By Biodun Jeyifo, Professor English Department, Cornell University
Don very quickly began to recover his tremendous sense of humor and his infectious love of life and laughter not too long after the first stroke that he suffered. For this reason, it didn't require a great effort to cheer him up, to enliven his spirits. Within two days of the stroke, he was himself again, confronting the shock and the threat of the stroke with great and inspiring fortitude and even good cheer. That was the kind of man Don was. All the same, it was not long after this that I began to call him by the full version of his first name, Donatus. I began this habit rather unconsciously and indeed, it is only since his passing away that I have come to really and fully understand why I rather spontaneously and unconsciously sometimes began to call him Donatus and not Don. Simply stated, this was because the very fist time I called him "Donatus" not long after that first stroke, he realized instantly that I was teasing him and he laughed uproariously with that laughter which was unique and was a special window to his distinctive, irreplaceable presence among us. In other words, he knew instantly that I was teasing him by reverting to that exotic-sounding full version of his first name, "Donatus". No one had called him "Donatus" in years and decades and he knew I was teasing him with this fact and even as he was laughing he protested playfully. But he had a bigger laughter when I asked him to be grateful that he was "Donatus" and not "Cletus" or "Alloysius" or "Athanasius". These and other names of vintage, biblical Roman Catholicism were once favorite boys' given names in Igboland west and east of the Niger. But the names have gone out of fashion with later generations of boys and young men in that part of our country, Nigeria. That was why Don was greatly amused when he heard that name "Donatus" for the first time after many decades of answering to "Don". From that moment until the last time I saw him this past summer, anytime I wanted to cheer him up, any time I wanted to be treated to his unique, fulsome laughter, I called him "Donatus".
There is of course a deeper meaning to Don's unique and distinctive laughter and to this matter of being Don and/or Donatus. I have said that "Donatus" was one of the favorite boys' given names in Igboland west and east of the Niger a generation ago. I must now link this fact with another fact about Don's people, the Igbo people, one of the great peoples of the African continent. Since this particular fact of Igbo identity is little known and little appreciated for its significance, let me state it very carefully. It is the fact that as much as you will find exotic sounding Christian first names like "Donatus" and "Cletus" and "Alloysius" and "Athanasius" among the Igbo people, it is very rare to find Christian or indeed any Western names as family names, as patronyms among the Igbo people. Concretely stated, it is rare to find Christian or Western names like Samuel, David, Williams or Johnson as family names among the Igbo people. In other words, Igbo people tend to take Christian or Western names as first names but retain Igbo names as family names. That is why while Don was "Donatus", he was also and above all "OHADIKE"; he was a true son of his people. Roughly translated, "Ohadike" means "commonweal"; it means vitality of community and embodiment of community spirit in its largeness and richness, even when and if you are insistent on your own uniqueness and vitality as an individual. Who among us did not experience our late, departed brother and colleague in the light of these values? But how many of us know that what we saw and experienced in Don's unique personality and presence in the period that was allotted to him to live and work here in Ithaca had these deep roots? Don was "Donatus" and he was "Ohadike" and I would like to end this eulogy with a brief remark on how this is connected to the legacy that he left for us here at Cornell and Ithaca, a legacy which, as I have indicated, have deep roots in Africa, in Nigeria, in Igboland.
I have remarked earlier that Don was in all respects a true son of his people, the Igbo people of Nigeria. I must now add that such was the richness of what he brought with him from Igboland that in his life and work here at Cornell and Ithaca, he saw absolutely no contradiction in remaining true to his Igbo roots and identity and at the same time being fiercely dedicated to all African peoples in the continent and the diaspora, and indeed to all genuine lovers of mutual respect and understanding between the peoples of the world. Let me restate this carefully: Don was proud and immensely self-assured as an Igbo man and much of his work as a professional historian dealt with the resistance of his Anioma people to Western colonization. But he was also a historian of the resistance to colonialism throughout the African continent. Moreover, he had an abiding intellectual and professional interest in the extension of African civilizations into the new world in the Americas. And there was not for him the slightest contradiction, the slightest tension in being an Anioma Igbo man; in being a Pan Africanist of the most exacting and capacious order; in being a dedicated "diasporicist"; and in being a generous, gregarious and intensely life-loving human being who related with effortless grace and solidarity to individuals of all races, nationalities and classes. All these qualities were reflected in the classes he taught, the books and monographs he wrote, the personal and professional friendships that he forged, and the instant and sustained impact he had on all who ever met him.
Don was "Donatus" and he was "Ohadike". He was here. Indeed he expressed a wish to be laid to rest here in Ithaca when the time came for him to join the ancestors. That wish can only be properly understood in the light of all I have tried to communicate in this eulogy about the deep roots of his person, his work and life in Anioma, in Nigeria, in Africa. For he was "Donatus" and he was "Ohadike".
Adieu, Don. Walk with grace and dignity among the ancestors.