By Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D.
Earl Rovit's class was one of the last classes I needed to graduate as an honors student. It was an American Literature course that focused on the literary artists immediately following the conclusion of World War I, the most famous among whom were the poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. I believe Ernest Hemingway also had a mention, as was Hilda Doolittle (HD). The course was subtitled "The 1922 Group," or some such temporal designation. In the main, the theme of discussion centered around the overwhelming havoc and devastation caused by World War I, and the acute moral and spiritual crisis that the war had created in the psyches of many a major European literary artist. To be certain, artists, in general, had been greatly affected, albeit to varying degrees.
I don't quite remember much else from the class, other than the remarkable erudition of the Missouri-born Thomas Stearns Eliot, a man widely considered to have acquired the most extensive facility with vocabulary deployment in the modern era, after Mr. William Shakespeare. Shakespeare, according to Dr. Rovit, had been reckoned to have deployed at least 100,000 (one-hundred-thousand) words in the remarkable corpus of his plays and poetry. Eliot, on the other hand, hovered around the vicinity of 30,000 (thirty-thousand) words. The average college-educated person had command of between 3,000 and 5,000 (three-thousand and five-thousand) words.
Shakespeare and Eliot also seemed to have quite a bit in common, in terms of nationality and culture; for Eliot, having completed his doctoral studies at Harvard University, would skip graduation and his diploma, or certificate, and ship out to Britain where he would end up as a banker, of some sort, and later as an editor. He would also renounce his American citizenship and become a naturalized Briton. It thus appears that Eliot had great disdain for American culture of which he did not seem to have thought of highly. It also appears, though, that Eliot felt that he would be better appreciated by the relatively much more literate and established British culture.
And then there was Eliot's wife, Vivienne Haig-Wood, who was known to have been far less than faithful to her husband; the poet never seemed to have quite gotten over Vivienne's widely rumored affair with Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher-mathematician, though some sources claim Eliot to have ignored the entire episode. Maybe like the Prophet Hosea, of Ancient Israel, the husband knew well before hand what he was getting himself into.
Whatever the preceding recollection may be worth, my most memorable moment with Professor Rovit came shortly following my publication of a book review on the autobiography of the great and famous South African Black Consciousness Movement leader Stephen Bantu Biko. It was about the same time that Sir Richard Attenborough's filmic classic, "Cry Freedom," starring Denzel Washington as Steve Biko, was released into the movie theaters. I had been writing and publishing quite a considerable number of book reviews in New York City's most widely circulated African-American weekly, The New York Amsterdam News, for nearly three years.
I was passing by his office one sunny afternoon, either headed for a club meeting or home, when the silver-haired old man spotted me down the hallway and beckoned me into his office; then he politely asked me to draw up a seat directly facing across his large, dull-ash colored metallic desk to the left of which stood a little shelf of books. The shelf was to his right-hand side and against the wall. On the same side, towards the door, stood two cushioned arm chairs of red carpet-like material. To his left, facing directly opposite the door, was a slideable window with top-and-bottom partitioned glass panes. The window overlooked the main library directly below.
"Congratulations!" Dr. Rovit beamed with a tinge of mischief verging on sarcasm. He was a little man who stood at about 5 feet and 6 inches, almost exactly my own height, with a slight stoop that had obviously been caused by age. He had an egg-like oval face and looked to be between 68 and 72 years old, nearly but not quite the same age as Professor Leo Hamalian, my Ford Foundation-appointed mentor. Actually, Dr. Hamalian had been appointed for me by Professor Saul Brody, the director of the City College-hosted Ford Foundation's Undergraduate Fellowship Program.
"What is it about, Sir, if I may know," I returned with a bit of puzzlement.
"Oh, your article on the late Mr. Biko."
I nodded with a wistful query, because I guessed I wasn't too dumb to be unaware of the fact that not very many white-Americans, educated or not, staunchly supported the curious - or even tabooed - notion of a bunch of Black South African radical revolutionaries pushing the white-racist apartheid regime out to sea, and then replacing the latter with a Black-majority government, even a democratically elected Black-majority government. In the early 1980s and throughout much of that decade, President Ronald Reagan had not hesitated, not even the least bit, to make it publicly known that he was implacably averse to having any "Black Communist Idealogues" overthrow the Vorster and Botha governments.
The fact of the matter is that the indigenous Africans on the southern tip of the continent were also not believed to be capable of establishing a "civilized" system of governance. After all, weren't counries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia all one-party dictatorships? The only beacon of hope for democratic governance in Africa, to white leaders like President Reagan, Britain's Margaret Thatcher, and all the other so-called Western Allies, was, of course, the racist white-minority regime in South Africa. In essence, white-minority rule in South Africa had come to stay, and the sooner that Africans came to terms with this historical reality, the better chance they had of being spared from quixotically flirting with the patently absurdist idea of there ever going to arise an African-majority dominated multiracial government in that immutably "European" enclave of the proverbial Dark Continent.
"Kwame," said Dr. Rovit with a deliberate tinge of amusement in his pastel-soft voice. "I know what you are trying to do with these pieces of articles of yours in our Campus newspaper."
I stared at Dr. Rovit inquisitively and felt the furrows of my creased forehead.
"I know you are trying very hard to cause a revolution on this campus, and perhaps even in this nation. But, unfortunately, you come in rather too late. You ought to have been born here in the United States during one of those heady revolutionary days in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Or even the 1960s. You see, most Americans are too comfortable with themselves and their lives to be thinking of rocking the boat."
"They are cringing cowards," I cursed under my breath, and responded, "Well, Sir, I am not really about the business of any revolution or rocking any boat."
"Oh, come on, Kwame, you don't think you can fool me, do you?"
"All I am doing is exposing the great injustices being suffered by Africans in South Africa, Sir."
"And then what?"
"Well, I'm just a writer, Sir."
I don't quite remember any specific or salient details of my Biko article that had agitated the old man so deeply, but I remember walking out of Dr. Rovit's office pumped up with the feeling of having accomplished something worthwhile. At least those who mattered to me most on campus were paying sedulous attention.
The Biko book whose review I had just published was titled "I Write What I Like."
*Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D.
Department of English
Nassau Community College of SUNY
Garden City, New York
Dec. 16, 2013
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