Tejumola Olaniyan

Africana joins the rest of the world in mourning Tejumola (Teju) Olaniyan, Louise Durham Mead Professor of English & Wole Soyinka Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Wisconsin, a Cornell alumnus, a friend of our department and one who never failed to lend a hand in our continuing work to fulfill our founding objectives and make our program the best.  He died on November 30, 2019. 

Teju, as he was popularly called, was born in Omu-Aran, Kwara State, Nigeria.  He graduated top of his class in Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria, and earned a Master of Arts in the same field before coming over to Cornell University in 1987 for his doctoral studies. 

As they say in Yorùbá, the morning presages what the evening will look like.  His publishing career started in earnest in Nigeria where he became the most prolific contributor to the Literary Series of The Guardian newspaper and papers in academic journals. 

After his training at Cornell, he became a leading exemplar of the meaning of Africana Studies in the way his work embraced Africa and the Diaspora through the fields of literature and culture.   His intellectual accolades of the field came first with his dissertation Scars of Conquest which read African theatrical productions diasporically.  Then the landmark Arrest the Music which offered an  innovative assertion of the creative/theoretical meaning of Africa beat icon Fela Anikulapo-Kuti,  again matching the amazing reach of Fela with an intellectual product that brought much needed textual and political analysis to his subject.  Edited collections on African Diaspora Studies, Music, Politics and, more recently, study of African cartoons, reveal only the major contributions of a rich tapestry of scholarship.

“In a tribute to Professor Olaniyan on the occasion of his 60th birthday [in May, 2019], his fellow scholar (and former teacher) Biodun Jeyifo, professor of African and African American Studies and of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, wrote that ‘for most intellectuals of the African world, the diasporas of our continent in the rest of the world are places of endless cycles of sojourns and returns… Teju’s work, his productivity, in at least the last 10 years, has been largely predicated on this constitutiveness of journeys back and forth between home and diaspora, nation and the world. He is acutely aware of Africa’s structural disadvantages, its ‘development of underdevelopment’ in the global order of neoliberal capitalism, together with their effects on institutions and practices of the state on the arts and the media in our continent.  But unlike in the past, this ‘unhappy consciousness’ is deeply inflected with a sense of possibility, of an openness to a futurity that is not decreed but must be achieved by us’.”


But above all, his service and recognition of the need to create, maintain and enhance our institutions is revealed in his presidency of the  African Literature association at a critical time, and most recently its editor of JALA – the Journal of the African Literature Association with a determination to make it a premier literary journal of African Literature.

For Africana at Cornell,  Teju served as a program reviewer in 2016 and in his conversations with us manifested a desire for us to maintain the history of the  department and further maximize our full potential  Teju demonstrated always a subtle nudging at times, a pushing of his colleagues  always to live up to our history and take it further. He always has seemed to be here at crucial moments, never abandoning his Cornell connections. That he served as dissertation advisor to our current  faculty member in African literature, perhaps allowed him to complete the circle. But so much more was still left undone.

His booming bass; his compassion, his smile and commitment to excellence, expecting the best of us always and a kind brotherly love that will be missed perhaps even more than his scholarship, dedication and humility so irreplaceable. 


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