Creativity Reborn: The Chief Isaac Oluwole Delano Book Prize

by Toyin Falola

Following a meritorious judging process by the jury, four finalists have emerged for the 2020 Isaac Oluwole Delano Book Prize for Yoruba Studies. The competition, which is organized by the Pan-African University Press, Babcock University and the Isaac Delano Foundation, is worth a sum of $1,000, which makes it not only the most robust prize for Yoruba Studies, but also the most prestigious recognition in the world for Yoruba scholarship. As it has always been, there was a pool of competitive submissions across various places and the jury was delighted to read the analytical perspectives of the entrants. It is a solid and remarkable platform for the promotion and further development of Yoruba Studies in continuation of Chief Isaac Delano’s legacy.

The Isaac Oluwole Delano Book Prize in Yoruba Studies was set up as a celebration of the contributions of the Yoruba and the understanding of cultures and human civilization in general. Over the last century when the documentation of cultures, histories and practices of Yoruba people began to gather momentum, the interest of scholars in uncovering every aspect of the civilization has never waned. This notwithstanding, the Yoruba tradition, culture and language are amongst those under strain and stress. Some scholarly works have risen to this occasion to bridge the contradictions by directing the search to those structures and ideas within which an endangered culture subsists or has been replicated. Others have gone beyond praise-singing the grandeur of the civilization to offering valuable critique that contributes to our understanding of the past and present of the people. In this emerging literature, the grasp of transdisciplinary academic methods of inquiry seems to have reached its crescendo. They simply exhibit no disciplinary bound in their methods and language as they adopt expertise knowledge of appropriate disciplines that best illuminate different aspects of their inquiries. As such studies burgeoned, the paradigm of knowledge production on Africa also expanded. So, we see the tempo of Yoruba Study on the rise as scholars continue to produce works on the diaspora Yoruba population in different locations around the Atlantic World. In the same manner, scholars have opened our horizon to the picture of what could be referred to as transnational Yoruba, i.e., the collectivity of the Yoruba identity in terms of people, language group, and ideas across boundaries.

Meanwhile, all through the better part of his life, Chief Isaac Oluwole Delano lived as a Pan-Yoruba enthusiast whose over a dozen publications with Oxford University Press and other leading presses in the 1950s through the 1970s contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the historical, ethnographical, anthropological, sociological, linguistical and political aspects of the Yoruba civilization. Chief Delano had written extensively on the question of religion, particularly Christianity, in Nigeria. In fact, at this point, it is hard to tell which area he had made more impact, namely politics, history, culture, biography, linguistics, religion, ethics or literature. Regardless, it will be safe to sum up his contributions under the modernization theme. Using the transdisciplinary methodology to the extent at which could be grasped at the time, his publications speak to the contradictions of modernization and how this should be navigated carefully for a prosperous Yoruba nation in the main, as well as Nigeria and Africa on the whole.

The Delano Book Prize, therefore, serves as a platform for celebrating the best of books published on any of the aforementioned subjects so as to further encourage increased production of good research on the Yoruba people. The Jury has chosen four books that discuss different aspects of the Yoruba world. A winner is expected to be chosen from this list of finalists. The four finalists are as follows:

1. Vicki Brennan, Singing Yoruba Christianity: Music, Media and Morality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).
2. Andrew Apter, Oduduwa’s Chain: Locations of Culture in the Yoruba-Atlantic (University of Chicago Press, 2018).
3. Henry Lovejoy, Prieto: Yoruba Kingship in Colonial Cuba during the Age of Revolutions (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
4. John Thabiti Willis, Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town (Indiana University Press, 2018).

These four highly analytical books make meaningful contribution to the advancement of Yoruba studies. They take a deep dive into culture, festivities, and thought processes upon which some Yoruba practices rest. Here is a brief analysis of each of the four books.

ANALYSIS OF THE FOUR BOOKS

The four books are centered on the historical experiences of the Yoruba in areas of religion and modernity, culture and values, as well as epistemologies and mythologies.

