The Significance of Dr. Boniface

The Significance of Dr. Boniface I. Obichere within African Studies U.S. Higher Education Revisited and Beyond[1]

Joseph E. Holloway

Professor of Pan African Studies

California State University at Northridge

Professor Boniface Ihewunwa Obichere was a brilliant African historian, who knew both Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm.  He first met Malcolm while a graduate at Berkeley.  He was on a panel with Malcolm and they became good friends and maintained contact with each other on a regular basis.  He excited Malcolm in learning more about African and the inter connection of continental Africans and their descendants in the North American Diaspora.

Boniface Obichere 30-year career as a highly respected research and teacher was remarkable for its longevity, depth, and range.  Dr. Obichere was the first person of color to head an outstanding program in African studies at the University of California, Los Angeles; he also served as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of African Studies and as an unofficial ambassador to Africa.  As an academic mentor to thousands of college students, Dr. Obichere was a “father,” a role model, and an educator extraordinaire.  His life, career, research, scholarship, and humanitarian spirit touched all who came under his stewardship.  Professor Obichere trained a generation of Africanist who now are having a significant impact on the development of African Studies.  Many of his students direct departments of African and African American Studies and are tenured faculty members at prestigious universities, where they incorporate his interdisciplinary approach into their work.  He was a pioneer who taught his students to be meticulous and rigorous in research and dynamically innovative as scholars.  Dr. Obichere’s vision was a multidisciplinary African studies that embraced the whole Diaspora.  This short essay will focus on the man his times and his significant contribution to the African studies movement.

A specialist in the study of West Africa, Professor Obichere worked for many years as a primary school teacher in Nigeria before receiving his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Minnesota.  He received a D. Phil. from Oxford in 1967, and has taught and conducted research at UCLA ever since. Professor Obichere was named acting

Assistant professor in 1967, and was appointed associate professor in 1969.  He was promoted to full professor in 1973.  Professor Obichere served as director of the UCLA African Studies Center from 1972 to 1978. Professor Obichere's research interests included African military history, African political leadership, and the history of colonial and independent Africa.

The recipient of many awards and honors for his research and professional service, in 1991 Professor Obichere was presented the Liberian Studies Association Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to the field of African studies.  He was editor and founder of the Journal of African Studies. Professor Obichere was especially well known in West Africa through his representation on different United Nations' and international boards concerned with African culture and history.

Professor Obichere was popular with generations of UCLA undergraduates for an engaging lecture style that brought his own experiences growing up in West Africa to life in the classroom. His particular strengths as a graduate instructor were his intellectual grounding in the historiography of colonialism in Africa, his familiarity with both Anglophone and francophone West Africa, and his indigenous perspective on the African past.

The African Studies movement in higher education began as a direct result of the turbulence of the 1960s.  Before that, only a few campuses—Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Indiana University at Bloomington, and UCLA—offered African Studies.  For many years, African Studies existed as an appendix to the standard university curricula in history, anthropology, and political science and was seen as a minor part of the academy.  In short, at its best, African studies initially was part of the colonial perspective of social sciences, with the history of a colonized peoples too frequently being taught by those who supported colonialism.  For almost ten years, through most of the 1970s, African Studies was characterized by divisionism and squabbling over content, methodology, and organization of curricula.  Some early Africanists felt that the new discipline was a mere political construct to neutralize student protests, whereas others debated whether to open the doors of the program to both African and African American scholars.

Boniface Obichere developed UCLA African Studies Department to the premier center in the country. By no means was Dr. Obichere the only scholar of merit and substance in that program.  Several scholars hired at the same time—such as Jacques Maquet  Chris Ehret and later Ned Alpers—became prominent in the field.  UCLA also had the brilliant Richard Sklar, Leo and Hilda Kuper, James Coleman, T. O. Ranger, Agnes Aidoo, and many others with, African studies at UCLA enjoyed its golden years, for most of the 1970s, and UCLA had the premier African Studies center in the country.  Professor Obichere was its leader and a full participant and contributor to its growth and development.  He became one of the field’s brightest stars and most important spokes persons.  It can be said that he helped lead the movement toward greatness.  In essence, Dr. Obichere became an Africanist par excellence in American higher education.

