Professor Christopher Okonkwo brings a rich and valuable focus on African and African diaspora literature and culture to FSU

By Joan Nygbah

Professor Christopher Okonkwo is one of the English department’s newest faculty members. Through his teaching, research, and scholarship, Okonkwo shines a light on African and African diaspora literature and culture.

“Black literature, African literature, is not just important, it is necessary,” Okonkwo says, explaining his interest in his specialty areas.

His passion for the literatures of Africa and the diaspora is evident as he discusses why he finds such immense joy in the fields and hopes his students do the same.

“I am interested in African and African diaspora authors and what they say, not only because that is what I love and was trained in, but also because of the way global black literature helps us understand our humanity more completely,” he says.

Okonkwo joined Florida State University’s English department and its Literature, Media, and Culture program in Fall semester 2022. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in twentieth- and twenty-first century African and African American literary and cultural productions, more specifically.

On entering Okonkwo’s Williams Building office, visitors cannot but see and feel his investment in and excitement for African and African diaspora literature and culture from the numerous books on his shelves to the overall interior of his office. The decor provides an enticing and interesting environment where students can feel comfortable and get to know him outside the classroom.

“I hope I can inspire students who look like me, who are perhaps thinking of pursuing a doctorate in English, to look at me and see possibility and passion,” Okonkwo says, determined to help students see the intellectual substance and human relatability in his courses despite students’ varying backgrounds. “You don’t have to look like a writer or an artist—an African or diaspora novelist, playwright, poet, painter, or thinker—to appreciate their work relative to our borderless human condition.”

His training in African and Africa diaspora literary and cultural studies began decades ago as he earned his bachelor's degree in English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), where he was the department’s best-graduating student in 1989. He also served as the editor-in-chief of the department’s student-run magazine, The Muse.

After graduation from UNN, Okonkwo furthered his education in the U.S. He decided to study in Tallahassee where, among other things, his brother had attended FAMU-FSU’s College of Engineering.

Okonkwo earned his master's degree at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, before completing his doctorate at FSU in 2001. He believes attending both Tallahassee universities was tremendously beneficial to him.

“FAMU's top-notch black faculty and staff, the university’s Nigeria student population, as well as the broader African and African American community of Tallahassee helped attenuate the challenges of my relocation to the U.S.,” he says. “Going to FAMU, an HBCU, helped further ground me racially, culturally and institutionally in ways I cannot adequately articulate.”

During his time at FSU, Robert O. Lawton Distinguished English Professor Maxine Montgomery helped guide and mentor Okonkwo, which enabled him to excel in the English department.

“Dr. Okonkwo was a stand-out student during his doctoral program and easily one of the top graduate scholars in Literature, Media, and Culture over the last few decades,” says Montgomery, who directed his doctoral dissertation. “When he began his program of studies many years ago, it was immediately apparent that he was an intellectually-inquisitive scholar with a rare talent for asking probing questions about a range of works and in ways that would propel him forward a leading critic and teacher in African Diaspora Literary and Cultural Studies.”

In addition to publishing his first two and much-cited scholarly articles, one in MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) and the other in African American Review, while a graduate student at FSU, Okonkwo won other university and departmental awards and honors, including the Delores A. Auzenne Fellowship, the Phi Kappa Phi Graduate Scholar Award, and the Bertram/Ruth Davis Award for Outstanding Career as a Graduate Student.

Dr. Okonkwo was a stand-out student during his doctoral program and easily one of the top graduate scholars in Literature, Media, and Culture over the last few decades. When he began his program of studies many years ago, it was immediately apparent that he was an intellectually-inquisitive scholar with a rare talent for asking probing questions about a range of works and in ways that would propel him forward a leading critic and teacher in African Diaspora Literary and Cultural Studies.

— Professor Maxine Montgomery

Okonkwo’s understanding of literature and its value has stayed consistent despite his formative experiences and education in Nigeria and United States. But he certainly has noticed differences in opportunity, in infrastructure, accessible technology, and availability.

“Students back home, by which I mean Nigeria and other developing African countries, for instance, have had to do so much with so little and for so long,” he says. “It never fails to amaze me how, despite those severe limitations, they perform superbly academically when they come to the U.S. or Europe,” he says.