Published in 236 pages of eight chapters by Indiana University Press in 2018, Brennan’s text on Yoruba Christianity, Singing Yoruba Christianity: Music, Media and Morality, is an outstanding contribution to Yoruba spirituality in the modern world. Weaving the historic and ethnographic with the anthropologic to lay the basis of her discussion, Brennan, herself a well-trained anthropologist, has indeed succeeded in elucidating to us in one single piece “ways in which religion articulates cultural ideas and enables practices of sociality.” Her methodology of participation, keen observation, interactions, coordination of interviews, and textual analysis on the Cherubim and Seraphim Christian Church (Ayo ni O) in Lagos, Nigeria, tailored in a theoretical frame provide us with a unique perspective on how common religious practices are transformed into an agency of cultural incubation. Accordingly, we are informed about ways in which music, sound, rhythm, imagery, dance and other collective performances of members of this Christian denomination in Nigeria developed over time, serve as a loop through which members attain a spiritual unison, maintain a moral code, and express their imagined collectivity. The significance of this text to the Yoruba study lies in the language and grand philosophy that goes into the making of all of these “aesthetic sensations.” As a movement borne out of the struggle for an epistemic liberation of Christianity in Yorubaland, the Ayo ni O Cherubim and Seraphim Church occupies a peculiar space in the cultivation of foreign ideas on the ground where the traditional meets the modern.

Of course, in about three volumes on Nigerian Christianity, Delano was emphatic on the need to Yorubanize Christianity, which was at the time heavily Europeanized. Like Delano, Brennan has shown in this work how the ideational basis of religions brings about the preponderance of culture and cultural practices in their interpretations and expressions. In other worlds, culture serves as a loop through which religious thoughts are articulated, animated and passed on to others. And for this essence, it could be cultivated to suit the cultural form of a society or people. This is shown to us through the ritual practices and structure of worship at the church in focus where extensive data was gathered by Brennan.

On the greater part, every religion came into being through the construction of myths and mythical bodies influenced through the lived experiences of the people. In the very context of the Yoruba civilization, this is built around multiple layers of mythical entities. Holding the political space with a social potency that sustains the Yoruba spirituality and religion in this mythical conjunction is the myth launched for centuries to account for the creation of the world through Oduduwa. Apter, in his Oduduwa’s Chain: Locations of Culture in the Yoruba-Atlantic, published in 2018 by the University of Chicago Press, gives a lucid account of the phenomenon of a global Yoruba using the logic of revisionist hermeneutics. This very approach brought to the fore the need to go into the ancient history of the Yoruba people represented in myths and legends that began with the creation of the world by Oduduwa. Drawing from several traditions that collectively create ground for our understanding of the ethnogenesis of the Yoruba people, Apter promotes the idea that, indeed, as against the problematic of a paradigm which seeks to  interpret the syncretic form of African religions and cultures to imply an absence of form, order, and ingenuity—African syncretism should be seen as being responsible for the unique identity of its members across the Atlantic world and the continued connectivity to its homeland, centuries after some of its people were forcefully transported to different locations in the Americas.

To buttress his argument, Apter shows how the making of the Yoruba hermeneutics created an agency for the people from their primordial homeland to the Americas where these ideas and practices have been further transformed and given new meaning within their organic form. Advancing the theory further, Apter cites instances where Catholic Saint characters in places like Haiti, Cuba and Brazil are replaced by Yoruba gods. In many ways, this text contributes to the increasing scholarship on Black/Yoruba-Atlantic, the exigency of culture and religion in shaping the political life of a people and the role of myth as an identity force that transcends time and space as seen in the experience of the Yoruba population in the Americas; Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and Brazil, principally.