The African liberation and independence movements of the 1960s created a greater awareness of how important it was for Africans to control their own history.  History records the struggle of men and women to humanized the world through understanding the past, hoping not to repeat the misstates of the past.  African history is thus the efforts, failures and achievements of Africans and their descendants throughout the Diaspora For the most part history is the use of historical events and facts by the historian to reflect his/her interpretation.  In other words, history is “his-story,” or “her- story.”  It is color by the historian to reflect their interest.  He became one of the field’s brightest star and most important spokesperson.  It can accurately be said that he helped to lead the movement toward greatness.  In essence, Dr. Obichere became an Africanist par excellence in American higher education.

Dr. Obichere was a first class Pan Africanist and was profoundly influenced by the ideas of Kwame Nkrumah.  I participated in a research project originally funded by the Ford Foundation on “African Americans in Ghana.”  When Dr. Boniface I. Obichere, was Director of African Studies, I worked as his primary researcher on the project—Blacks who immigrated to Ghana doing the Nkrumah era.  We interviewed numerous African Americans who had immigrated to Ghana, including St. Clair Drake at Sanford University.  We interviewed the Ghanaian history Professor A. Adu Boahen.[2] Other Blacks expatriates we researched included Julian Mayfield, Abbey Lincoln, Maya Angelou, Max Roach, W. E. B. Dubois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, James Lacy,  and Bill Sutherland to name a few.  The result of this study was published in a chapter in Cross-Currents in the African Diaspora edited by Jacob Dracher.  This experience as a graduate student at UCLA provided me an opportunity to meet other Pan Africanist such as Walter Rodney, C. L. R. James. President of the Ivory Coast Felix Houphouet Houphet-Boigny.

Professor Obichere taught many students that history is a process by which human beings use knowledge of themselves to understand the present and the future patterns of all areas of the world. By recording historical events in an understandable chronology, insights and knowledge can be passed on to future generations.  He also taught us that history is not a mere record of events, but that it is the study and transmission of human activities and progress.  For him, the importance of history was not the past per se, but the study of the past to better understand human beings living in the present.

While articulating his views on history and African studies, Professor Obichere acknowledged the contributions of predecessors such as Melville J. Herskovits.  The program Herskovits founded at northwestern University in 1948 was the first academic center of its kind dedicated to the study of the cultures and history of Africa and African peoples, including African Americans.  While W. E. B. DuBois had received a doctorate from Harvard in 1899 with a concentration in African Areas Study, Herskovits was the first to pioneer African Studies in the United States.  His classic work on Diasporic studies, The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), provided a foundation for linking Africans with their descendants in the New World.  Boniface I. Obichere took that point to a higher level.

A Brief Biography of Boniface I. Obichere

Professor Obichere was born in Awake, Owerri, Nigeria, on 4 November 1932, the only child of his father’s fourth wife.  His father, S. Eke Obguagu Obichere, and his mother, Iberia, were part of an extensive family tradition and which the young Boniface was raised.  Boniface took pride in the fact that although his mother was not on equal footing with his father’s first three wives, she was his favorite.

Boniface was an exceptional achiever in school.  He was raised as a Catholic and remained a devout Catholic throughout his life.  He attended Nigerian Roman Catholic and local primary schools, such as Our Lady’s Emekuku (primary), Holy Ghost College, Umuahia, and mount St. Mary’s Teachers College, Azaraegbelu, Owerri.

Boniface grew up and was educated in British-ruled Nigeria.  He recognized the impact of British education on the African mind and personality.  He witnessed firsthand how the British educational system excluded the masses and created a small intelligentsia who perpetuated exclusivity over substance and knowledge of self.  The purpose of colonial education was to produce colonial minds.  As a result, European history and literature were stressed.  But from early in his primary education, Boniface Obichere wanted to study African history another way.  He realized that African liberation must be the product of African education and that Africans themselves would have to become the prime movers in the liberation of their own minds.  For him education was freedom.

