“I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction”- (Isaiah 48:10)
Michele La Vanghn Robinson, that intelligent and graceful daughter of a humble Chicago Water Department pump operator, who has made history as the first African-American First Lady of the United States America, all would agree, has acquitted herself remarkably well in the eyes of the public. She has managed to keep her nose clean by remaining true to her pre-White House life of serving the common people. Little wonder the Amazon with a ready natural smile is reported to have teeming admirers, even across political party lines.
Latest media polls suggest Michelle Obama’s popularity rating has continued to surge upwards even in the last days of the Obama presidency. This was part of the reason the just-concluded Democratic Party National Convention in Philadelphia, USA, ranked her among the top five speakers (including the president and the vice president) at the Convention. True to her reputation, the outgoing First Lady didn’t disappoint. She delivered what could otherwise have passed as a flawless solidarity speech (in favour of her party nominee), but for these words “I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves…” the speaker’s voice betraying emotion; and the words impacting the capacity-auditorium with great effect. Those words earned Michelle a standing ovation.
For me, those words, coming from an African American with Michelle’s education and status, constituted an ant-in-the-ointment, because the words once again portray peoples of African descent as irredeemable prisoners of emotions. No other people react with unbridled emotion to past adversities like Africans. Many would still recall how leading African Americans, including Jesse Jackson; Oprah Winfrey, etc, sobbed, sans grace, during President Obama’s first inauguration back in 2008. They apparently couldn’t come to terms with the reality of a black president in a country which once purchased blacks as slaves. I was deeply appalled by that tearful outpouring of emotions by eminent members of my race, merely that one of our ranks succeeded to an office previously occupied by a fellow human being.
Needless to say that I am counted among the few who didn’t make a dance and song about the first black US president; my reasons are as follows: kings and national leaders are appointed by God; and to God, all men (generic) are equal; therefore, nothing is impossible. When consoling the bereaved in Africa we often hear such phrases as “Please don’t grieve like someone without a God;” “There must be a reason, unknown to humans, why God allowed this loss to befall you;” and so on. When I hear such thought-provoking platitudes I often wonder at the dept of the African’s understanding of the workings of God in particular, and African existential philosophy in general. Also, at such times scriptures, akin to Isaiah 48:10 loom large in my mind: God first afflicts a people with years of extreme humiliations and oppression, by way of “refining” them; at the end of which He exalts them.
The history of the Jews is the empirical proof. First, God delivered them to 400-odd years of soul-destroying slavery in a “strange land.” Then He sends a Moses to liberate them. Today, the Jewish State of Israel is one of the most formidable countries on planet Earth. The Jews seldom talk about their years in captivity, let alone talk about those past centuries with emotion. “For I am the Lord, I changeth not…” (Malachi 3:6) is another scripture that frequently looms large in my mind. Evidently, God relates to the individual much as He does the collective. Again, history bears this out. We read of such outstanding individuals as Socrates; Moses; Jesus; Jacob; Athanasius; Gandhi; Nelson Mandela; Awolowo; etc, who first were severely burnished in God’s furnace of enduring afflictions before prominence was conferred upon them. Employing contemporary phraseology to describe God’s furnace of affliction, Saint John of the Cross called the experience “The Dark Night of the Soul,” during which God tries the soul of men with endless afflictions. Chinese philosophy also acknowledges this evident-truth: “When Heaven wants to confer honour upon a person, it first puts them through extreme humiliations and pains…” This existential phenomenon is thus well documented; why is it then that African consciousness has not risen to the level where all past humiliating experiences are seem as preludes to Divine exaltation?
This is a necessary question begging for an answer.
Some fifty years ago in Nigeria, the Igbo tribe was compelled to fight a Civil War in a survivalist endeavour to check a pogrom that threatened it. The war lasted all of thirty months, during which the Igbo tribe passed through the proverbial furnace of affliction. The Igbos endured humiliations and oppressions in all colourations and configurations. They were “refined” and prepared to receive Heaven’s mandate as co-creators in the Cosmos. Sketchy reports were glimpsed of “Biaran creative inventions” as the demands of the war heightened on the Igbos. As they verged on the brink where the Germans had been during the Great Wars, graveyard silence substituted the thundering sounds of war.
Half a century following that unceremonious cessation of the Civil War, Nigerians as a people, have utterly failed to enhance their scientific and technological fortunes from the rich experiences (spiritual revelations) of that war; and the Igbos, typical of the African mindset, continues to lament the humiliations and oppressions they endured in the pogrom and Civil War years! This, to say mildly, leaves much to be desired. It is time the African grew up cosmically, and start seeing past humiliating experiences as necessary preludes to Divine elevation.
• Nkemdiche, an engineering consultant, writes from Abuja, FCT