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The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

by Ayi Kwei Armah

THE LITERARY WORK

A novel set in Ghana in 1965-66; published in English in 1968,

SYNOPSIS

A young civil servant struggles with political corruption, family pressures, and disillusionment in postcolonial Ghana.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in Ghana in 1939, Ayi Kwei Armah participated in the events that took Ghana from British colony to independent country. His first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born established him as a writer of world renown. The work, whose title has an intentional misspelling taken from an inscription on a bus, portrays both the euphoria of independence and the disillusionment that followed in Ghana. It was a sobering period, in which the early promise of freedom gave way to economic malaise, political corruption, and continued financial dependence on Europe. Since 1968 Armah has generally lived outside Ghana, and occasionally outside Africa, though remaining a vital figure in African literature. His subsequent novels have continued to address the issues of modern African culture. A vocal proponent of pan-African unity, Armah has proposed the adoption of Swahili as an African lingua franca, championed African literatures past and present, and deplored the continued cultural domination of Europe and the United States.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Traces of colonialism

In 1471 the Portuguese became the first Europeans to arrive in what is now Ghana. Traders, not colonists, they named the area the Gold Coast, after the commodity they prized above all others; the region would later be renamed Ghana by its native inhabitants. Soon British, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish traders were competing with the Portuguese for the traffic in gold and other raw materials.

European interest in Ghana took a new, vicious turn with the development of the plantation system (and its demand for slaves) in North and South America. Between 1650 and 1800 the Gold Coast lost about 10,000 people a year to the slave trade that fueled American plantations. The slave trade promoted strife and instability among different African peoples. When African kingdoms warred against each other, the victor took captives. Slave traders made it profitable for victors to sell their vanquished foes to the Europeans. Europe was also deeply interested in profiting from economic ties to the area. Europeans cast a covetous eye on the raw materials that could be extracted from West Africa, and sought also to exploit it as a market for manufactured goods. Such a relationship was firmly established 200 years before Ghanaian independence. This basic pattern of exchange—raw natural wealth for more expensive finished prodcts—would characterize the period of colonialism proper.

In the Gold Coast this period of colonialism began in the middle of the nineteenth century. Before then, the formal British presence was limited to coastal forts. To protect their interests, the British would occasionally intervene in wars between different African kingdoms. This trend led, in 1844, to the “Fante Bond”: chiefs of the coastal Fante people, who with British help were fighting the inland Asante, conceded to England the right to administer justice. The Asante (occasionally aided by the Dutch) resisted vigorously, posing a continual threat to British trade and government until they were subdued in 1900.

The colonial territory of the Gold Coast assumed its final shape in 1901, when the large Asante territory was annexed: 55 years later, this combined territory would become the free country of Ghana. The British mostly employed indirect rule—instead of sending British citizens to govern the territory, they formed alliances with certain native chiefs and elders, and influenced society, politics, and the economy that way. Various councils, composed mostly of British colonists, supervised and supported the native rulers and judges. These councils had final say over any decision made by the Africans; however, the British were fairly permissive unless trading interests were involved. There were a number of exceptions to the policy of indirect rule. Asante territory was one such exception; here the British ruled directly in an attempt to avoid any future rebellion.

Two consequences of the British mode of colonialism directly affected the society depicted in The Beauty jut Ones Are Not Yet Born. First, the British system tended to create a native elite. A very small percentage of Africans were given European education and power (supported by British guns); the rest were left, powerless, to toil in the cocoa fields and gold mines. The existence of this new elite, and the premium they placed on all things European, proved to be durable facts of life, even after the colonial era ended. As Armah notes with bitterness, many in the postcolonial power structure remained obsessed with European lifestyles and luxury goods. Second, the economic structures of British colonialism systematically removed natural resources from Ghana, retarding the growth of native manufacturing and industry. When the British withdrew they left an infrastructure that made it easy to send raw material to the coast but difficult to make anything with those raw materials in Ghana. Armah’s hero, a railway employee, oversees his country’s underdevelopment. He coordinates the trains whose cars are filled with resources from the interior for export.

