The Wheel of Destiny (2)

by Dapo Ladimeji

These stories were not unique to me. Tosan Rewane was the son of an important politician and had won an open scholarship to study medicine at Cambridge. He too was at Clare College. While doing his clinical year in London he told me of an incident. The Professor had announced to the class a complicated question. He said that only the very brightest could get the right answer. A swarm of hands went up including Tosan’s. Only after everyone else had answered incorrectly did the professor allow Tosan to give his answer. Then the professor paused and slowly and reluctantly said: ‘That answer is not incorrect.’ Shortly afterwards Tosan abandoned his medical studies.

Another equally tragic incident occurred to another medical student. He was determined to do a brilliant undergraduate project. At the weekends we would visit him in the labs and try and drag him out for a drink or to go to a dance. Invariably he refused and worked and worked. When the results came they gave him a third class degree. The examiners announced that he must have cheated as the work was too good to have been done by an African. Another star destroyed.

* * * *

At the time I was at Cambridge the scale of the institutional racism was not apparent to me. What I was aware of was the beautiful surroundings, the engaging personal contacts. Obviously, there were problems but they seemed to be personal. However once I was in the world of City professionals I had something to compare it against. I had decided to train as a Chartered Accountant in preference to a lawyer on the grounds of the portability of the qualification. I discovered in the professions an openness to challenging authority. I recall once being given the opinion of a QC on a topic. I was meant to draft a letter outlining this advice to the client. Instead I drafted a memo rubbishing the QC’s advice and waited for the torrent of abuse. I was summoned. To my surprise I was congratulated, told I was correct and asked to advise the client along my lines. This would never have happened at Cambridge.

When the department at work had a social I found myself included not merely as a spectator. I was expected to participate, to show my personality. At Cambridge at socials I had been relegated to obscure corners where almost no one spoke to me. Very quickly in the professional world I earned respect. I was not an African accountant, I was an accountant like everyone else. This was illustrated on one of my rare visits to Cambridge. A retired partner in Price Waterhouse was also invited to dinner by Margaret Masterman. We were introduced and within minutes we began talking ‘shop’. This caused consternation among my philosopher friends. I quickly realized that he had been invited to ‘smoke me out’ and prove that I was not a real accountant in the City. Once he had served his purpose the retired partner was unceremoniously excused. At a tenth year reunion dinner (I do not normally go to these things and after this one I realized why) Professor Epstein asked me what I was doing? ‘I am an accountant in the City’. ‘Did you pass your exams?’ he asked. Now in the City this would count as the height of insulting dialogue, of crass mannerless behaviour. In Cambridge it was normal.

* * * *

My time at Cambridge University was also a social occasion. I met students from all over the world, fell in love with a beautiful Burmese princess, cried my heart out when she returned to Burma (she later married the Head of State’s son). There was one evening which sums up this part of Cambridge for me. David Ignatius (whose father was connected to the Washington Post), Christopher Davis, a collection of other Americans, Greeks and other nationalities, Ying and myself. Over dinner someone suggested we all give a low down on some secret aspect of our own countries. There followed the most astonishing in depth resume of the inner workings of the politics of ten different countries. It was pure ‘inside’, off-the-record, on the nail stuff. It was bliss to be alive.

There were other sides to Cambridge. Let us start with a small scene: I am walking down the quad of Old Court shortly after the exam results were posted. Dr Wright wanders up to me and smiles, “Well done. We thought you were a playboy not a scholar!” What lay behind these remarks is of some interest. I grew up in England, I knew the score. I expected my fellow English students to ignore me until I was brow beaten into social submission. To avoid this I invited friends to come and visit me in Cambridge every weekend of my first term. As it happens most of the people who accepted were girls. No Black male accepted my invitation though two English and one Chinese male did. The net effect was that every weekend I had a different but stunningly beautiful girl come and stay with me. Somewhat naively I had not considered the implications and was blissfully unaware of the stir I was causing. I became aware of it when late in the term one girl cried off due to family engagements. I wandered down for breakfast on the weekend by myself. There was consternation among the staff serving breakfast. Suddenly someone shouted -‘Where is she?’ I have never blushed so thoroughly in all my life. I did not live down that reputation. A year later the secretary of the African Society came to give me a draft report. As she entered the porter’s lodge and before she could open her mouth the porter said ‘He’s in H7!’ I had not ever laid a hand on her.

