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Yoruba Scholarship in the Global Academy: Chief Isaac Oluwole Delano’s Legacy and the Book Prize in His Honor

Toyin Falola, University Distinguished Professor, The University of Texas At Austin

It is an unarguable fact that the Yoruba culture and civilization remain among the most researched in the African academy. Yoruba cultural practices that cut across time and space are also among the most respected. Although like every other colonized culture, history has not been so kind to the people in terms of the advancement and fair representation of their civilization, there is no question that this culture has spread significantly to rewrite its history and turn the struggle into its peculiar identity.

This has been achieved in two ways: On the one hand are the efforts made through a robust network of biosociality formed by this population forcefully taken to the Americas via the Atlantic route. And on the other, we have the strides made by earlier (first generation) Yoruba writers to project this world space and its intricate grandeur to those who care to listen. Whereas those in the former category were trained through the experience of servitude, slavery, and abuse in plantation farms across the Atlantic, the latter came in response to the colonial enterprise’s reductionist mission, which, inter alia, sought out to degrade the history and civilization of the people.

The advent of the printing press into the Nigerian social space and the introduction of western education contributed immeasurably to engineering the strides made by the latter group of Yorùbá cultural champions. By the mid-1900, a handful of publications on the Yorùbá people had made it to the knowledge market, triggering new (but old) discussions on the relevance of its cultural practices to identity formation and advancement. Among these were the earliest works produced by Chief Isaac Oluwole Delano, through which he contributed brilliantly to the ongoing debate of the time. At this time, the sweeping effects of modernization through western Christianity, education and all, were already taking a huge toll on the conception of Yorubaness and what it meant to be human in colonial Nigeria. Between 1943 to 1970, Chief Delano produced over two dozen scholarly works that have since been muted in Yoruba Studies for apparent reasons.

Top among these would be the increasingly failing reading culture in post-colonial Nigeria, the porous education system that gives prominence to abstracts than tangibles, and the lethargy of many to learn about their history, let alone their culture. In his contributions to the revival of the Yoruba culture in colonial and post-colonial Nigeria, Chief Delano lent his voice to issues related to Christianity and religion, transformations and culture, as well as peoples and language.

Meanwhile, in over three decades of my academic career, I have sort to trace and unmute those muted voices that speak instructively to where we are coming from as a people and the projection of these voices on where we are heading, given several circumstances. Consequently, sometime last year, I had an extensive discussion with Chief Isaac Oluwole Delano’s family on a project I felt could further reinforce the Yoruba identity in the international African academe. My request was to access as many materials, documents, notes, and all available personal data of the African cultural icon-cum-Yoruba guru. These I intended to fuse with his many publications to have an in-depth grasp of the philosophical dimension of his scholarship to produce in one volume a critical appreciation of his knowledge productions. The family, led by Chief Akinwande Delano (SAN), could not resist the request as they were gratified to know that their father’s labor was not gone in vain. “Every day,” our people say, “is for the thief; one day, is for the owner.” In this very case, the thief is not Anini or Sina Rambo, but Time. Yes! What time had stolen from Chief Delano, it gave back in multiple proportions in due course.

Following the discussion, loads of documents and files, many of which were admittedly hard to retrieve by researchers, were handed over to me in June 2019. Before I even got started on reviewing these documents at the comfort of my seat on a plane flying me back to Austin, Texas, I began to ruminate on the project’s possible eventualities. Little did I know or could envisage the extent to which the discussion of that day, which represents only a drop of water, would become an ocean of many whales until the project was completed late in the year. Determined to grace the Delano memorial event with the launch of a book from the gigantic data collected, I quickly swung into action with the help of my assistants. At this time, I realized the magnitude of the work before me: To do justice to Delano’s scholarship and bring this back to the light, a one-volume work would only distort the multiple but interconnected realities of his works in an unfortunate proportion.

Therefore, I decided to have this done in three volumes: one about language, the second a dictionary, and the third an academic book: Cultural Modernity in a Colonized World: The Writings of Chief Isaac Oluwole Delano. The books were launched in Lagos and the venue was packed with the very crème-de-la-crème in the Nigerian society. Eventful and fulfilling, I flew back to Texas with the thought that there was something missing. The publication had been made, but how do we continue to remember this cultural icon’s legacy, especially in the works of other scholars of Yoruba Studies in this present age where this field is gaining prominence within and without the Yoruba transnational community? My next project on Chief Delano, I thought, should be in honoring him through other outstanding books that interrogate several aspects of the Yoruba civilization while at the same time encourage thorough research on this cultural and political entity.

Thus, it spawned the Chief Isaac Oluwole Delano Book Prize for Yoruba Studies, a thousand-dollar award prize. This would come to be recognized as the most endowed award in Yoruba Studies at the moment. The advent of the award followed the partnership and support of Babcock University, The Chief Isaac Delano Foundation, a Supervisory Board, and assemblage of a 5-man jury consisting of seasoned academics in African and Yoruba Studies and a Secretary. Scholars were invited to submit their works for evaluation and consideration. Seasoned and budding scholars presented many outstanding results. However, since a winner has to be chosen, four of these works were shortlisted for the award’s debut. They included: Vicki Brennan’s Singing Yoruba Christianity: Music, Media, and Morality; Andrew Apter’s Oduduwa’s Chain: Locations of Culture in the Yoruba-Atlantic; Henry Lovejoy’s Prieto: Yoruba Kingship in Colonial Cuba during the Age of Revolutions; and John Thabiti Willis’s Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town.

Henry Lovejoy Author of Prieto: Yoruba Kingship in Colonial Cuba during the Age of Revolutions

All of these publications were extensively reviewed by the jury and four prominent figures in Yoruba and African Studies as external evaluators. Following these critical evaluations and votes by nine scholars and endorsement by the Supervisory Committee, the award committee concluded by granting the award to two of the publications that made it to the final stage. The choice of choosing co-winners instead of a single winner is a reflection of the difficulty in choosing among these fundamental works. It is, therefore, my pleasure to announce the emergence of Henry Lovejoy’s Prieto: Yoruba Kingship in Colonial Cuba during the Age of Revolutions (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018) and John Thabiti Willis’s Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town (Indiana University Press, 2018) as the co-winners of this outstanding award for the year 2020.

John Thabiti Willis, Author of Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town

Although both books that co-won this year’s Delano Book Prize interrogate different aspects of Yoruba civilization and culture in terms of space and theme, they tell the story of the struggle, resilience, and reproduction of the people as a cultural entity. While Lovejoy’s book focuses on the Yoruba in the Diaspora, bringing to light the battle of the community in Cuba for relevance through the study of a prominent member of the community, Prieto, Willis’s work, explores how this struggle has shaped the cultural practices of the people in modern Nigeria through the lens of the Egungun traditions found among the people of Otta in present-day Ogun state. From Diaspora to the homeland in Southwestern Nigeria, these books remind us of the transnationality of the Yorùbá culture and the resilience of the people. In this way, they are celebrated as significant contributions to the value that Chief Delano stood for during the time he led. Through several of his publications, Chief Delano had only one aim: to project the Yoruba culture and civilization to the world that was bent on asphyxiating its historical grandeur and heritage. Both Lovejoy and Willis have extended this discussion further with their years of research experiences and other engagements that enhance our understanding of the Yoruba people. This award is indeed a well-deserved honor in recognition of this scholarship. To this effect, I congratulate Henry Lovejoy, an Assistant Professor of African Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, and John Thabiti Willis, an Associate Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies at Carleton College, on this significant achievement as the year comes to an end.

 

 

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