Traces of resistance

Another saga takes place alongside the history of British colonialism in Ghana: this is the story of how the peoples of Ghana resisted European domination. The Asante, as mentioned, staunchly opposed the British; it took four separate wars for the colonizers to subdue them. Even the Fante, who initially welcomed the British as allies against the Asante, eventually turned against the Europeans, forming the popular Fante Confederacy and attempting throughout the 1860s to oust the British from the country. Although these insurgencies failed to stop British advances, they inspired later, more successful protests.

In the first decades of the twentieth century African resistance to colonialism began with the native elite, those Africans trained by the British themselves. This seeming paradox is simply explained: while the masses of the colonized may have resented the British, they lacked the power or the voice necessary for effective protest. At this point only the elite were positioned to defend their native lands. The first organized effort, the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society, was founded in 1897; it evolved into the National Congress of British West Africa in the 1920s. This organization, while often sharply critical of the British, hoped to transform colonialism rather than eradicate it altogether. Members agitated for more European education in the Gold Coast, and more places for Africans on the British-dominated colonial councils. Such appeals were clearly grounded in the interests of the elite class and made no attempt to represent the mass of Africans.

In the 1930s more radical organizations began to appear as Britain’s political strength waned. First the Great Depression (1929-34) and then World War II (1939-45) weakened Britain, as they did all the European powers, making an end to colonialism inevitable. Furthermore, Britain’s defense of antiracist principles in opposition to Adolph Hitler appeared increasingly hypocritical in light of the institutionalized racism pervasive throughout the British empire. In 1937 Joseph Boakye Danquah spearheaded the creation of the Gold Coast Youth Council, an organization explicitly dedicated to freeing the Gold Coast. In 1947 Danquah’s group merged with others like it to create the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC). Civil unrest, strikes, and demonstrations were the order of the day. It was clear that the British would leave—the questions to be answered were when and how; by some British estimates, it would take another 60 to 80 years. The British had come to accept the need for substantial change in their governance of the Gold Coast: first the Watson Commission and then the Coussey Committee attempted to satisfy native agitators by allowing Africans more self-gover-

PAN-AFRICANISM: AN UNFULFILLED IDEAL

From the inception of the twentieth century, anticolonial activists were possessed by the idea of a “Black Nation”—unity for African people everywhere. This Pan-African ideal was most forcefully expressed in the 1920s by the West Indian Marcus Garvey, who recommended that African Americans return to the homelands from which they had been abducted. He envisioned Africa as a single country, unified by pride in African culture.

Garvey’s ideas, while extreme, exerted a profound influence both in the United States and in Africa: two Africans deeply affected by these ideas were Ayi Kwei Armah and Kwame Nkrumah. For anticoloniafists it seemed that, because Africa had been carved up among various European countries, the key to independence would be unification: by joining forces, the colonies would have the strength to cast off their separate oppressors. Looking back at the origins of colonialism, they realized that the Europeans had exploited strife between kingdoms, first to gain slaves and then to gain direct control. Nkrumah knew that, as long as the Fante remained suspicious of the Asante, his country would never achieve independence. Further, on a transnational level, he doubted that the Gold Coast could sustain its independence or become economically self-supporting if it were hostile to its neighbors. “[Nkrumah] argued that while nationalism is necessary for gaining independence, it cannot be a final solution, because … only a united Africa can effectively resist the pressures of neocolonialism” (Afari-Cyan, p. 170).

In the end, however, Pan-Africanism remained no more than a dream. As each colony gained its independence it set up its own government and its own traditions, and sometimes old tribal hostilities reemerged. However, the Pan-African vision is an enduring ideal that Armah, for one, continues to espouse, advocating the adoption of Swahili as a universal African language.

nance. Ironically the very willingness of the British to make concessions to Africans ended up splintering the African opposition. Danquah and the UGCC, tending to trust the British, wanted gradual change and an orderly progression to eventual independence. But by 1948, the mood of the people was more radical, and the masses were not inclined to trust the British nor to be satisfied with the concessions to self-governance that the colonial power gave them. Danquah and his group, which had initiated the modern anticolonial movement in the Gold Coast, ended up seeming like conservatives, or even antipatriots: they are the “yessir men,” the English-loving traitors, ridiculed in Armah’s novel. At this point, a new type of leader was needed, and the Gold Coast found one in Kwame Nkrumah.