Recently in the U.S., limitations have been proposed, and in some cases implemented, on the country’s higher education system. Although the barriers do not compare to those facing teachers, students, and administrators in Nigeria, Africa and other developing nations, the situation is still a difficult time, nonetheless. These issues played a part in Okonkwo’s return to FSU as a professor.

“Interestingly, I joined the university at a critical, indeed disheartening, moment for education, higher education in particular, in the state and other parts of the country,” he says.

Okonkwo taught at the University of Missouri-Columbia before moving to Tallahassee with his wife and three kids. Although they left for a different part of the country, Okonkwo says he believes this decision presented opportunities for him and his family.

“I consider it both an honor and a privilege to be aggressively recruited back to my alma mater after 21 years and to have the chance to give back, so to speak; to help the department close its curricular gap in African literature; and perhaps more important, to join my former teachers and now colleagues in training and mentoring other students as I was,” he says.

Through his African literature courses, Okonkwo has already contributed to widening the English department curriculum for FSU students. In the Spring 2023 semester, he offered a well-received graduate seminar titled “The African Novel and Slavery.” He also taught an undergraduate course, Major Women Writers, focused on the critically acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Montgomery has high praise for Okonkwo and his return to the English department.

“Not only does he bring a wealth of knowledge about African Diaspora Literature and Culture, he also fills a glaring curricular void through his teaching interests and scholarly interventions into the cross-cultural associations marking a Black Atlantic geography,” she says. “Our department has never offered graduate coursework in African Literature, much less African Diaspora Literature and Culture, despite the vibrancy of the field and a growing number of graduate students interested in studying works by Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Adiche, Nnedi Okorafor, and others.

“Through his close familiarity with such writers and the historic, cultural, and social contexts of their works, Dr. Okonkwo is uniquely positioned to move our department forward in the 21st century.”

Alongside his teaching, Okonkwo is a literary scholar of national and international recognition, with his several published essays, research grants, and invited lectures, all of which essentially intertwine with his broad interests as a humanities scholar.

He has published two groundbreaking books, which he says are linked conceptually and philosophically. In 2008, he published A Spirit of Dialogue: Incarnations of Ogbanje, the Born-to-Die in African American Literature, which developed largely out of his doctoral dissertation. His second book, Kindred Spirits: Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison, was published in 2022 and won the College Language Association Scholarship Award. That monograph was inspired by Okonkwo’s goal to address what he has called the “African literature” and “Chinua Achebe” gaps in Toni Morrison studies.

This record of accomplishments, which apparently began at the UNN, continued shortly after Okonkwo’s studies at FSU when he was offered a tenure-track position at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He eventually became that school’s first African faculty member in the English department to become a full professor.

Okonkwo’s interest in African and African diaspora literature and culture has stayed with him, from the time when he was growing up in Nigeria where, as in many other parts of the world, students are often encouraged to take STEM-based routes for careers.

“I was fortunate that, unlike some of my friends, I was not pressured to be good in or major in the sciences, especially as a man,” he says. “I was happy to be in a field that I loved and also excelled in. And, now as a parent, I am very mindful of that.”

His appreciation for literature and the Humanities in general has remained strong, and his accomplishments show his depth of knowledge and contributions to the field. Okonkwo finds motivation in many facets of life, the universe of ideas, the significance of history, and the tug of unanswered questions. And so, he is deeply committed to the future generation.

Although Okonkwo is still adjusting to teaching at another university, he feels warmly welcomed by his students who seem eager to learn. Okonkwo ensures that his classroom is empowering for students. He reminds them that their knowledge and curiosity are valued.

“I always want my students to see the big picture,” he says. “I also want them to appreciate interdisciplinarity, the straightforward as well as the sometimes zigzagging interconnectedness of all knowledge, and that the field of literary and cultural studies, the humanities in general, are crucial to their lives and education, especially in our increasingly complicated world that continually demands not just self-reflection and critical thinking, but empathy and collaboration.”

As Okonkwo continues to flourish as a professor in FSU’s English department, he will continue work on several projects, which are at various stages of development. Whether he is in the classroom, interacting with colleagues in the department and elsewhere, or publishing his research, Okonkwo emphasizes the importance of broadening and enriching the conversation on African and African diaspora literary and cultural studies.

Joan Nygbah is an English major on the editing, writing, and media track, with a minor in humanities.

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