Some Reflections on the Journey from African Studies to Africana Studies

The introduction and development of research on Africa and African Americans in United States academia is an on-going process. African studies, Africana studies and Black studies are each the result of scholarship and society evolutions. But each of these denominations also impacts on the institutionalisation of research, its shaping and the future of its enhancement. A review of their history shows the crucial issue of denomination in area studies.
Alden Young is an Assistant Professor of African Studies and Director of the Program in Africana Studies at Drexel University, in the US. He graduated from Princeton University, where he wrote a PhD addressing decolonization, economic development and the process of state formation in post-WWII Africa, and more specifically in Sudan. Following this research, he is now developing a research project on elites’ role in managing economic development.

 

African Studies Beyond the Area Studies Paradigm

In recent years scholarship on Africa has flourished within the American academy, even as African Studies as a discipline has struggled to find a model that would provide it with a stable institutional home. In this essay, I will discuss a variety of institutional approaches to African studies within the US academy; my overview will be biased towards the East Coast institutions with which I am most familiar. Then, I will briefly trace the history of how some of these approaches developed, before looking at what I consider to be the productive tensions at work within the American academy that have allowed scholarship on Africa to thrive even as institutional support for the study of Africa has remained fitful and woefully uneven.

My hypothesis is that the racial dynamics on individual American campuses, among the faculty, as well as the student body, explains the wide variety of institutional arrangements that various African Studies programs have taken in the United States, ranging from stand alone African Studies programs, Africana Studies programs and finally Black Studies programs. Many universities in the United States have had more than one of these programs simultaneously. These divisions often acknowledged the multiple, and often time incompatible, communities interested in Africa, communities that range from State Department analysts to the student activists of the Black Power movement all located on American campuses.

In many ways African Studies as a discipline failed to fully institutionalize itself as a stand alone discipline in the United States, particular at the elite East Coast Universities.   This failure is encapsulated by the recent merger of the African Studies Center with the Department and Center of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) on June 30, 2015. UPenn’s Committee on African Studies founded in 1941 was the oldest in the Ivy League and counted Kwame Nkrumah as an alumnus. The African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania encompassed a federally funded National Resource Center, which was meant to support the teaching of African languages and international affairs, as well as a Regional Consortium meant to coordinate research on the continent between Philadelphia area universities. The movement of UPenn’s African Studies Center to the Department and Center of Africana Studies means that no university in the Ivy League, a grouping of some of America’s oldest and most research active universities, has a stand alone center, let alone a department, devoted solely to the study of Africa. These universities only have programs in African Studies. The significance of the distinctions between programs, centers and departments takes shape because of its impact on the professionalization of the discipline. While departments, and occasionally centers, can tenure their own faculty and administer their own research grants, programs serve only to coordinate the activities of existing faculty and students already resident on campus. This situation stands in marked contrast to how the study of the Middle East, East Asia and increasingly South Asia has developed.

Instead, African Studies at elite institutions in the United States remains one of the most interdisciplinary areas of studies on campus with two models widely in existence. One models is a very loose program, which coordinates scholars who are active in sciences such as biology, epidemiology, social sciences such as political science, anthropology, psychology and the humanities such as literature, history and language study. The other model is to combine the study of Africa with African American and African Diaspora studies. Scholars have for different reasons a similar complaint about both institutional models, namely that they lack the bounded object of study so familiar to the area study programs created during the Cold War in the United States. The African American political scientist Pearl T Robinson, who gave the 2007 Presidential Address to the African Studies Association,[1] said:

“From the perspective of the area studies establishment, Africa’s place at the bottom of those hierarchies [of relative power, levels of culture, and ideological cleavages] was never in question. Yet the assumptions behind that marginality—and the contestation they engender—have combined to produce the rich/varied/tumultuous terrain that configures the current landscape of African Studies.”[2]

Here Robinson is pointing out how in defining ways African Studies because it was never codified into an area to be studied in the United States through the narrow lens of “national interest” or it was always of the least interest, avoided the stable “orientalism” that Edward Said ascribed to Middle Eastern Studies and in the process retained a large share of experimentation.[3] According to Timothy Mitchell the attempt to define an essentialism, which American scholars could define such as the Middle East or Islam has the been the major curse of area studies in the United States.[4]

Then it should come as no surprise that African Studies in the United States, which as a project has not succeeded in becoming its own discipline, has played the leading role in challenging the boundaries of the study of Islam, the delimiting of the Middle East and even increasingly of race.[5] Recently, Michael Gomez has produced important scholarship re-centering world history on Africa, while also placing Africa in the long duree, and in the process he has taken up the project of WEB DuBois in terms of placing Africa at the center of modern world history.[6] Situating the African continent in World History remains a challenge for American historians, who have long struggled to define how events on the continent shaped the course of macro trends such as the rebalancing of the world economy from East Asia to Europe or the rise of globalization.[7] Even American and French writers, such as Samuel Huntington and Thomas Piketty, have felt confident in their ability to describe the contemporary world while relegating Africa to a mere footnote.[8]