Kwame Nkrumah

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghanaian history. A master politician and a visionary, he advocated Pan-African unity and economic self-sufficiency. Most important, he understood that building a nation required the participation and consent of the masses, and could not be accomplished by isolated elites. He was never universally beloved, and his government was overthrown by a military coup in 1966, but he is the key figure in the history of Ghana.

In 1947 Nkrumah was simply a Londonbased political activist in the Pan-African movement. Late that year the UGCC invited him to return home to become their secretary-general. Fearing that their base of support was limited to the educated elite and prospering urban businessmen, they hoped Nkrumah could mobilize popular support for their organization. Discontent was spreading through the country, as reflected in incidents of civil unrest: the people wanted more daring and flamboyant leadership than that of the rather conservative UGCC. Nkrumah filled this role, to a degree that probably exceeded the wishes of the UGCC. In 1948 he began to act independently of the organization; he started publishing a newspaper (the Accra Evening News) and set up an organization (the Committee on Youth Organization) that was responsible to him alone. Nkrumah was receptive to the mood of the general public and toured the country extensively, drawing into his fold the rural farmers previously overlooked by the UGCC.

In 1949 Nkrumah formally broke from the UGCC and established the more radical Convention People’s Party (CPP). The UGCC did not disband, although many of its members followed Nkrumah into the CPP; for the next decade, the UGCC would be Nkrumah’s most significant political opponent. Both of these parties set out to rid the land of the British but the CPP employed more radical tactics. In 1950 the CPP organized a campaign of civil disobedience, called Positive Action, which used strikes and boycotts of imported goods to increase pressure on the British. Nkrumah and many of his followers were jailed, but Positive Action had beneficial results. The new constitution (1950-51) extended voting rights and called for a black majority on the colonial councils. In the first elections after this constitution was enacted, the CPP emerged victorious, and Nkrumah was released from jail to become the leader of the African government. He had been arrested in 1948 after a widespread riot that neither he nor the other jailed scapegoats had instigated.

At this point, in 1952, the Gold Coast was functionally independent. The British would not fully withdraw, however, until 1957 whereupon Nkrumah became prime minister. In less than a decade Nkrumah had risen from being an unknown activist to leading the first free country of postcolonial Africa. His fame spread worldwide. His tactics of mass action provided a model for independence movements elsewhere, heartening Africans in other colonies. Within Ghana, his actions and sayings were followed reverently. He would pilot his country for 15 years, until his regime was toppled by a coup in 1966. For good or bad, Nkrumah put his stamp on every aspect of life in Ghana. By the mid-1960s economic stagnation, official corruption, and political strife had tarnished his image. In the euphoric atmosphere of 1952, however, his administration seemed full of promise.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born takes place in 1965 and 1966, one of the darkest periods of Ghana’s history. It opens in the final months of Kwame Nkrumah’s regime and closes with the coup that ousted him on February 24, 1966. The early promise of independence had given way to profound disillusionment, as poverty ran rampant and the economy, overdependent on foreign goods and capital, stagnated. Nkrumah was perceived to have withdrawn from the people and his Convention People’s Party, which during the 1950s was the voice of the masses, was now seen as serving only the interests of its own bureaucrats. Corruption and bribery were ubiquitous. As one historian writes, “It was with a shock that this country realized that a nation might dance its way to freedom, but might not dance its way through the thorny problems of self-government” (Hagan, p. 187).

The unnamed hero of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born has been thoroughly disillusioned by his country’s decline. A high school-educated civil servant for the national railroad, he is torn between two contradictory desires. On the one hand, he wants to provide a comfortable life for his wife and children; on the other, he is repulsed by what is required to get rich in Ghana: participation in the bribery and corruption that accompany almost every public transaction. He refuses to surrender to fraud and corruption but, because this decision hurts his family, he cannot even feel proud of his own honesty.

