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Behold Tejumola Olaniyan, The Big Masquerade of African Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism

 Professor Tejumola Olaniyan (3 April , 1959 – 30 November 2019) Author’s archive

The Egungun imagery that I deploy here to adulate Olaniyan alludes to the Yoruba cultural practice of immortalization and memorialization.In the Yoruba cultural landscape, ancestors are created through death:when oldfamily members die, they become ancestors, and they are subsequently memorialized and venerated. In theory, Egungun functions beyond the yearly gathering of colorful masques and feasting: it also a cultural instrument of mourning. When people mourn, they acknowledge their loss, especially the permanent cancelation of the deceased person. The tradition helps the bereaved achieve closure by translating the deceased into a commemorative body. The transition fromilé-ayé(our mundane world)to Ajiran (the realm of the ancestors) is critical to Yoruba rite of passage, and its logic undergirds reincarnation (metempsychosis).

Following the Yoruba world view about death, Tejumola Olaniyan, no doubt, has become an ancestor.While many may argue that he died young, at the age of sixtyyet, he remains an ancestor in the sense that he biologically fathered grown-up children and mentored many established scholars and graduate students. As a father, in an academic sense, Tejumola Olaniyan qualifies to be venerated as an ancestor. He is worthy of a mask and voluminous regalia that will immortalize him as a profound literary critic and an excellent cultural studies scholar. That way, the academic community he belonged to would accept their loss, that is, his death, and his masque would invoke his memorialization. Eégún Teju(Teju’s masquerade) will be a big masquerade that can match his larger than life frame. The regalia, of course, would capture his tall and lanky frame and as well parallel his ìwà pẹ̀lẹ́(humility)that he displayed everywhere he went.

In comparative terms, Olaniyan’s scholarship resembles an ẹ̀kú(masquerade regalia) in how he meaningfully brought disparate critical ideas together to form beautiful bodies of knowledge in the humanities. Like the systematic arrangements of lappets on ẹ̀kú, Tejumola logically connects classical academic inquiries with modern global ideas and contextualized them. From his first groundbreaking book, Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance: The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African-American and Caribbean Drama (1995), which underscores the significance of African diaspora dramatic arts to global cultural production beyond narrow,conservative essentia list reading, to his last book,Taking African Cartoons Seriously: Politics, Satire, and Culture (2018), Teju provides unique academic insights that expand the frontiers of knowledge across the disciplines (postcolonial studies, African diaspora studies, and cultural and literary studies), and he excelled as a critical theorist and a public intellectual of global repute.

Creating his own lappets, he fuses ideas from across disciplines coherently to educate his readers about Africa and its diasporic others. From the periphery to the center, he locates ideas and experiences that have shaped African intelligentsia’s critical thinking process and documents how popular cultures contribute to governance and statehood in Africa. Beyond theory, Tejumola provides his readers with a vivid articulation of the postcolonial contexts in Africa, and he showed how rogue states perform outlandish infraction of citizens’ rights.  As a trained Marxist and postcolonial studies scholar, Olaniyan contextualized class struggles and delineated the limit of ethnocentrism and clientele operations in the social formation of democracy and political consciousness in Africa.

Teju was both a dedicated scholar and a kind human being. He was dedicated to his constituencies—academic groups and family (nuclear and extended). As a son of peasants, Teju understood poverty and lacks. First, Teju never loved to see people suffer. He was a teacher that provided for his students, especially the African students who migrated thousands of miles from Africa to study in the cold Wisconsin state. To allow graduate students with families to take care of their homes, Teju’s graduate classes often occurred in the evening, and he provided snacks.

Unbeknownst to many, Teju was a great mentor and a father to many graduate students. He prioritized education and gave full attention to mentoring. He took his students’ work very seriously, often so seriously that his comments on essay and feedback on dissertation chapters come across as scolding. Nevertheless, none of his students missed the care, which laced the guidance. Like the many spirits that populate Fagunwa’s novels, he talked straight into one’s ears and consciousness. However, interestingly, he would place a checkmark on his students’ brilliant ideas and urged them to run with them.

Even with personal issues and problems, Teju would work in the background to help with solutions, without letting you know. He was, indeed, a father-figure, and you will notice his sense of humor in moments of conviviality, despite that he was not a man of many words. “Yeah” and “All right” are his favorite closing remarks, and they were reassuring words.Teju, as a masquerade, was an Eégún-àgbà (an elderly masquerade) and carried itself with ìwà pẹ̀lẹ́ (humility).

Teju’s private life included his philanthropism. As a professor of repute, Teju ought to be occupied with his research and not pay attention to life and happenings at Òmù Àrán, his hometown. However, he was a proper “son of the soil.” He gave students scholarships to attend high schools and universities in Nigeria.

Besides his academic prowess, Olaniyan was a cultural agent par excellence. In a sense, Teju’s cosmopolitan elitism as a renowned academic in North America, to an extent, was shaped by his cultural upbringing. Perhaps, his interest in music and musicians (as popular culture discourses) grew out of his lineage passion for good music. He showed a profound interest in African indigenous knowledge and interrogated traditional values beyond their sheer didactic meanings and usages. His scholarship underscores the utilitarianism in vernacular ideas, and he meshes them with contemporary knowledge that can help African nations contribute meaningfully to global intellectual production.

For sure, Tejumola Olaniyan was a special person: he embodied the ancestors’ spirits, and he had the gift to ready the future in the present. He was a minimalist who lived a modest lifestyle. In all, Teju remains in our memory an ọmọlúàbí(a perfect gentleman), a brilliant scholar, and a great mentor.

ỌmọOlómùapẹ̀rán.                   One who hails from Omu, the mighty warrior

Ọmọọlọ́rọ́ agogo-idẹ Owner of a finely-forged brass bell

Ọmọ Bánkọ́lé.                               Son of Bankole

Sùn un re o—Sleep well!

-Olusegun Soetan is an Assistant Teaching Professor of African Studies at the Pennsylvania State University

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