My ploy certainly had the intended effect. After six weeks my English colleagues begged to be invited to my parties. One English boy came up to me and asked if he could have the telephone numbers of any of my cast off girl-friends. He assured me he did not wish to interfere with any girls I was still interested in – only those that I no longer required.

The ambiguities and ambivalences of my old school friends was also a theme of my days at Cambridge. We had been at school together but once at Cambridge most of them ‘cut me off’ with one notable exception. Not that I cared.

One day I dropped by Christopher Sokol’s rooms. Five other old Brightonians were there. Suddenly there was anxiety – ‘should Dapo be allowed to stay?’ Chris said ‘Yes’. I had no idea what was going on. A few minutes later Jamie entered. Jamie was Lord Moran’s grandson. His first words were “Dapo, I didn’t expect to see you here.” To which I replied that I was not expecting to him either. Jamie and I had become friends long before. This however was a major social introduction for my old school friends! This sort of comedy of errors repeated itself on many occasions.

A ridiculous example occurred when Skip asked if I went to ‘white’ parties. I said ‘No’ – meaning I went to parties of my friends and their colour was irrelevant. Skip felt sorry for me and promptly obtained an invitation to a party by some ‘white’ students. In my terms they were unacceptable – they were neither bright, beautiful nor entertaining – the key criteria for Cambridge’s ‘beau monde’. I do not think the penny ever dropped for Skip.

On a personal and social level I have only fond memories of Quentin Skinner, David Mellor, Ian Hacking. I took these people to my heart.

In many ways I was in and out of the key social networks. I knew Fiona Weaver because our parents got on. I also independently met Eve and Emily. New Hall’s H-staircase set became the glamour set of Cambridge. One would be importuned for invitations. If someone asked me if I knew anyone in the H-staircase set I denied all knowledge, even though everyone saw me with them. One day an oaf-type public school boy took to publicly ridiculing me on a social and racial level. The next day one of the beautiful girls in the H-stair case set told me that this boy had asked her for a date and wanted to know if she should accept, so I told her what he had said to me. I made sure that word got back to him as to why and how he was rejected.

* * * *

The key theme I wish to highlight is the institutional racism and oppression of Cambridge University. At an individual level many of the scholars were admirable. Collectively they were something else.

As an undergraduate I shared the general social habit of inviting a mix of exciting people to tea and standing back. One tea time one of my guest announced that his father wrote poetry. Bad move. The other two girls chirped up that so did their fathers. One of the girls was the granddaughter of Sir John Buchan and the other was the daughter of the then poet laureate! At these teas generally one was expected to sparkle – no taboos, no authorities. One day a Black American arrived. Someone had told him he should meet me. Conversation turned to B F Skinner. The assembled studentry excoriated his behaviourist psychology. My Afro-American friend looked on in horror – ” but he is a Harvard Professor!” he exclaimed. It did not surprise me that he should later obtain a PhD and get top grades and get a top job in McKinsey and the law. It did not surprise me either that he never became the source of exciting new ideas. The institutional objective for Black students was to turn out able ‘parrots’ who would not challenge the dominant authority figures. Just the right sort of person for the Federal Reserve.

Some may argue that I exaggerate the concerns of the establishment. I think not. Dr Patrick Cole, who was a Nigerian fellow of King’s College, Cambridge was approached by a shadowy figure to report on fellow Africans and their political tendencies. He asked this strange English man on whose behalf he was working – ‘The Nigerian Government’ he said. I later recounted this story to Philip Agee, the ex-CIA officer. He told me it was a well-known technique called ‘flying a false flag’. If one needed any further evidence there is Brzinzsky’s memo.