The novel begins slowly. Its first half follows the protagonist through a day and a half of his life. Nothing extraordinary happens, which is precisely the point: Armah depicts the everyday life of a man in deep mental distress. He portrays the decaying urban landscape in pictorial detail: trash cans, outhouses, and crumbling buildings are lavishly described. Alongside such depictions runs a description of the interior life of the protagonist as he reflects on his predicament. He is torn between his desire to believe that life is beautiful and his fear that corruption and decay are inevitably a part of the human condition. In short, he represents the condition of Ghana in the mid-1960s—a country still young enough to remember the elation of independence but quickly succumbing to greed and self-interest.

In the course of the protagonist’s day it becomes clear that corruption is everywhere. The first chapter begins with a description of a bus conductor who systematically steals from his passengers by giving them too little change. In Chapter Two the protagonist banters with a messenger who has just won the lottery, and who will have to bribe someone just to get his hands on his prize money. In Chapter Three the protagonist encounters corruption directly. While working alone in the railway office, he receives a visit from a timber contractor, Amankwa. Amankwa wants to bribe someone to ensure that his cut timber finds a place on the trains and is carried to port. Trying to conduct his business honestly, he has been told there is no space on the trains, even though he sees empty trains leaving for port every day. The protagonist steadfastly refuses to accept the bribe, incurring Amankwa’s wrath. Though he has done nothing more than behave honestly, the protagonist feels like a criminal: “Everyone said there was something miserable, something unspeakably dishonest about a man who refused to take and to give what everyone around was busy taking and giving” (Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, p. 31).

SOMETHING ROTTEN

One of the most notable features of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is the narrator’s interest in waste, human and otherwise. The first chapter alone provides a detailed picture of an overflowing garbage can and a two-page philosophical treatise on the various types of grime on a banister. The outhouse in particular seems to fascinate the narrator. The protagonist’s bowel movements are frequently and explicitly described; when Koomson visits the protagonist’s house, he is shocked by an unnamed neighbor’s violent diarrhea; and at the novel’s climax, the narrator and Koomson must squeeze through the filthy drain of a communal latrine.

This aspect of the novel received a great deal of attention from reviewers. Some applauded it: “It calls for no small gift to expound on excreta and neither offend nor bore.... Armah brings it off” (Miller, p. 25). Others deplored it: “Armah’s belief that realism comes only by spelling out every crude action, by rubbing the reader’s nose in every vile smell, makes it impossible to recommend the book generally” (Herrick, p. 93).

Why does Armah devote so much attention to filth? First, it physically represents the novel’s themes of decay, corruption, and waste—Ghana, it seems, is a figurative cesspool. More importantly, it provides a literary register for the protagonist’s disgust at his surroundings. He finds using the bathroom a nauseating, but necessary, ordeal, as is negotiating the needs and expectations of his peers.

On his way home from work the protagonist encounters the central embodiment of official dishonesty: his classmate Koomson, who has risen through the CPP to a position of prominence. The protagonist sees Koomson in his luxury car, buying fruit and bread from a street vendor who gives him the honorific nickname of “white man.” Koomson is the protagonist’s foil; while the latter has been paralyzed by a desire to do right, the former has achieved great success by his willingness to do anything. Before they part ways, Koomson announces that he and his wife will have dinner with the protagonist next Sunday night.

At home, the protagonist must face his wife, Oyo. Although they love each other, their marriage is strained to the breaking point because Oyo wants security and comfort, and cannot understand her husband’s desire for honesty. She interprets his integrity as cowardice or stupidity. In a brief conversation, they quarrel about Koomson, about participating in corruption, and about the timber contractor. Oyo wants a toilet and other conveniences for her home. At the most elemental level, she wants a clean life like Estella Koomson’s; the protagonist counters by saying, “Some of that kind of cleanness has more rottenness in it than the slime at the bottom of the garbage dump” (Beautyful Ones, p. 44). But for Oyo this is just cowardice: she likens her husband to the proverbial chichidodo, a bird that eats only maggots but is too fastidious to dig through the excrement where maggots live.

To escape the tension of this home life the protagonist goes to visit a friend, the Teacher, to whom he pours out his problems. The Teacher provides an uneasy sort of comfort—although he does not dispute his friend’s right to remain honest, he also presents Oyo’s plight sympathetically. In short, he clarifies the protagonist’s sense of his own dilemma.