Writing in 1999, Steven Fiereman, one of the most distinguished supervisors of Africanists in the US, felt compelled to describe his own project of combining history and anthropology in order to write detailed case studies of the African past and to recover structures of local meaning as a failure. He wrote that:

The studies of commodities (or of Christian sin) in one place, and then another, and then another can be aggregated only on the basis of their shared relationship to the relevant European category: they cannot be placed within a larger or more general African narrative. What is African inevitably appears in a form which is local and fragmented, and which has no greater depth than the time of colonial conquest, or the moment just before it.[9]

In effect the proliferation of case studies about villages and ethnic rituals had done nothing to answer the ancient Hegalian challenge that nothing of world importance had taken place in Africa, that the continent itself remained little more than a victim or a passive recipient of larger world forces. Fiereman, who had been a guiding light of the African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania, was in many ways writing about the failure of the Area Studies approach when it came to Africa. While he trained numerous scholars who later went on to reinvigorate the field of African History, his institutional legacy has been more uneven. In the 1990s, Fiereman was part of the group of scholars at UPenn who resisted even a partial merger of the African Studies Center with Diaspora Studies. In defining the study of the African continent and Diaspora as separate entities, the University of Pennsylvania was not alone. Princeton University, which had long resisted Black Studies, relegating it to a program from 1969 until 2006, explicitly defined their interest as African Americans marginalizing both the Diaspora and the Continent. Princeton’s first tenured professor of African descent the Nobel Prize winner W. Arthur Lewis recommended against the establishment of Black Studies as a separate discipline at Princeton. He wrote that Black Studies was necessary primarily for students of European descent as a means for them to combat their own racism, and that students of African descent needed to major in the practical disciplines necessary to build up and improve their own communities.[10]

In the post Cold War era, scholarship on Africa would have been marginalized in the American academy, since until the recent talk of an “African Renaissance,” the continent was seen as lacking the heavyweight economies of the so called BRIC nations, sustained American military interventions, or a universalist ideology or religion that could rival Francis Fukayama’s liberal democracy that many in the American academy expected to reign triumphant, if it had not been for the powerful presence of peoples of African descent in the American Academy.[11] While African Americans have historically been marginalized in International Studies as well as African Studies, they have demanded not only that the study of Africa take place in elite American universities, many of which were adverse, but also that the study of Africa not be confined to the mastery of some distant and exotic locale. Black American students and scholars have been at the forefront of demanding, often in ways that were vexing to their own instructors, who would have preferred for their disciplined to be professionalized as a kind of esoteric knowledge about a distant part of the world, that Africa be made relevant to their daily lives. The legacy of communities in the United States that believe in every fiber of their bodies that they have a deep and intimate connection to the continent; yet, lack practical connections and have no intention of more than touristic travel to Africa has meant that Africa Studies could not simply limit itself to providing easily digestible insights about current events on the continent. Instead, these communities have pushed for the teaching of Africa in the United States to transform itself into a subject capable of giving these students grounding in the present world.  Grounding, the idea that for people of African descent, connecting with the historical and present conditions of African peoples throughout the Diaspora, rather than aligning with the imperialists, could provide the trust and necessary insight for elites of African descent to lead their own people, was brilliantly put forth by Water Rodney in 1969.[12] In many ways, this concept has energized African Studies in the United States, sustaining it with an activist vigor, even when the institutional support for its perpetuation has lagged far behind.

Yet, combining the study of African Americans, the African Diaspora and Africa itself has always been a deeply controversial issue. The stakes involved were recently highlighted by a controversy at UPenn generated initially by the founding of an Africana Studies Department and the eventual decision this year to place African Studies within Africana. A close look at the Africana Studies Department’s website notes that historically:

The field of Africana studies has been devoted to the critical study of the historical and contemporary experiences of Africans and peoples of African descent who live outside the continent of Africa, particularly in the Americas.[13]

However, Tukufu Zuberi, Camille Charles, Barbara Savage and Eve Troutt Powell as the principal faculty who organized the Department made an enlightened decision, one that I believe will become central to the future organization of the field in the United States, to expand the scope of Africana Studies. At the University of Pennsylvania they decided to define Africana as:

…a multi-disciplinary field of study which rigorously examines 1) the historical, cultural, economic, scientific and religious networks of the African continent; 2) the dispersal of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean; the dispersal of Africans across the Mediterranean to the Middle East and the movement of Africans across the Indian Ocean to Asia; 3) the expansion of trade between Africa and Europe, the Middle East and Asia; 4) the modern African diasporas generated by the forced migration of African slaves, now fueled by changing processes of globalization and 5) the different religions of Africans and those within the African diaspora.[14]

