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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Isidore Okpewho (1941-2016)

Friday, June 23, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Dan Ben-Amos (University of Pennsylvania) — 

Isidore Okpewho died on September 4, 2016. We first met in 1982 at a social gathering in Ibadan University. I approached him with some trepidation. A year or so earlier, I reviewed his book The Epic in Africa Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), and it was not a raving review. I criticized him on several issues, and now I had to face the author. To my relief, the conversation that ensued was relaxed, friendly, and substantive. He accepted some points of my criticism, and rejected others, standing his ground with profound knowledge of his subject and with sound logic. We became friends. Apparently, it was a meeting he remembered as well, because years later he mentioned it to me favorably.

Isidore was born in AgborDelta StateNigeriaa state that shares boundary with Bendel State, where I conducted my research. His father was an Urhobo, a people that have some critical traditions about the politically dominant Edo (Binis), and their Oba (king). We shared stories about these mutual traditions and Isidore wrote a book about Benin from the perspectives of the peoples it dominated, Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998). In his scholarship Isidore did not limit himself to the traditions of his people. In fact, he was a global scholar, before globalism was key-word in scholarly discourse. He graduated from the University College, Ibadan with a firs-class honors degree in classics, and received his doctoral degree in comparative literature from the University of Colorado in 1976.

The book that I reviewed was based on his dissertation. But unlike many who discovered the epic in Africa, he grew up with its performance. In the “Preface” to his book he wrote: “since childhood I have listened to many skilled men singing heroic tales to musical accompaniment; and I have in recent years taken a keen intellectual interest in their art.”  His interest in the African folklore and the African epic was not limited to the traditions in his native language, but extended to other African societies and Africa as whole. He wrote, in addition to the books that I have already mentioned an introduction to African folklore, African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, character and Continuity (1992); Myth in Africa: a Study of Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (1983); he edited The Oral Performance in Africa (1990), and his last book was Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology (2014). Isidore was not only a scholar but also an artist who wrote four novels, The Victim (1970), The Last Duty (1976), Tides (1993), and Call me by my Rightful Name (2004).

Even before completing his dissertation he began to teach at the University of New York at Buffalo (1974-76.) After his graduation he returned to his native Nigeria at taught at the University of Ibadan for 14 years (1976-1990), and then returned to the United States and was a member of the faculty of the University of New York at Binghamton from 1991.

He was honored as a Fellow a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (1982) and by the Alexander Humboldt Foundation (1982). He was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto in 1988, and at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University in 1990-1991, and the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, in 1997 and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003.  In 1993 he was elected as a Folklore Fellow by the Finnish Academy of the Sciences in Helsinki. We missed including him among the Fellows of the American Folklore Society.


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