With Chapter Six the novel takes a turn. The narrative is interrupted by a long, first-person reminiscence by the Teacher, who provides the protagonist with an impressionistic account of the Teacher’s own life. He speaks of the anger and frustration of his young manhood and of the violence and poverty of the final years of the colonial regime. He condemns the “old lawyers” and “yessir men” who first struggled for independence, claiming they were so infatuated with European ways that they failed to understand that this cultural worship merely ensured their continuing powerlessness: “How could they understand that even those who have not been anywhere know that the black man who has spent his life fleeing from himself into whiteness has no power if the white man gives him none?” (Beautyful Ones, p. 82). These pathetic creatures are briefly contrasted with the young Nkrumah, a poor man who spoke in the language of the people and did not base his authority on his relationship with the British. The Teacher and his friends were inspired, and they helped him to achieve Ghana’s independence. But in the final irony, Nkrumah, who realized power by refusing to mimic those from whom he took power, ended up no different from the British or their African yessir men: “He was good when he had to speak to us, and liked to be with us, When that ended, everything was gone.... It [this degeneration] has happened to those around him, those who were not always there for the simple sake of the power they could find” (Beautyful Ones, p. 88). The Teacher’s narrative ends with a long condemnation of Koomson, who began as a dock worker but, by learning to mouth the slogans of Nkrumah’s CPP, rose through the bureaucracy by corruption and hypocrisy.

The Teacher’s memories provide no answers for the protagonist’s plight, but they do connect his individual predicament with the larger trends of Ghana’s history. In the first half of the novel the protagonist feels he is alone, separated by his integrity from those around him, even his wife. The Teacher does not contradict that feeling of loneliness, but he does remind the protagonist (and the reader) that corruption is not an inevitable fact of life in Ghana. In a novel dominated by despair, this brief glimpse of a happier time provides a benchmark for optimism: it makes the protagonist’s honesty noble rather than perverse.

After the Teacher’s digression the plot of the novel quickens, moving to the night on which Koomson and his wife, Estella, visit the protagonist and Oyo. They are joined by Oyo’s mother, a narrow-minded woman who despises her son-in-law. It turns out that Koomson has a proposition for his old friend. He wants to buy a yacht but is forbidden by government regulations from owning one himself, so he wants to register the boat in the protagonist’s name. Although Koomson promises nothing more than an occasional gift of fish in return, Oyo and her mother are convinced that agreeing will win his favor, opening up further opportunities for wealth. The protagonist agrees to the plan, although skeptically.

This scene and the next one, in which the protagonist and Oyo go to Koomson’s luxurious house, critique the European habits of Ghana’s ruling class. Koomson and his wife prefer imported liquor and refuse to use the protagonist’s humble outhouse; their own house boasts British-style silver and a German stereo. Koomson even mispronounces his own servant’s name, speaking in the way of white men, “trying to pronounce African names without any particular desire to pronounce them well, indeed deriving that certain superior pleasure from that inability” (Beautyful Ones, p. 147). At the last minute the protagonist refuses to sign the ownership papers for the boat, although he allows his wife to: this moral fastidiousness is joined to his certainty that Koomson will do nothing for the couple.

As it turns out, the man is right: they get nothing more than fish. However, the boat figures prominently in the next and final episode of the novel—the military coup that overthrows Nkrumah in 1966. At work the protagonist hears of the coup but refuses to participate in the celebratory processions. Only when he returns home is he forced to play a part in the drama, as he discovers Koomson, now facing arrest as a member of the ousted government, hiding in his bedroom. Out of common decency rather than political loyalty, the protagonist helps Koomson escape from approaching soldiers—ironically, by squeezing through the very outhouse the bureaucrat had earlier refused to use. They make their way to the dock and, after bribing the night watchman, escape on Koomson’s yacht. Once Koomson is safely headed out of Ghana, the protagonist swims back to shore, where he falls asleep in exhaustion.

When he awakes he walks to a bus stop, witnessing the subsiding chaos that has followed the coup. In the final moments of the novel, he sees the graffiti from which the novel takes its name:

The green paint was brightened with an inscription carefully lettered to form an oval shape:

THE BEAUTYFUL ONES
ARE NOT YET BORN

In the center of the oval was a single flower, solitary, unexplainable, and very beautiful.
(Beautyful Ones, p. 183)

This logo inspires him, but only briefly. He trudges home, all his despair returning as he realizes that nothing in his life has changed.