However, the expansion of African Studies into Africana Studies, potentially a merger of varied but complementary parts has not come without controversy or come easily. Rather the student protests, complete with signs which read “Africana does not equal Africa,” which took place shortly after the announcement earlier this year that African Studies would henceforth be a part of the Africana Studies Department,raised old questions. And a student in the African Students Association, commenting on the decision to submerge African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania into Africana Studies was quoted in the student newspaper the Daily Pennsylvanian as saying “that while the study of Africa and Africana studies are connected, they are hardly the same thing. Africana studies at Penn mostly focuses on the transatlantic slave trade and its aftermath, while African studies relates directly to the study of Africa.”[15] Muraina without knowing it echoed complaints which in the 1960s threatened to rip the Afro and Afro-American Students Association, which at the time was protesting for the establishment of African American and African studies departments to be created on campus all across America, apart. Ayi Kweh Armah, a Ghanian student at Harvard in the early 1960s, wrote of his peers that my fellow Africans feel we have more in common with Whites than African Americans, both groups often having passed through the most elite of preparatory programs before entering institutions such as Harvard, felt totally alienated from one another.[16] In the face of unfamiliarity, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans have been prone to retreat into their own parochialism, and when forced to collaborate have often found themselves disappointed. In politics, an early example of both the power that unity could bring and the sense of betrayal that could follow is seen in the Anti-Apartheid activism that took place all across American campuses, often led by African American students and politically supported in Congress by the Congressional Black Caucus. Many scholars and activists felt betrayed when Nelson Mandela refused to condemn the treatment of African Americans under the Reagan Administration as black activists in the United States had condemned apartheid.

In the final analysis, I believe the Africana model of the University of Pennsylvania, along with variants on it at Harvard and Brown University, is the only sustainable model in which African studies in the United States can thrive. While it would be great to have standalone African Studies Departments located at colleges and universities across the country, the area studies model of intense focus on the politics, culture and languages of a region in the name of the “national interest,” increasingly appears to be outmoded. First of all the “national interest” without the focusing drive of the Cold War has become too fickle to sustain the long term investment needed to drive original and creative research. Second, area studies always suffered from a need to create discrete cultural units, drawing distinctions where they may not exist. Because African Studies never became fully enmeshed in area studies, we are able to have African American Muslim scholars such as Rudolph T Ware demonstrate that African Islam maybe closer to the Islam practiced by the Prophet than that practiced in the often invoked heartlands of the Middle East, such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia.[17] While scholars such as Ghislaine Lydon have shown that the Sahara itself was never a dividing line between the so called Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.[18] Others scholars such as Eve Troutt Powell, Shamil Jeppie and Jonathan Glassman have demonstrated the power of minority groups to create transnational identities which have often contested the very meaning of what it means to be African. And finally a generation of Atlantic World scholars such as James Sweet have demonstrated that African migrations were not simply outward, but rather that creolization often meant that migrants to the New World came back to Africa and created hybridized cultures in their place.[19] DuBois’ dream of integrating Africa into World History and World History into African History cannot be achieved by imagining a discreet African civilization that can be mapped and studied in isolation; rather, scholars of African descent or influenced by African Diaspora Studies have led the way in the imagining of a globalized Africa which must be seen as integral to our understanding of the modern world itself.[20]

[1] Pearl T. Robinson, “Ralph Bunche and African Studies Reflections on the Politics of Knowledge,” African Studies Association Presidential Address 2007, African Studies Review, Vol. 51, No. 1 (April 2008): 1-16.

[2] Pearl T. Robinson, “Area Studies in Search of Africa,” The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines ed. David L. Szanton (Berkeley: CA: University of California Press, 2002): 83-123

[3] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York, NY: Vintage, 1979) and Bernard Lewis, “The Question of Orientalism,” New York Review of Books June 24, 1982.

[4] Timothy Mitchell, “The Middle East in the Past and the Future of the Social Sciences,” The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines ed. David L. Szanton (Berkeley: CA: University of California Press, 2002): 51-82.

[5] See the recent work of Rudolph T Ware, The Walking Quran: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and Bruce S. Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

[6] Michael A. Gomez, Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and WEB DuBois,

[7] Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A. D. 1250-1350 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[8] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996) and Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014)

[9] Steven Feierman, “Colonizers, Scholars, and the Creation of Invisible Histories,” in ed. Victoria Bonnell, Lynn Hunt, and Richard Biernacki, Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999): 184.

[10] Robert L. Tignor, W. Arthur Lewis and the Birth of Development Economics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005): 240-268.

[11] Francis Fukayama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, NY: Free Press, 2006).

[12] Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers (Frontline Distributional International, 2001/1969).

[13] Mission Statement, Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania https://africana.sas.upenn.edu/department [June 16, 2015]

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jessie Washington, “Students Protest Closure of Africa Center in Front of Prospective Undergrads,” The Daily Pennsylvanian April 13, 2015

[16] Ayi Kweh Armah, Fragments (Heinemann, 1995/1971).

[17] Rudolph T Ware, The Walking Quran: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014)

[18] Eve Troutt Powell, A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003) and Shamil Jeppie, Language, Identity, Modernity: The Arabic Study Circle of Durban (Cape Town, SA: Human Sciences Research Council, 2007); Jonathan Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar (Bloomington, ID: Indiana University Press, 2011).

[19] James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

[20]  W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, The World and Africa : An Inquiry into the Part which Africa has played in World History (New York, NY : Viking Press, 1947)

 

Courtesy of Alden Young/Red Sea Notes. Original article here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.