Skip was at one point entirely different to this Black American. He wanted to produce new ideas, challenge authority etc. Later Skip told me that for his pains Cambridge rejected his PhD. It was Yale who by threatening to give him a Yale PhD forced Cambridge to appoint new examiners and his PhD was granted. Cambridge scholars know where their bread is buttered. Skip from that point on appeared to learn a lesson. Never again did he challenge the intellectual status quo. From then on he remained as conventional as the Black American and was as well rewarded. Absolutely.

This sense of the futility of challenging the status quo corrupted all aspects of human relationships. I remember returning to Cambridge to start my doctoral studies. I had been rejected by the Philosophy department but accepted by the Sociology department. On the train up was Skip who was unaware of my re-admission. For an hour he deluged me with stories of how exciting it was to do doctoral work at Cambridge, how he missed me, how he was awfully sorry I had been thrown out, how he felt for me, how he would always support my reputation, how if only I had been accepted we could do so much together, and how he was going to do great things because he himself had been accepted. I kept silent. As we got off the train he suddenly asked me: “…and why are you coming back to Cambridge?” “To start my doctoral studies, Skip” I answered. Skip walked away without saying a word.

* * * *

My relationship with Skip was a curious one. On his arrival at Cambridge he knew next to nothing about Africa but was keen to learn. For several months I gave him almost daily tuition in the history of Africa. It was from this time he was at all able to see Africa other than through Afro-American eyes. I introduced him to Wole Soyinka when Wole was at Churchill College. Wole and I come from the same hometown. I saw Skip as someone who could possibly do great things. I admit it, I was mistaken. I invited Skip to give a lecture on the Harlem Renaissance on my Black Studies lecture series in London. This text was developed largely by a girl-friend of Skip’s. She had discovered after a row with her mother that she had Black ancestry and had got involved with Skip to rediscover her roots. Poor move. Skip, in explaining all this to me told me that he could not stand Black girls and that he and many other Ivy League Blacks had decided not to date Black girls. Clearly he started dating her assuming she was white! At some point the girl broke off the relationship with Skip but passed him her paper on the Harlem renaissance to do with as he pleased. For Skip that meant taking sole public accreditation. Skip had joined an elite fraternity at Yale and was a part-time journalist for Time magazine while at Cambridge because Luce’s daughter or grand-daughter was one of his fraternity. What I never knew at the time was that Skip considered himself coloured and not Black. In his autobiography he describes himself as very dark for a coloured person.

I think the above illustrate some key themes in Skip’s life: his relationship with academia and power. Skip has a weak sense of intellectual property and a smell of plagiarism hangs over much of what he does. He is capable of hustling the major power brokers in American society, Black people are items to be manipulated for his own gain and he sees himself as coloured and superior to Blacks. These themes are reinforced by the failure of every attempt of his to play any other game or by any other rules. To that extent I would place considerable responsibility on the institutional academic framework in which he worked.

American conservatives may want to criticize Skip for his poor scholarship, lack of originality and general hustle. But my question to them is: where were you when he was being failed for trying to be a genuine innovative scholar? Nowhere to be found.

* * * *

Lately I have come to recognize that the institutional racism in Philosophy is not merely typical of academia but is worse than in any other subject. As a City professional I can find many opportunities to attend seminars. I have attended lectures/ seminars on almost every subject. Nevertheless it is only at philosophy seminars that the basic courtesies are missing. Whether the topic is Chinese studies or global economics people listen to me attentively. On the other hand when I attended meetings of the Aristotelian Society the same old attitudes resurfaced. If I suggested that someone’s theory might be wrong, quick as a flash they would suggest that perhaps they should repeat it more slowly to help me follow it better. On numerous occasions the speaker would refuse to acknowledge the validity of any of my arguments until the Chairman would gently remind him that his argument ‘is in some difficulty’. I have discovered that only in a public forum can British philosopher’s behaviour be exposed to ridicule.

