‘There’s One Humanity or There Isn’t’: A Conversation

The following conversation between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Nobel Prize–winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in November 2018.

—The Editors

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Wole, what’s your view of Donald Trump’s impact on Africa, and how is he perceived in Africa?

Wole Soyinka: Well, that is one hell of a question to begin with. Let me put it quite bluntly. He is considered a loose cannon that is discharging long-hidden attitudes, racial attitudes, xenophobic attitudes.

Dominique Nabokov
Wole Soyinka, New York City, May 2011

Gates: Was there a cause and effect relation between the fact that a black man occupied the White House for eight years and then his opposite was elected?

Soyinka: Trump came in on a platform of political, racial, and ideological hatred for Obama. He was not even subtle about his mission of dismantling the legacy of this black man.

Gates: And unprecedented, in my experience, to have a politician say, “My prime focus is going to be on undoing the policies of the man who preceded me.”

Soyinka: It’s unusual. In Nigeria and other places, when you hear a president or a governor come in and start badmouthing the policies, attainments, or activities of his predecessor, usually there’s only one purpose. You cancel that, you cancel this, you cancel that, so you can start all over and make your own money. In other words, corruption is often at the bottom of it. [Laughter] This is the first time I have seen an iconoclastic approach, pure negativity on its own as a purpose, as an ideology of an incoming president. It’s like telling Americans, “You people have been sold a dummy. I’m the authentic American and therefore I can do what I want.”

Gates: Is it accurate to say that Donald Trump’s a racist?

Soyinka: Oh, yes, I believe so. I know that politicians can say or do anything, but at the same time, I find it totally diabolical that a dangerous weapon like racism can be used to ascend to office. Political racism is divisive. It’s used as a weapon deliberately to set one side against the other. Any head of state, even a minor elected officer, who can make statements about “shithole countries”—and actually name them!—and who says, “But on the other hand, get me the blue-eyed Norwegians. I don’t mind them coming into the country.” [Laughter] How much more racist can you get? How close to the pernicious doctrine of the blue-eyed Aryan ideal of humanity?

Gates: You tore up your green card when you heard that Trump had been elected president. Why did you do that?

Soyinka: Because I saw what was happening. And many people do not know how emotionally, not just historically or intellectually, attached I am to our diaspora.

Gates: To the African diaspora?

Soyinka: Yes, absolutely, the African diaspora, whether…

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