Professor Obichere attended the University of Minnesota and the University of California at Berkeley during the early 1960s.  He earned a B. A. cum laude, while witnessing the upheavals of the student movement.  At Berkeley, he made the quantum leap from African nationalism to Pan Africanisms.  At Berkeley he met Malcolm X on a panel, and they became good friends.  Malcolm educated him on the plight of the black man in the United States.  In turn, he educated Malcolm on the global significance of the African independence movement and how it was directly tied to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.  Both Boniface and Malcolm honored and revered Kwame Nkrumah for leading Ghana to become the first new independent country in Africa.  Ghana always held a special place in Dr. Obichere’s heart, as it did for Malcolm.

Malcolm X visited Africa twice in 1964 and was received like a head of State by the African leaders.  Boniface left for England to study African history at Oxford, where he came of age as an African Historian.  Oxford at the time was the citadel of African history.  Its resources for African Studies were based on Britain’s access to the African continent’s rich heritage.  Among the outstanding achievements of his career was his insistence that the curriculum in African Studies merge Africans at home and abroad into a multidisciplinary research field.  His research on blacks from Nkrumah’s Ghana to Malcolm X in Africa was ground breaking.  At his death, he was completing a seminal study of Malcolm X is significance in the political progress of American and global affairs.[3]

It was Dr. Obichere custom after evening seminar to take the entire class down to Westwood were we continued to discuss African history until closing. The Oxford tradition was alive and well with Dr. Obichere.   I learned more African history in a pub than we did in the classroom.  Having attended Oxford University in English this was the tradition of Oxford Professors.  So as it was in Oxford it was in Westwood.

A memorable experience for me concerning Professor Boniface Obichere’s Pan African and Diasporan connection was being invited to his home to meet the acclaimed Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe.  In our discussion of the importance of the African American experiences, Achebe made the statement: “One people, one nation and one history,” which emphasized the unity of all people of African descent.  He remarked “that people can never be separated from its source” and used the analogy of a tree to explain his meaning: “Does the fruit ever fall from the tree?” he asked, and then explained that African Americans remain part of Africa even though they are separated by time, distance and an ocean.

Dr.  Boniface I. Obichere was the ferry across that divide for me and for the numerous students whom he taught, trained, guided cajoled, and loved.    He will continue to live through his students who are all over the world.  He was a great man who did great things and left a towering legacy.  It is for us, his academic progeny, to remember, to cherish, and to continue the legacy he left behind.  It is now our challenge to move forward with the knowledge that we all have been touched by this magnificent teacher and scholar.  African Studies has lost a great champion, but it has gained a magnificent body of scholarship.  We have learned from Dr. Obichere’s wisdom and grace.  For me, he will always and forever affectionately be the mentor, the father, the scholar, the teacher and friend.           For more information on Dr. Boniface I. Obichere See Guide to the Boniface I. Obichere Papers, 1959-1996.  Collection Number: 6481 Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections Cornell University Library.

[1] An earlier version of this essay appeared in Journal of African Studies, Winter 1998, Volume 16, Number 1, pp. 6-8

[2] A. Adu Boahen and I became very close friends as a result of him teaching a seminar at UCLA as a Visiting Scholar.  While Boniface I. Obichere was on the more serious side A. Adu Boahen, Boniface Obichere and I made the rounds with him visiting all the places Dr. Obichere had been invited to.  He loved being the center of attractions and had a story for every occasion.  He dominated the parties and events with his deep clear voice, which command attention.  He knew he was the “man” and lived to play the part. A. Adu Boahen was equal in status, but took a back seat to the “mentor,” and I kept my mouth closed and simply listen and learned all I could.

Every time I visited Ghana, A. Adu Boahen would meet me at the airport and provide a private tour of his Accra the Capital City.  Years later he decided to run for President of his country against the strong man Raulings.  By all the accounts he won.  That night at midnight, I received a call from A. Adu Boahen:  “Joe I am making you Ghana’s first non-Ghanaian Minister of State pack your bags.  By the way, there is a precedence for this.  George Padmore contributed to Nkrumah’s policy in the critical areas of international affairs.  He also established Nkrumah’s Bureau Parliament of African Affairs, and Geoffrey Bing served as Nkrumah’s Attorney General.  Nevertheless, the next day Adu Boahen was thrown in jail by Jerry Rawlings.  Needless to say, he never became President and I never began Ghana’s Minister of State, but had organized a letter campaign for his release.

[3]   See Guide to the Boniface I. Obichere Papers 1959-1991.  Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection, Cornell University.



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