Richard Priebe, 25th President (1999-2000)

Preface by Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi
Past President and Editor of the ALA Oral History Project

Richard Priebe, the ALA’s 25th President, died on June 9, 2017 in Richmond, Virginia. He transitioned a few days before the 43rd annual meeting of the African Literature Association that took place at Yale University from June 14-17. On Saturday, June 17, conference participants attended a “Remembering Richard Priebe” session where many shared their memories of Richard, African literature specialist and professor emeritus in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University where he taught American, African, Caribbean, Postcolonial and world literatures for more than three decades. He retired in the fall of 2005. As a graduate student, Richard was troubled by the place of African literature in the American university. Once he graduated and became an assistant professor, he published “African Literature and the American University” in Issue: A Journal of Opinion vol. 4, no .4 (Winter 1974): 19-22. Ten years later, the ALA published a special issue on “ALA: Past, Present and Future” of the ALA Bulletin vol. 11, no. 2 (Spring 1985) in which members reflected on the decade-old organization. Some of the contributors included past presidents: Daniel Kunene (2nd), Lemuel Johnson (4th), Bernth Lindfors (5th), Jonathan Peters (10th), Peter Nazareth (11th), Ken Harrow (14th), Abena Busia (19th), Richard Priebe (25th). We are lucky to have past presidents who have contributed to the Presidents’ Corner while still with us. That is not the case with Richard Priebe and is why I am reproducing here, for the Presidents’ Corner, Richard’s contribution to that 1985 special issue of the ALA Bulletin. Some of the issues Richard raised then are still true today.


Middle Aged at a Decade Old

by Richard K. Priebe

At the A.S.A. Meeting in Syracuse in the fall of 1973 I delivered a paper on “African Literature and the American University.” I had just finished graduate school and was starting out as an assistant professor, and I was very troubled by what I saw as the rather precarious position African Literature held in the American system of higher education. The problems, many of which are still with us, are well known: the results of exclusion from the Great Tradition were judged by the academy as reasons for continued exclusion (African literature was not taught; therefore it must not exist . . .), the emergence of new courses in the discipline was judged as being the result of a general Black Studies “fad,” publications in the field were viewed as being suspiciously easier to come by than in other fields, texts for classroom use were hard to get . . .; we all know the litany. If there was a touch of paranoia in some of our responses to the rest of the academy, there were ample reasons for feeling as we did. The obvious collective strategy to attempt to deal with the problem, however, was not clearly one we were ready to follow. My mentor in graduate school, Bernth Lindfors, had tried a few years earlier to generate some interest in establishing an organization, but he was met more with worried concern than with encouragement.

Prior to the Syracuse meeting, Tom Hale and I talked about this problem and decided that the “worried concern” could be harnessed. It was, in fact, surprisingly easy to get things moving. A group of about twenty to twenty-five interested scholars met after my panel and we were virtually unanimous in wanting to establish an organization. A good number were still in graduate school, and many of us had just recently found our jobs. I expect that our experience in the market place had taught us something very immediate about attitudes toward African literature, and that had a most salubrious effect on the general desire to organize. There followed a meeting at the A.S.A. in Chicago and at the M.L.A. in New York. Dennis Brutus with his consummate skill as a parliamentarian guided us smoothly to the meeting in Austin where we officially organized.

The closer we look at the founding of the A.L.A., and the more perspectives we consider in making that examination, the more I suspect we will uncover a sense of the divergence of opinion and sensibilities we encompass. There are conflicting reasons why this organization was established, but I think we will paradoxically find most of those reasons within each of us as well as among us. Hence, I am no less impressed by the convergence of our understandings of why we are here: we believe in the academic integrity of our field and we know that a collective statement of that belief serves the best interests of ourselves and the field; we feel that there can be no separation between literature and ideology, and as a consequence the scholar of literature must be committed to the principle of freedom and dignity for all people; we feel we must be cautious lest we fall into the trap of merely emulating other existing scholarly organizations. This last point is, unfortunately, the hardest to define, but generally we all feel, for example, that we must actively include students in all aspects of the organization and we must try to include more than just the academic community in our meetings. To the extent that we fail in these endeavors, we fail in supporting our first two aims.

I am not quoting from our constitution or any other official document in saying all this, and I realize there might seem to be a certain arrogance in my use of “we.” I cannot speak of the organization, but I believe there is this certain sense in which the “we” does exist in the A.L.A. To the extent that it does exist, each of us might use that “we” without any exclusive sense of propriety. To the extent that it does exist, this organization plays a very important part in our professional, and even in our personal lives.