Many might suggest that this is simply typical academic behaviour. I doubt it. The major concealment of the racism and pro-slavery views of John Locke and Bishop Berkeley is an apt metaphor for the concealment of the racist assumptions of British philosophy. At no point in my education at Cambridge did anyone ever point out the racism and pro-slavery views of English philosophers while at the same time they lost no opportunity to emphasise their devotion to the concept of liberty. This is academic dishonesty. The rot was and is deep.

* * * *


We return where we started. I had published an article in the major journal called ‘Philosophy’. There was a history to this. When I arrived at Cambridge I sought a goal which would set me apart. Getting a first was too trivial. However I soon learnt that only one person in the century had had an article published in a major journal in his discipline while still an undergraduate. He had gone on to win a Nobel prize. That was the goal I set myself.

This particular article, “Flew and the revival of Social Darwinism” incorporated many of the themes of my life – scholarship, politics and literature. It was a response to the work of Herrnstein. The article was carefully crafted polemic with no little debt to Cicero. It was also deeply scholarly and informed by my political engagement. Rather than bringing me good fortune it appeared to have terminated my philosophical existence. A few months earlier I apparently caused offence by telling my department that for 20 years they had gone down a deep blind alley. They responded in kind by giving me exit grades in my exams.

The public recognition that my article obtained only made matters worse. Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel prize winner and doyen of British science, publicly praised the article as the best on the subject he had ever read. My philosophical life was over.

This contrasted with similar events in my later professional life where there was team approval and general; pleasure that ‘one of us’ should attain high accolades.

Anthony Appiah on the other hand conspired with others to root out every original bone in his body. He was rewarded with endless academic accolades. It was too obvious he would no longer go down in history. Originality comes from a ‘sacred fire’. While it burns anything might happen. It needs protecting and nurturing more than any other feature of a personality. Without the ‘sacred fire’ the wheel of destiny cannot be moved. Skip, never of Anthony’s pure intellectual capacity, nevertheless kept a fire of sorts going.

As for me I have kept my powder dry, and in retrospect I have bided my time. The sacred fire burns strongly. What is to come of it – only the future can tell.

Are there any conclusions one can draw from all the above? I believe so. In my opinion Cambridge University has been guilty of an enormous betrayal of trust to Africa. It has deliberately harmed the most talented and promoted the most docile. The rest of the world should recognize that Western institutions cannot be trusted as the final guardians of the world’s intellectual heritage. New independent and international institutions need to be created,. Africa needs to set up its own institutions of excellence and learn to protect its greatest talents from the wolves at our door. We should not be lulled into a false sense of security by the genuineness of individual scholars. As in politics, this is a matter of institutions not individuals. The world’s canon needs to be established on a consensus of the world’s scholars including but no longer exclusively western scholars.

As I sit writing at a table in a 17th century cottage in Somerset, England in April 2002 I am as yet not aware of any happy endings. Looking back – my greatest feeling is sorrow for the many who have fallen or stumbled, great potential needlessly destroyed. This has been written to help stop this outrage, to allow another generation from Africa to fully flourish and flower to the benefit of all mankind.

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Dawuta Benebo May 17, 2007 - 6:02 pm


Seye Malomo August 15, 2006 - 7:39 pm

I have not read anything so thought provoking in a long time. You make us proud to be africans and also show the stereotypes that it only takes equal oppurtunities to make us ( africans) flourish

Anonymous January 14, 2006 - 7:54 pm

Hi Dapo – if this is still your email address, please respond and I will send some photos of my family. I am alive and well and flourishing in Sydney. How are you Do you have any kids What has happened to you since you wrote this brilliant piece

William Odita Tarnow-Mordi, Professor of Neonatal Medicine, University of Sydney, Westmead Hospital, New South Wales 2145

Akindeji Akintola September 26, 2005 - 3:44 pm

This is fantastic piece. Nothing has changed since the time you had your experience. You didn't talk of how you were able to overcome the stereotype. Your efforts are inspirational please continue to find ways of keeping the flag flying.

Akin Akintola. BSc MSc FCCA.

Epsom Surrey



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