Lost illusions

Although the novel paints the Nkrumah regime as irredeemably corrupt, it is careful to avoid celebrating the new rulers of Ghana. In fact, it insists on the hypocrisy of those who participate in the overthrow. Unimpressed by the new leaders, the protagonist watches a demonstration from his desk:

Through the window the sounds came: old songs with the words changed from the old praise for Nkrumah to insults for him. So like the noises of the Party when all the first promise had been eaten up and it had become a place where fat men found things to swell themselves up some more.
(Beautyful Ones, p. 158)

In the final chapter of the book the protagonist witnesses three acts of bribery and extortion by officials of the new regime. Clearly, Ghana’s problems run deeper than a single bad leader or a single corrupt party.

It seems that the root of the problem lay deep in the independence movement itself. When he began, Nkrumah created a broad-based popular movement that could encompass Ghanaians everywhere. Although the CPP often faced stiff competition, this was usually limited to specific

CULTURAL COLONIALISM

One of the most significant intellectual influences on Ayi Kwei Armah is the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who, though born in Martinique, allied himself with the Algerian independence movement in the 1950s. In his The Wretched of the Earth (also covered in African Literature and Its Times), Fanon expounds a psychologically based theory of colonialism, arguing that decades of dependence on European decisionmakers impoverished native African culture because leaders of the newly independent countries were afraid to break free from foreign advice and foreign aid. Because they had been trained to see European culture as supreme and African culture as backward, success to them meant imitating European ways and acquiring European goods. In brief, they had an inferiority complex. According to Fanon, along with breaking free of economic and political impediments to real independence, Africans must learn once more to trust their own culture and history.

The applicability of this analysis to The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born cannot be denied. The government official Koomson, his wife, and even the protagonist’s family are focused on what Armah calls “the gleam”: beautiful, highly processed, and artificial foreign goods. Estella Koomson even complains that Ghanaian drinks don’t “agree with her constitution,” as if she were from somewhere else (Beautyful Ones, p. 131). Armah makes it clear that Koomson’s dereliction of duty springs from an acquired dislike of the very people he is supposed to be serving. One might argue that Armah eventually saw, in his own following of European literary traditions, a subtler version of the same cultural inferiority complex. Thus, his later novels deal with, for example, African revolution (Why Are We So Blest?) and Asante history (The Healers).

regions concerned about a single issue—for instance, wealthy cocoa farmers in the north disliked his agricultural policy. In the first years sweeping opposition to Nkrumah was mostly limited to the remnants of the old UGCC.

However, as the years passed the party that had unified Ghana began to separate itself from the nation. As Nkrumah’s regime became more authoritarian, the CPP became a culture unto itself, less concerned with promoting Ghana’s general interest than with enriching and empowering its own members. As the novel’s Koomson demonstrates, rising through the CPP ranks was not so much a matter of effective service as it was of cultivating the right relationships, ignoring the corruption of one’s peers, and keeping an eye out for “unofficial” opportunities. The common Ghanaian must have had the impression that the CPP was a kind of parasite on society, little better than the British, except that now Africans were doing the exploiting. To make matters worse, economic failure and growing dissent led Nkrumah to sponsor repressive measures, and to cement his hold on power by outlawing opposition parties in 1964.

As the novel notes, the bitterest part of this failure was that it represented a complete reversal of Nkrumah’s original principles. Ghana was not only oppressed, it was betrayed, and the traitor was the very man who had promised an end to oppression. The coup itself did nothing to change that basic fact. It later came to light that Nkrumah was not particularly corrupt himself; he had not rooted out the wrongdoing of others around him, but neither had he exploited his position for personal profit. In the long run, however, Nkrumah had overseen the creation of a national political culture marked by hypocrisy, greed, and naked self-interest. As Armah intimates, it did not matter who filled the seats of government and bureaucracy, or what slogans they mouthed. Whether socialist or capitalist, army or civilian, the real business of government was to steal and squander the wealth of the nation.