How successful have we really been these past ten years? How can we measure our achievements? We have grown in numbers, though that growth has now levelled off. We are more financially secure than ever. We have a thriving Bulletin and a long list of publications. We are, in some ways, moving comfortably into middle age. We have had meetings that all would count a success, and we have had meetings that most would deem failures. We have lasted through countless boring papers and a few good ones. We have (perhaps) survived too many long, rancorous business meetings. We have, I think, done something to secure the academic integrity of our field, we have maintained our position on ideology and literature, but we have, far too often slipped into the mold of those other academic organizations.

I'm not sure I can offer any clear or acceptable solution to that last problem. (It is the clearest sign we are getting grey hairs.) I am still very much taken by the suggestion of Adam Miller at one of those early organizational meetings that we all meet out on someone's fram in Kansas, that we have an agenda of roundtabtes and discussion groups, but that we come with our sleeping bags, and for once that we cut the cords to our institutions by paying our own ways. If we truly feel what we profess, is that too great a sacrifice?

Right now divisive rancor is more problematic. Gradually, there has been more and more self-righteous indignation and more and more ad hominem commentary in our meetings. (Here is a very clear indication that we are aging and have become too academic. What is the old adage about the academy? The conflict is always so high because the stakes are so low.) We cannot lose sight of our ideological commitment, but neither can we lose sight of the fact we are an organization of people dealing with and committed to serving other people. From this perspective, those of us who have been with the A.L.A. since its inception, have in a sense, been with the organization too long. We, and I do mean all of us, all too easily confuse the collective “we” and the personal “I.” From the belief that we can articulate a set of principles on which we stand, it should never follow that we, as individuals can ever feel we are chosen instruments to summarily decide who is or is not abiding by the principles, who should be included or excluded from our ranks. I cringe at all fundamentalist professing of truth that blinds us regarding our common humanity.

I see a fundamentalist as anyone who cannot separate his ideology from his own personal self. Disagree with the person and it is taken as an attack on the truth. Disagreement may be covert, or it may even be perceived only by the fundamentalist. Exclusion or persecution of the offending party readily follows. How close are we in this organization to a witch hunt? It is not very far if the last business meeting is an indication.

We need the commitment, but fundamentalism is an unavoidable consequence of any commitment. We should recognize the fundamentalist streak in all of us. (I can match my ad hominem and moments of indignation with anyone.) Though we cannot avoid fundamentalism, it does not follow we should condone it; more importantly, we should protect ourselves from it. Lest I sound too much like a born again liberal, I would point out that I am aware of how much I am oversimplifying a complex issue. Where we are is also a logical consequence of our trying to work within an academic system predicated on the ideology of Western humanism. We are, in short, faced with the dilemma of the committed academic. (Isn't that a contradiction in terms?) On the one hand we want to be open to looking at all sides; on the other hand our commitment leads us to take action from only one perspective. We are thus divided within and among ourselves. I am not sure we can have it both ways, though I am not unconvinced we can find productive ways to harness it.

One way of nurturing the committed side of our collective personality is really to do something like Adam Miller suggested. To the extent that our universities pay our fares and expenses here, they hold markers on our souls. The delivery of a paper is not only the way to literal support for the trip, it is also the road to promotion, etc. At some point, however, we will be called to pay up. Again I ask, is our commitment strong enough to organize, at least once, a meeting where we have not paid dues to the devil? We cannot always have it both ways.

Now the Dr. Jekyl side of me is also interested in things more conventionally academic. Academic organizations become mumified (excuse the mixed horror-show metaphor) to the extent that the same old faces are in control. We need to work more actively to bring younger academics and students into the administrative side of the organization. To that end we might have an implicit understanding, or even an explicit rule, that those who have served in offices a certain number of years should retire. I increasingly feel that those who have served as president should not seek office again. Of course, the wisdom of age is worth something, but we might utilize that wisdom by establishing a society of fellows. (Again, I contradict myself—we would be emulating other organizations in a very academic way. Can we live with the contradictions?) Such a society should not be a cabal, but neither would it have to be purely honorific. The members could have their special dinner once a year, drink their fine wine, puff their cigars and share their jokes; but they could also serve a useful watch-dog function, and in an annual report continually remind us of who we are, where we have been and where we should be going. If I have deeply offended anyone in my comments here, I am sorry. I feel strongly about the organization, and I want it to succeed in what we all feel are its professed aims. If we are to succeed, it will not be through the hurt and dissention we have inflicted on ourselves.

Richard K. Priebe
Virginia Commonwealth University