Whereas Apter had taken the Yoruba-Atlantic, or rather the Global Yoruba discourse from the mythical angle, linking Social Anthropology with Cultural History in the process, Lovejoy takes to the economic and biographical frame of assessing the world. Published in the “Envisioning Cuba Series” by the University of North Carolina Press in about 241 pages of eight chapters, Prieto: Yorùbá Kingship in Colonial Cuba during the Age of Revolutions, gives a detailed historical account of slavery, slave trade, Atlantic Creole, and the Black-Atlantic, from the Yorùbá world. What this text does is to bring to life the experiences of African slaves in the Americas through the interrogation of documents related to the central character of discussion, Juan Nepomuceno Prieto. Through the experience of Preito, we are taken back to the horrors of racism, cultural prejudice and barbarism that fueled slavery and its trade in slaves between Africans and European slave merchants, particularly from the opening of the Lagos and Badagry trading ports. Prieto, according to the text, was among those captured, enslaved and eventually traded to Cuba in the eighteenth century. This situates the setting of the historical study to colonial Cuba where Prieto and other persons of Yoruba ancestry were referred to as Lucumi by their white masters.
Therefore, while their kinsmen back home took on the Yoruba identity equally foisted on them, they became Lucumi, both with implications that shaped their sociopolitical and economic realities. As with many others who had risen to become a real or imagined threat to the colonial government and the slave institution, Prieto faced many persecutions from the Colonial government in Cuba during his lifetime. Account of the life of Prieto also speaks to the endurance of Yoruba spirituality in the Americas, explaining in different ways how and why this culture has become a cat with many lives in the face of its sophisticated detractors and rough trajectory. In a nutshell, Lovejoy has once again brought us to the reality of the continued dialogue between the homeland—Yorubaland— and the Atlantic world as well as the resilience of the Yoruba people.

Leaving the Atlantic and the Atlantic-Yoruba population back to the primordial home of the people in Southwestern Nigeria, John Thabiti Willis in Masquerading Politics: Kinship, Gender and Ethnicity in a Yoruba Town takes us through the egungun (masquerade) tradition among the people of Otta in present-day Ogun state. Expectedly, Willis uses historical anthropology to assess the structural and performative changes that have occurred in the making of the egungun tradition among the people of the town. Although a tradition only observed occasionally, Willis explains the egungun tradition there as an institution of its own, administering justice, installing kings, maintaining order and ensuring prosperity. In this pursuit, he looks into the social as well as the political roles of the institution over the course of time, factors responsible for the changes, and how these changes have shaped the history of the people and distorted the traditional form of society.
All of these books, it should be noted, are products of long years of intensive research from the archives to the fields, libraries and institutions. The fact that these authors are mature lends credence to the texts as their years of expertise, through the scrupulousness graduate to post-doctoral field research and theoretical frameworks, is put to rigorous use. For instance, while Apter’s work is a refined product of his selected works presented and published variously between 1991 and 2013, that of the other finalists are a culmination of the ideas that have thus far sustained their academic careers and defined their intellectual contributions.

The jury responsible for adjudicating the competition is a crop of leading scholars in the field of Yoruba Studies. It is chaired by Toyin Falola of University of Texas at Austin, and other distinguished members of the panel are: Professor Tunde Babawale, University of Lagos; Pamela Smith, Emeritus Professor, University of Nebraskm Omaha; Professo Akin Akinlabi, Rutgers University; and Damilola Osunlakin, Ahmadu Bello University.

We also have the esteemed supervisory board whose services to the book prize have been invaluable. The members include: Dr Bola Dauda (Independent), chairing the board; Chief Akinwande Delano (representing the Delano Foundation); Dr Michael O. Afolayan (Independent); Professor Bola Sotunsa (representing Babcock University); and Professor Olajumoke Jacob-Haliso (representing Babcock University).

The entries of the four finalists are not only engaging, but also well-explored. The research is evident and the authors displayed a deft understanding of their individual subject matter. I am confident these are books that will contribute greatly to the literature of Yoruba studies. This reminds us of the essence of this book prize. Ever since inception, it has been a crucial way to promote scholarship in Yoruba studies and offer Yoruba scholars the opportunity to shoot their books into limelight and contribute their quota to the ever-growing conversations. It is my hope that this book prize continues to amplify the voices of scholars and welcome more insights in the field of Yoruba studies.

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