For decades, due in part to a huge gap in financial resources, the study of African literature has been easier to carry out at several U.S. and Western European institutions than at less well-funded institutions in Africa. Political realities forced many African writers into exile, and until fairly recently, much African literature was published outside the continent.
Lindfors says that unscrupulous governments often starved African universities, making it difficult for them to purchase books and journals or to send scholars to professional events. During apartheid, conditions in South Africa were especially difficult, he says; boycotts prevented South African colleges from acquiring publications from other parts of the continent.
“The field of English is changing profoundly because much of the strongest writing is coming not from the center, but from the periphery, from parts of the world where literature really matters,” Lindfors says. “Writers are put in jail for what they write, or they’re executed. Writers are dealing with serious problems.”
The University of Natal, in its proposal for buying the collection, stated that despite the efforts of many in the world of African literature, “the intellectual traffic continues to move from South to North,” and that placing “the results of [Lindfors’] assiduous collecting in the hands of scholars in Africa would amount to a substantial intervention in the unfavourable intellectual traffic.”
The university goes on to describe its new Centre for African Literary Studies—the facility being built to house the books—as a “much-needed world resource, a springboard for new African literary scholarship, and a dynamic centre for colloquia and conferences.”
With Ben’s retirement from the University of Texas in December (Judith is a retired professor of education at UT-Austin), the couple was eager to set up a retirement fund, which they had neglected to do during their years of collecting books and educating three children. At the same time, they were eager to help Oberlin. In a creative financial move, the Lindfors chose to donate their book collection to a charitable remainder trust, naming Oberlin College as trustee. Oberlin then sold the books to the University of Natal, a sale with investment proceeds that will pay an income to the Lindfors for the rest of their lives. “Everyone wins—Oberlin wins, University of Natal wins, and we win,” Judith says.
With the complicated arrangements completed last fall, Ben personally packed his life’s collection into 341 boxes and two filing cabinets for shipment to Pietermartzburg. The books and journals had consumed every bit of wall space in their home, as well as two offices at UT, which were jammed full like library stacks. “Some people put wallpaper on their walls,” Judith laughs. “We put books!”
“I felt no sentimentality while packing,” Ben says. “I was glad the treasure was going to be available someplace other than my home. I was eager to part with everything. It will be put to better use in Africa, by African scholars, than it would have been in a Western university.”
Now that the books are gone, Ben’s moved to a new academic adventure: researching the career of Ira Aldridge, a 19th-century African American Shakespearean actor who made a successful career in England and Europe.
And now that they can see the walls in their home, the Lindfors are faced with an unusual dilemma: blank space. Ben says he’s still thinking about what to do with it all, but Judith seems to have a plan: “We have a lot of African art that we’ve collected on our many trips to Africa, and we’ve never been able to display it properly.”