. The novel displays a record of instances of conflict between Ibo society and colonial domination that attacks on personality, psyche, and identity of an African mindset.

6. The Role of Language

Ngugi wa Thiong’o declares that in order to keep African culture alive and prevalent in the coming generations, African writers have to write in their native language. He also criticizes Achebe for his writing in English, but Achebe prefers English as the language for No Longer at Ease and most of his other novels as well. For Achebe, language is an instrument which holds immense power to describe the cultural attitude of colonial Nigeria. In No Longer at Ease, language is one of the themes of the novel, and Achebe uses three languages in this novel; Ibo, Pidgin, and English.

The novel has ample of proverbs in their native language. Also, English throughout had an upper hand compared to the language or dialects of Umofians. One who knows the language was considered as civilized and intellectual. Obi was considered a man of books only because he was able to converse in English. Even to speak partial English was considered as a matter of pride. He preferred speaking in English with Miss Tomlinson and uses English language at work. In another scene in the novel when Obi meets Mr. Mark, a countryman who tries to bribe Obi. Mr. 

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Mark speaks English perfectly and at first, he greets Obi in English, but when Mr. Mark saw Miss Tomlinson, he turns to Ibo: “if you don’t mind, shall we talk in Ibo? I didn’t know you had a European here”. He immediately confines in his native language so as to keep up the secrecy. Language connects people even in distant lands and in adverse times. In Lagos, Obi prefers English for most of his communication. Sometimes he is not able to find a suitable Ibo proverb to express himself and Clara blames him: “I have always said you should go and study Ibo.” Cultural hybridity in Obi and the ambivalence of his situation is highlighted through his unintentional shift from Ibo to English. He adapts himself with the situation and chooses the language accordingly.

Works Cited

  1. Achebe, Ch. (1963). No Longer at Ease. London: Heinemann.
  2. Fanon, F. (2008). Black Skin, White Masks. Transl. Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto P. ---. (1963).
  3. Said, E W. (1978).Orientalism. New York: Penguin Books.
  4. Thing’o, NW. (1987). Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Zimbabwe Publishing House.
  5. Journal- “Advances in Language and Literary Studies”, Vol 7, no. 4, 2016.
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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

Binary Opposition of White and Black in Chinua Achebe’s Work No Longer at Ease. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/binary-opposition-of-white-and-black-in-chinua-achebes-work-no-longer-at-ease/
“Binary Opposition of White and Black in Chinua Achebe’s Work No Longer at Ease.” GradesFixer, 24 May 2022, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/binary-opposition-of-white-and-black-in-chinua-achebes-work-no-longer-at-ease/
Binary Opposition of White and Black in Chinua Achebe’s Work No Longer at Ease. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/binary-opposition-of-white-and-black-in-chinua-achebes-work-no-longer-at-ease/> [Accessed 21 Feb. 2024].
Binary Opposition of White and Black in Chinua Achebe’s Work No Longer at Ease [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 May 24 [cited 2024 Feb 21]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/binary-opposition-of-white-and-black-in-chinua-achebes-work-no-longer-at-ease/
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