Sources and literary context

The most important contexts of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born are political—the struggle for African freedom and the subsequent disappointment in the realities of independence. Armah belongs to the first generation of postcolonial African writers and has been heavily influenced by the heady mixture of political, economic, and cultural ideologies at play in the struggle to end colonialism. His career has encompassed journalism, letter campaigns, and pedagogical theory as well as fiction.

Aesthetically, however, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born owes as much to European as to native traditions. It has little to do with the African proverbial and folkloric elements that energize other African novels of the time, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child (both also covered in African Literature and Its Times). The novel’s portrayal of an alienated and confused individual has elicited comparisons to the existential novels of French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus; its lengthy passages of psychological description and its difficult syntax mark it as an heir to the works of European modernists such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence. At one point, Armah appears to have thought of himself as just a writer, not a distinctly African writer (Achebe, p. 41). He seems later to have revised this view, informing the African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks that his first novel was, in essence, too Eurocentric: “Future books, he assures us, will have an African focus, an absolutely African focus” (Brooks, p. 127). His subsequent novels have abandoned the existential and modernist style that characterize his first.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

After the coup

Although Nkrumah’s regime (called, in retrospect, “the First Republic”) was widely disliked and the coup that toppled him greeted with genuine warmth, the usurping government turned out to be incapable of reversing the slide into malaise that had made the coup inevitable in the first place. Despite the fact that the new leaders, members of the National Liberation Council (NLC), were capitalist rather than socialist, they shared many of the CPP’s methods and attitudes. The NLC began by outlawing the CPP and arresting many of its members. Less than a month after taking power, the NLC issued a decree authorizing detention without trial: “The new leaders thus revealed their hypocrisy about democratic values as they repeatedly condemned Nkrumah’s dictatorial inclinations, in practice using largely the same means” (Petchenkine, p. 35). In spite of the NLC’s hostility to the CPP, many of Nkrumah’s former aides found their way into the new government, ensuring that certain practices would be carried over. Although the NLC planned to return the government to civilian hands, and actually scheduled supposedly free elections for 1969, it was so afraid that Nkrumah might seize power that it interfered in the election from beginning to end. It outlawed the more socialist parties, harassed individual candidates, and continually changed the rules of procedure to give conservative candidates the advantage. Thus, when the period of military rule gave way to the Second Republic in 1969, not even the rosiest optimist would have heralded this change as a return to democracy. Most must have felt, as Armah felt, that while the names of the leaders had changed, their destructive and corrupt methods had not.

Reviews

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born received generally favorable, and often glowing, reviews. With this one book, Armah established himself as a writer with a worldwide reputation. One reviewer wrote, “This is a brash and powerfully colorful novel, and if it amounts to doing the laundry in public, we can only say What a laundry! and What an heroic job at the scrub board!” (Davenport, p. 1121). The critic Charles Miller added, “This is a valid and uncommonly arresting view of the abuse of power” (Miller, p. 51).

Although the novel was widely celebrated, it was also criticized by various African writers. The famous Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe took Armah to task for insufficient respect for Africa:

Armah is clearly an alienated writer complete with all the symptoms. Unfortunately Ghana is not a modern existentialist country. It is just a Western African state struggling to become a nation. So there is enormous distance between Armah and Ghana.… A man is never more defeated than when he is running away from himself.
(Achebe, p. 40)

Charles Nnolim seconded this idea: “The first novel [The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born] has nothing essentially Ghanaian about it: no specifically Ghanaian mannerisms or special brand of politics, no language in the local idiom of the people” (Nnolim, p. 109). To some extent, one may assume that Armah himself partly concurred with these objections, as his later work draws inspiration more consistently from sources in African culture.

—Jacob Littleton

For More Information

Achebe, Chinua. “Africa and Her Writers.” In Morning Yet on Creation Day. New York: Anchor Press, 1975.

Afari-Gyan, K. “Nkmmah’s Ideology.” In The Life and Work of Kwame Nkrumah. Ed. Kwame Arhin. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1993.

Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. London: Heinemann, 1968.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Reports from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Davenport, Guy. “Old Tunes and a Big New Beat.” National Review, 5 November 1968, pp. 1120-21.

Fraser, Robert. The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah London: Heinemann, 1980.

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