Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – ‘A Psalm of Life’
Lives of Great Men is a memoir by Nigerian journalist, Chike Frankie Edozien. Edozien takes us across Africa and the African diaspora, in order to document the trials and tribulations of same-gender loving Africans. This fascinating read piques the interest of its audience through its keen powers of introspection. Looking into Edozien’s life acts as a vital social, moral and political education for one’s own life. His anecdotes and tidbits pry open a view of the LGBT world which is too often hidden behind closed doors, marriage certificates, and sealed lips.
Photo by: @vitalwritersblog
Throughout the memoir, Edozien demonstrates his journalistic skill by expertly weaving in and out of the political and the personal. Instead of using politics to contextualise personal stories, Edozien uses personal stories to contextualise politics. He buries mentions of homophobic policy in countless anecdotal tales as a way of demonstrating their detrimental effect on the LGBT community, thereby grounding politics in a sense of physical reality and rendering it more comprehensible for a broad demographic. In other words, Edozien encourages understanding by breathing life into harmful policies.
Although, as the title suggests, there is a male focus, you can expect some descriptions of queer female Africans and the pressures these black women face regarding marriage and confining gender roles. Hard topics are also covered: there are discussions of the press, police brutality, immigrant stigmatisation, HIV, and much more. Edozien’s most poignant critique comes from his analysis of homophobia within the African and African-American communities. For example, he dismantles the common African conception of viewing queerness as a ‘Western’ invention. Likewise, he criticises the American tendency to separately categorise ‘black’ and ‘gay’ as two separate minorities, which erases queer black people from existence and hence neglects to address their issues.
Edozien does not write with the aim of sanitising the LGBT community to win the approval of a straight readership. Instead he provides unapologetic descriptions, giving his readers an honest glimpse into the lives of his queer acquaintances. As a result, there is infidelity, there is adultery, there is paid seduction, there is secrecy. However, despite all of this, he somewhat radically declares that these are the lives of ‘great’ men. This begs the question: why are they great? Is it their ability to navigate double lives – to dance across the tricky tightropes hoisted up by societal expectations? Or perhaps, more simply, they are ‘great’ because they dare to exist in the face of great adversity – that even the slightest form of queer visibility helps propel social change.
There is also another element to this. Edozien cites the increasing number of gay asylum-seekers who come to Britain from hostile African countries. He states:
“I wonder how many highly-skilled professionals my country has lost, and continues to lose, because of its government-sanctioned homophobia? […] How many more bright Africans who have the power to not just invest but to bring in good investors are turning to countries other than their own because of antigay hostility?”
Edozien elaborates in a stronger statement:
“Our continent too often drives away its most precious resources – its own citizens – to the West, where, in an irony of history, their talent further benefits our former colonial overlords at the expense of those back home.”
Perhaps then, the fact that these men are queer is irrelevant to their greatness. Perhaps what Edozien is trying to impress upon his readers is the fact that Africa cannot recognise their greatness because it cannot see past something as benign as their sexual orientation.
Edozien’s inscription in my signed copy of this memoir reads, ‘Live Bigger’. This summarises his message to all LGBT Africans, both on the continent and across the diaspora. Whatever your circumstance, Edozien implores: do not circumvent yourself to the tight closet spaces; do not dilute your experience of life. Instead, we should be striving towards creating a world where LGBT Africans can live fully – free to be ‘great’.