African Legend Dillibe Onyeama (1951-2022)

Dillibe Onyeama whose works include Nigger at Eton (1972), African Legend (1984) and The Joys of African Humour (2000), has died aged 71. The author of 28 books, Onyeama was celebrated for his bold writing style and his unflinching determination to reflect the truth of his experiences in his memoirs and novels. 

On 10 November 2022, Dillibe Onyeama, author of A Black Boy at Eton and other works, passed away aged 71. The news broke when his son, Dillibe Jr., made the announcement on his Facebook page. Onyeama, the first Black boy to finish his studies at Eton College in the United Kingdom, was born in Enugu State on 6 January 1951. Onyeama, born the second son of Charles Dadi Umeha Onyeama, a lawyer who had studied in Oxford University, was registered at birth for Eton.  

Onyeama’s father was a magistrate in colonial Nigeria and later became a judge at the Hague’s International Court of Justice. Justice Onyeama thought to spare no expense when it came to his son’s education. Getting into Eton, however, wasn’t a case of smooth sailing: the younger Onyeama failed on his first attempt at the school’s entrance exam. However, when he got into Eton on his second attempt, this became a source of ‘immense pride’ for both himself and his family. Indeed, within the first few days of his arrival, Onyeama believed he would enjoy his time at Eton.

Perhaps Onyeama drew this optimism from his experience at Grove Park, a prep school in the Sussex town of Crowborough. He attended Grove Park before Eton and wrote that it was an entirely positive experience for him. ‘I suppose because we were all too young to know about colour prejudice, and that such a thing existed,’ he said of Grove Park, ‘I certainly had no notion.’ But it wasn’t just the students who showed Onyeama kindness at his prep school; in the UK Guardian, he explained that the teachers, too, were caring and were in full support of him continuing his education at Eton.

However, history is nothing without its dark chapters, and during his time at Eton, Onyeama was no stranger to those. For Onyeama, Eton at times, was a sea full of great white sharks, all of whom seemed drawn to his foreign blood. Although he expressed that he ‘learned a lot’ at Eton, Onyeama admitted that ‘it came at a price.’ He elaborated that there were those at Eton who ‘suggested that Black Africans were inferior,’ and that most times, the inferior and abusive treatment he was such that he ‘reacted violently’. At 17, Onyeama detailed his experiences with discrimination and bullying at Eton occurring on a daily basis, in a book titled Nigger at Eton. Onyeama said he became motivated to document these experiences when he watched Tom Brown’s School Days, in which the protagonist was treated brutally by fellow students.  

Nigger at Eton, however, was published in 1972 when Onyeama was 21, and had left Eton. Despite the delay, when the book was published, it received a strong reaction from Eton’s then–headmaster, Michael McCrum, who banned him from visiting the school. Onyeama later recalled how he was shaken by the extent that he believed Eton went to suppress his book. ‘They did everything they could,” he said. ‘Imagine a headmaster ringing the publisher and saying, “Please, can’t you just bump this book?’”

Many years later, however, Onyeama received an apology on behalf of Eton by its current headmaster, Simon Henderson. In 2020, Henderson offered Onyeama an official apology, following Onyeama’s interview with the BBC where he recalled in sharp detail, the many instances of racial abuse he endured during his four years at Eton. Responding, Onyeama emphasized that he did not expect an apology, nor was he looking for one, but would not object to returning to Eton to accept the apology provided that they cover the travel expenses. 

In 2022, Penguin republished Onyeama’s book with the title, A Black Boy at Eton. In his lifetime, Onyeama wrote 28 books, which included Nigger at Eton (1972), African Legend (1984) and Joys of African Humour (2000). Onyeama was celebrated for his bold writing style and his unflinching determination to reflect the truth of his experiences in his memoirs and novels

Recommended Reading

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Unforgettable Words
Mind Makers
New Discoveries

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