Remembering Ama Ata Aidoo, Author and Poet

An African woman in red with a castle in the background. Cover of Ama Ata Aidoo's Sister Killjoy (1964)

It has been nearly sixty years since Ama Ata Aidoo’s play, The Dilemma of a Ghost, was first performed at the University of Ghana, Legon in March of 1964. After it came out in print the following year, she became the first published African woman dramatist.

When she passed away last summer, I felt loss as I vividly recalled her presence in UF’s then-named Library East Special Collections Reading Room, across the hall from where I sit now. Almost 25 years ago, on a Friday evening reading from her work, Aidoo engaged with just a few dozen people. It felt rare and special because she insisted on truth-telling and addressing social wrongs, while maintaining an animated presence and deep sense of connection.

Aidoo, Ama Ata. The Dilemma of a Ghost. Accra: Longmans, 1965. Library West, General Collection

Awards and high praise rarely prod me to pick up a book. But sitting in the room as she commanded attention quietly, with genuine grace, Aidoo piqued my interest. We sat as the author publicly shared passages from her work, elaborating with details from memory. She addressed serious issues directly, coloring them with humorous, incisive observations. Aidoo was known for courageously bringing light to injustices large and small, with clarity and moral force. I was moved to read her work.

Announcement of Aidoo's 1999 Reading

An announcement in the April 7, 1999 issue of The Alligator for Ama Ata Aidoo’s on-campus reading.

My experience wasn’t unique: she had a quiet way of commanding attention whenever she spoke. In remembrance of his friend, historian Toyin Falola called the Ghanaian writer, scholar, and feminist “Africa’s gallant intellectual and literary general” and a “collective heroine” for all Africans. A 1997 article in the New York Times reported her appearance at an NYU conference for women writers of African descent, where she “was greeted with the kind of reverence reserved for heads of state.” Her 1977 novel, Our Sister Killjoy, or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint was one of three titles for which she was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book.

Cover of Our Sister Killjoy (1977).

Aidoo, Ama Ata. Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. London: Longman Group, 1977. Library West, General Collection

I did not then appreciate that it was likely Aidoo’s personal friendship with English Professor Mildred Hill-Lubin (1933-2018) that brought this internationally-renowned writer and academic to the university, first in 1979 as a Visiting Faculty member, and several other times. Professor Hill-Lubin, hired by UF in 1974, was a pioneering African-American faculty member who introduced Anglophone African literature to the campus and was elected “the first woman and the first African American to head the African Literature Association, an international body.” It seems unlikely to me now that Ama Ata Aidoo would have come in 1999 except by Professor Hill-Lubin’s invitation. It may be that my memorable experience with an international award-winning author was one consequence of the university hiring an exceptional African-American woman as a faculty member in 1974.

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